At least that is what it sounded like last week when the Menlo Park City School District's director of special education angrily addressed district trustees, who were about to rule on Mr. Ghysels' decision to fire her, with no warning, from the position she has held for eight and a half years. Livid upon being dismissed, Olivia Mandilk let loose with a barrage of charges about the superintendent, including a claim that six of his 12 top staff members have left or are leaving their positions since he took over from Ken Ranella less than two years ago. (At least one of the people who is away from her job is apparently on sick leave, and says she has no quarrel with the superintendent, and the others have not been willing or available to comment.)
But this case and Mr. Ghysels' dismissal of other employees, some of whom had been with the district many years, calls into question whether his management style is right for the high-performing school district, whose annual standardized test scores have often placed its four schools among the best in the state. Recent developments and a flood of comments on the Almanac's Town Square website provide a snapshot of a leader who Ms. Mandilk claims uses bullying or other forms of mistreatment when managing his top employees. Mr. Ghysels refused to comment on the bullying charge, but did say, "It's hard to be a leader and make difficult personnel decisions. I know the people have not always been happy with those decisions."
And after the school board upheld the decision to fire the special education director in a closed session last week, president Terry Thygesen said, "I am fully confident that Dr. Ghysels is leading our district effectively."
Ms. Mandilk told the trustees that she had no indication that a change was in store for her when she got the news from Mr. Ghysels. And, she said that as far as she could tell, no staff members or parents were asked to provide input regarding changes in the department, which she says deals with more than 1,000 of the district's approximately 3,000 students. "I have not been informed regarding what direction the superintendent intends to take and what the implications are for the students," she said.
Although the human relations practices of business and professional organizations can vary, it is common for an under-performing employee to be told that he or she needs to improve in particular categories before being let go, a protocol not followed in Ms. Mandilk's case. Employee reviews are a good way to get a message across so employers can set deadlines for employees to meet various goals. In some cases lower-ranking at-will employees are let go without cause, but top school executives should not be dismissed in a way that causes widespread concern in the department.
Trustees also should act quickly to make sure the superintendent is not bullying his subordinates, as Ms. Mandilk charged. If it is true, it is a practice that destroys morale among employees and could lead to the exodus of good people. School officials across the country are concerned with bullying among students, but it is a terrible situation if employees are feeling bullied by their boss. Just the number of people who have unexpectedly left their positions or left the district altogether should be of great concern to the trustees.
After completing a massive facilities rebuilding project last year that was largely planned and executed under Mr. Ranella, the district is poised to continue a long, successful run of providing an excellent elementary and middle school education for Menlo Park and Atherton students. A stable and caring superintendent and top-quality principals have been the keystones of the district's success. We hope the embarrassing and very public dismissal of Olivia Mandilk and the firing of other top school officials is not the beginning of a housecleaning that could set back the district's performance for years. Mr. Ghysels may fancy himself an innovator, but the latest example of his management style deserves a grade of "F" in our book.