They were there to support Sue Villarreal, or “Ms. V” as she is known to her students. After teaching English, Drama and other subjects in Mount Shasta since 1996 and one year from retirement, Villarreal received notice stating she would be transferred to McCloud for the final year of her contract.

The subject of involuntary transfers for teachers fueled an emotionally charged meeting of the Siskiyou Union High School District on May 8.

The District’s Board of Trustees gathering, normally a fairly tepid affair, drew an overflow crowd of students, teachers and administrators to the Mount Shasta High School library.

They were there to support Sue Villarreal, or “Ms. V” as she is known to her students. After teaching English, Drama and other subjects in Mount Shasta since 1996 and one year from retirement, Villarreal received notice stating she would be transferred to McCloud for the final year of her contract.

“I am shocked, extremely hurt, and deeply disappointed that this is the treatment I am being given after 23 years of excellent service to this district,” she said in a firm but occasionally shaking voice. “I have poured the very best of who I am into my teaching and now that I am near the end of my tenure I am being treated shamefully.”

Villarreal was especially incensed that efforts to improve her job skills through the achievement of additional teaching credentials – even at the age of 62 – were later listed as a reason for the transfer.

“The preliminary credential is being used against me by the very same administrators who encouraged me to apply for it,” she said, while turning to face Mount Shasta High School Principal Sati Shah seated next to her.

“This situation came together in a way to target me,” Villarreal said, later adding that “age and nepotism are obviously in play here.”

Villarreal’s comments came during the non-agenda, public comment portion of the meeting. By law, school district trustees are not allowed take any action on issues that come up during that time. Nor was there any discussion.

Trying to keep a cap on things was Gregg Gunkel, board president. Although each speaker was allowed only three minutes, Villarreal spoke for more than 10 minutes. A couple of times Gunkel tried to cut her off with a musical timer on his cell phone but, when it became clear she was not going to stop, he simply conceded and let her have her say.

Four additional students were also allowed to speak, all of whom detailed how Villarreal had made a personal difference in their young lives.

SUHSD superintendent Mike Matheson said he cannot say much about the issue, since there are protocols that must be followed. However, he said the district had to issue layoffs due to enrollment.

“The district goes through a process and looks at many things, such as credentials and seniority to make staffing decisions and assignments,” Matheson said. “It’s a painstaking, careful process and we feel we have been following contracts, board protocol and ed code when making these difficult decisions.”

Matheson added that he understands the process is difficult.

“It’s not easy to ... face a layoff or face ... a reassignment,” Matheson said.

The concept of involuntary transfers came about as a way to give school district officials the flexibility to allocate teachers as they best see fit. One motivating factor might be improving district performance. Another could be finding the right mix of teachers in any given location. Openings created by teacher retirements come up often.

Smaller districts are more prone to these types of events because fewer teachers are available to fill the potential transfer pool, according to industry data.

But the issue remains hotly contested, especially in cases that are deemed arbitrary or unfair. The same fight happening in Mount Shasta today is also taking place in other towns across America like East Moline, Ill. and New Brittan, Conn.

In general, the district often holds the upper hand.

Involuntary transfers are defined as a “district-initiated change of assignment between any two worksites within the district” based on need. The definition of need can be fairly broad based, including a category called “other circumstances.” When a teacher signs a contract, they agree to these rules.

Lori Adams, the Redding-based regional representative for the California Teachers Association, said she is hoping the transfer is not a cynical attempt to get someone to retire early. Villarreal is being replaced by a younger teacher from Happy Camp who initiated a voluntary transfer.

If she does retire early, she would lose at least two percent of her pension, which is based on years of service, as well as a year’s salary.

“Your last year before retirement is a big deal. To go out in a negative way ruins your attitude forever and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth whenever you look back at it. That’s the sad part,” Adams said. “When the kids speak up for the teachers you know it is wrong.”

So far, the process has reached what is called a Level 2 grievance. That means the matter is before District Superintendent Mike Matheson. After that the union can take it a step further and force both sides to meet with a mediator.

In an email, Gunkel said the final decision on the matter could ultimately be made by the board depending on how the grievance process progresses. He added that there are other factors that could change the district’s needs.

“Staffing and assignments are formulaic as master schedules are created based on the number of students,” he said. “Declining enrollment imposes new configurations.”

Perhaps most disconcerting is the visual image of Villarreal and Shah – educators ostensibly on the same team – clearly looking a long way from heading out to the quad and singing Kumbaya together. One of Villarreal’s sons warned the trustees in no uncertain terms that they would all need to “lawyer up” if anything happened to his mother while driving Highway 89 over Snowman’s Summit to McCloud next winter.

The net effect in the end is poor morale, according to outgoing Mount Shasta High School math teacher Randi Greenspan. She urged the trustees to consider teachers as collaborators rather than adversaries when it comes to resource allocation.

“Bumping somebody into an involuntary transfer makes every teacher in the district feel insecure. It has broken trust on our campus. It has been very detrimental,” she said. “Every single teacher in this district should be filing a request for transfer at the end of every year just to keep their own position.”