A recent report criticizes the Wellpinit School District and supports many of the parent complaints that prompted the study.
Much of the report focuses on poor communication among school officials and parents.
Superintendent Reid Riedlinger is at the center of many of the communication breakdowns in the statefunded school district that serves the Spokane Indian Reservation.
While crediting Riedlinger for emphasizing academics and improving school facilities, the report says his autocratic management style alienated a significant part of the community and demoralized the school staff.
“He’s treating our brothers, our sisters, our aunts and uncles and even our elders with total disrespect,” said critic Mary “Chet” Abrahamson.
Former Spokane Tribal Council member Jim Wynne said the district ignored an offer by a group of elders to help with the school’s discipline program.
The $10,000 management analysis was done by a team from the Washington Association of School Administrators
Riedlinger and School Board Chairwoman Terry Payne say some of the criticism is valid. Payne said the board told Riedlinger in his last personnel evaluation that he needs to improve his communications skills.
But Payne and Riedlinger said a lot of the findings are a rehash of comments by a vocal minority.
The report, delivered in late December, was based on 81 interviews last May with school officials, teachers and community members.
The bottom line, Payne said, is that “our kids are learning and their test scores are coming up.”
Indeed, state test scores show an erratic but overall increase from 1991 through 1994 under Riedlinger’s tenure. Most of the scores are still quite low, which Riedlinger said reflects the magnitude of the challenge he faced.
“When I got here, we had 180 students, absenteeism was high and expectations were low, and you probably didn’t have any controversy,” he said.
Riedlinger says he has planted the seeds of change.
He points to classrooms that all have at least six networked computers, to a well-maintained building and grounds, and to third-graders who uniformly know the multiplication tables. Older students travel to Washington, D.C., Hawaii and other distant places each year to broaden their horizons.
Enrollment increased to about 300, which Riedlinger attributes to a return of students who were attending other schools where standards were higher.
“The things the board asked me to do have been done, not without tilling the soil a little bit,” Riedlinger said.
Some say he takes his tilling a bit too literally. The district’s whopping fleet of heavy equipment is a sore point among some people in the community.
The collection includes a couple of road graders, two backhoes, a frontend loader, a bulldozer, several trucks and trailers, a Bobcat, a small tractor and a ditch-digging machine.
The report says the fleet “seems excessive for a district the size of Wellpinit” and has done more to undermine support for the district than anything else.
The report cites community suspicions the equipment was bought “for use by the board members more than by others.” Payne said there has been no personal use.
State auditors said the equipment was justified. The isolated district maintains a mobile home park for teachers and needed to do quite a bit of landscaping, an auditor said.
Riedlinger said the equipment cost only about $50,000, much cheaper than hiring contractors.
The 55-year-old educator supervised several village schools in Alaska before coming to Wellpinit almost five years ago. He professes a passion for improving Native American education by setting high standards.
He has a master’s degree in education and “many hours” toward a doctorate.
But he apparently missed the classes that enable most superintendents to talk at length without offending anyone.
Riedlinger said the district’s high staff turnover “happened because they were bad teachers.”
“They didn’t deserve to be there,” he said. “So many teachers are more interested in unwinding the toilet paper than teaching the class… I didn’t have time to be nice and gentle.”
Riedlinger said he is completely satisfied with this year’s staff. He also said he communicates more directly with staff, having assumed the principal’s duties.