Laguna Beach school chorale director terminated after 19 years

Roxanna Ward was the chorale expert for 19 years at the Laguna Beach Unified School District. Photo courtesy of Roxanna Ward

By Justine Amodeo, Special to the Independent

For Roxanna Ward, a 19-year professional chorale expert with the Laguna Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), the recent June board meeting extended by a large public outcry against her recent termination felt like she was at her own memorial service.

“The good that came out of this was that I had no idea I had such an impact on so many of these kids,” Ward said.

On May 22, Ward was given a Termination of Professional Expert Services notice from LBUSD which proposed that she either immediately retire or take a role as “accompanist” with a pay cut and loss of health benefits. Under these conditions, Ward says she was still expected to carry out the same job responsibilities. When word got out of her circumstances, a petition was circulated, quickly procuring 3,500 signatures protesting the decision and asking that Ward’s contract be extended for another year to allow her to retire and bring closure to the performances that she worked on before they were canceled due to COVID-19.

During the public comments section of the June 4 LBUSD board meeting, the usual 20-minute time allotment for written remarks was extended to a full hour to allow 50 emails supporting Ward to be read. Among the email writers were former students vouched for Ward’s mentorship and ability to go beyond the call of duty, her positive impact on their emotional well-being and their success as professional musicians. Parents expressed their concern as well, citing the impact Ward had on the lives of their children while they attended LBHS.

Ward held two part-time positions with LBUSD, accompanist and professional expert, Deputy Superintendent Leisa Winston wrote in a statement. She also worked additional hours, for which she was paid stipends for preparation and attending performances after work hours.

“In the fall of 2019, it was discovered that Ms. Ward was not actually working the four hours per day she was contracted as the professional expert, and the District notified Ms. Ward that the District could not continue to pay her for hours she was not working,” Winston wrote. “Ms. Ward acknowledged at the time that she was not working the professional expert hours for which she was paid.”

Ward was later notified that her professional expert position, which included only the hours she was not working, would be terminated as of June 12.

“This decision was not made due to budget cuts or any cut to the District’s arts program,” Winston said. “The decision to stop paying Ms. Ward for hours not worked would be the same decision the District would have made regarding any employee who was receiving compensation for hours not worked.

Winston added that the district appreciates the tremendous talent Ward brought to Laguna schools and the supportive relationships she developed with students.

Ward, and others, are not buying the sentiment. “The new administration has no idea of what I do or who I am,” she said. “I’m going to be fine, but this is a horrible way to go out. I just don’t think they should treat people that way. I felt demeaned. As if I knew I was doing something wrong when I was just being compensated for doing my job.

Even though Ward was not a credentialed teacher, she was hired in 2001 as a professional chorale expert and in 2004 was told by the school district that they wanted to keep her salaried as a chorale expert and as the accompanist.

“Those combined hours gave me full-time status and benefits,” she said.

Former school chorale expert Roxanna Ward with Thurston Middle School sixth-graders. Courtesy of Roxanna Ward

Bree Rosen, a longtime collaborator of Ward’s and artistic director of No Square Theatre, wrote on that Ward has guided, included, inspired, educated, supported, and cherished the children of Laguna Beach.

“She’s made time for kids to play for their scholarship auditions, help them select songs for auditions, family events, religious services, and more,” Ward wrote.

Rosen said she was disappointed with how Ward was portrayed by district leaders as a grifter cheating the taxpayers out of their money.

“In the performing arts, a good teacher has the opportunity to affect the way a kid feels about themselves and help them find their voice,” Rosen said. “That the school negated that and presented her as having done something wrong is shameful.”

Mark Dressler, a now-retired performing arts director who worked at LBUSD for 25 years, described Ward as an incredibly talented person who intellectually understands music and has this magical ability to connect with kids.

“It’s a very, very rare personality where you can combine this amazing talent as a musician with her style of communication, and the way she dealt with kids and her teaching partners,” Dressler said. “She’s a rare commodity. She’s like a precious diamond.”

