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 change.org 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.
Bree Rosen, a longtime collaborator of Ward’s and artistic director of No Square Theatre, wrote on change.org 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.”