With Ms. Ward’s retirement, the District has not reduced funding intended for vocal music instruction, Winston said. She added that the District remains committed to addressing the interests of its students in vocal music instruction by hiring a full-time, credentialed K-12 vocal music educator before the next school year.

While upset with the outcome, Ward said the recent controversy has given her time to reflect and she’s still the musical director at the Neighborhood Congregational Church.

“People have to be creative right now,” Ward said. “We are all going to learn how to recreate ourselves.”

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  1. Roxanna Ward is one of my all-time favorite teachers. I took her choir class for seven years because I knew for that hour or two of the day I’d smile, even when life was real dark. I never considered a career in music; since graduating from LBHS I’ve done very little performing arts and completed a PhD in Chemistry. It has been a decade since I graduated, yet I constantly apply the performance skills she taught me to communicating and presenting my research. I am a better scientist for taking her choir class. This is insane, and I wish I had heard about it sooner so that I could have sent a letter to the school board too.

  2. Without music and art a student is missing out one of the best and imaginative parts of life.These are the things that create a well-rounded person.

  3. When I was a student at LBHS, an aphorism I read in record store on Haight Street in San Francisco seemed to distill an essential truth. I wrote it down and brought it back to Miss Lee a popular art teacher at our home town high school. She enlisted her best students to make a wall poster with beautifully ornate psychedelic accents expressed our love of sound rendered to reveal the human heart:

    “Music washes away from the soul the dust of every day life.”

    We live in times when our children need to feel rejuvenated and resurrected from isolation and fear. This woman had the healing power of creative expression in her voice. She had that mystical touch we treasure in a good teacher. She is gone because the School Board decided to “support staff” and not the kids.

    We hear the campaign slogan “For the Kids,” but this was not for the kids. She will be fine, its the kids and the parents trying to manage an historically unprecedented time of hardship who lose something of value and purpose in their lives. Many families suffering financial stress and home schooling at the same time.

    It is bad enough that no practical solution was found that is within the local control powers a small town public school system has under state law. The shameful reality is that knowing it would be unpopular the education bureaucrats devised a character disparagement strategy to make it look like she had done something somehow amiss.

    The over arching truth is that our School Board majority has embraced a cult-like political ideology holding that “the School Board does not run the schools” (Vickers 2016), “We hover at 30,000 feet” (Wolff 2018), “My job is to support the staff”. (Wolff 2017), “Let’s not get down in the weeds” is the Board majority’s mantra.

    At the audio but not video recorded Board meeting of May 20 the Superintendent rejected a proposal for school house public meetings to improve community relations, because he said the public tends to want to get into dialogue about school site issue and “operations…but the board doesn’t do operations.”

    Yet, the idea that the staff has powers independent of the Board and that there is a separation of authority and responsibility is a rogue notion our Board majority has adopted to justify political codependence in which the Board is spoon fed its choices by educational bureaucrats. The result is that the Board represents the bureaucracy to the community rather than the community to the bureaucracy.

    But read CA Ed. Code Sec. 35161. Under state law the Board has all powers, it “executes” and “legislates.” And any delegation of it powers to staff is revocable, and the Board retains full legal “responsibility” under law for all actions taken by school staff exercising delegated powers.

    Similarly, the administrative tasks signed to the Superintendent as “Chief Executive” under CA Ed. Code 35035 do not constitute vested authority “co-equal” to the Board, but rather duties subject to the retained power of the Board. Subsection (b) enables the Board to assign those duties to employees other than a Superintendent. Subsection (c) confirms the Superintendent’s duties are to be carried out “as the Governing Board of the school district may desire. And Subsection (d) also provides for duties of the Superintendent to be delegated to other employees, confirming the Superintendent has not vested powers.

    The Board majority had abdicated its powers to staff to evade and avoid accoutnabilty to the people, and it worked for more than tens years. And the Board accepted bad advice from staff and lawyers who are hired bullies specializing in what local government can get away with instead of what is right. Why were we not surprised that the bureaucrats used the Board and lawyers to silence the only Board member who wanted to restore Board responsibility and take back the schools for the students, teachers and parents?

    Will 2020 be the year the voters restore accountability and end the culture of abdication?


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