School board tempers flare after teacher's resignation

By Anna Tong
Mercury News

Perplexed and upset students of a popular Monta Vista High School teacher want the school board to investigate the events leading to the teacher's resignation in June.

Teacher Tim Krieger's resignation has sparked a battle on the Fremont Union High School District school board, with president Avie Katz saying other members are using the incident to get him off the board.

Krieger, 31, quit after he was asked to make amends with school counselor Cathy Katz, who is married to Avie Katz, about problems Krieger had with their daughter seven years ago.

Krieger taught advanced placement biology at Monta Vista for seven years. He also advised the school's leadership class and coached the cross-country team. Students and parents say he was a crowd-pleaser -- at a July 11 board meeting, one student called him ``the Mozart of teachers.'' Monta Vista was recently identified as the top large-size high school in the world for advanced placement biology by the College Board.

``If you can think of anything cliche about the best teachers, he had that trait,'' said Monta Vista alumnus Jeffrey Shiau, 19, a junior at the University of California-San Diego. ``Some students had heavy problems and they would stay after class until 5 or 6 to talk to him. Sometimes he would organize a class trip to Laser Quest -- he could be a kid, but he was professional as well.''

District board members, however, divided in their opinions of Krieger, didn't conceal their animosity toward each other at a July 25 board meeting.

Two board members, Nancy Newton and Barbara Nunes, staunchly support launching an investigation to determine whether Avie Katz overstepped his role as board president when he questioned the superintendent about Krieger's qualification to become a school counselor.

Avie Katz said that this situation transpired because ``somebody would like to get me off the board.''

The debate started in May, when Krieger applied for a one-year position as a guidance resource teacher. The high school's principal, April Scott, unofficially hired him, and Krieger started to rearrange his schedule for the 2006-2007 school year.

But a conversation with Deputy Superintendent Polly Bove changed his direction. Bove asked him to make amends with Cathy Katz, with whom he would have worked in his new job. During Krieger's first year teaching, he had problems with Katz's daughter, who was in one of his classes. Krieger had never worked directly with Cathy Katz and he didn't expect any animosity.

But Bove, she said in an e-mail to the Cupertino Courier, ``suggested to Tim that he consider apologizing to his colleague, as a possible way to mitigate the issue that existed between them.'' In an interview, she said it is part of her job to try to head off such potential personnel problems.

Krieger said the conversation left him ``devastated.'' He planned to eventually apply for an assistant principal position, but instead he resigned, as did Melanie Walczak, a dance teacher with whom he co-taught the leadership class. ``I feel like I did my job for students and put a lot of hard work into them,'' he said. ``To be brought into these politics was extremely saddening. I didn't want to play that game.''

Krieger said he had long considered relocating and the conversation was the catalyst. Krieger and Walczak have both moved to the Seattle area and plan to teach high school there.

``My family is in Seattle, and housing prices are so high here,'' he said. ``One of the misconceptions is that I'm leaving strictly in protest. What happened just made me think maybe now's the time for me to move on.''

Avie Katz acknowledges that he spoke to the superintendent about Krieger's appointment, but said the academic altercation with his daughter ``absolutely'' has nothing to do with his concern that Krieger might not be qualified for the counseling position. Katz said he will abstain from voting on the investigation at an Aug. 22 meeting about whether to launch a probe.

``Guidance involves a huge responsibility,'' he said. ``Why was this teacher selected to fill in a spot when there are a lot of people who are qualified? I'm trying to find the most qualified personnel -- that's what a board member does.''

Bove said Krieger was qualified for the guidance post.

Katz said he believes that Newton and Nunes are pushing for the investigation because they don't want him on the board, and the conversation between Bove and Krieger could have been a ``ploy'' to prompt Krieger to quit.

Krieger said he's not interested in the politics of the board, only in teaching.

Newton, who proposed an investigation on July 11, said that the goal of the probe would be to determine if it is appropriate for board members to give input on hiring decisions.

``We need to figure out where it's proper for the board as a whole to participate, and where it's not appropriate for a single board member to influence the hiring process,'' she said.

Several students are calling for an investigation. Shiau and others have created an online petition at /676415718 where people can express their support. Other teachers also have expressed concern.

``What happened is a board member meddled in a personnel affair, and board members are supposed to set and oversee policy, and not let personal biases get in the way,'' said Tom Avvakumovits, president of the Fremont Education Association. ``If this could happen to a teacher like Tim Krieger, this could happen to any of us.''

Meanwhile, students mourn that Krieger and Walczak left. One student, who dedicated an entry in her online diary to Krieger, wrote ``[Krieger and Walczak] -- your legacy at [Monta Vista] will last indefinitely. Thanks for truly being our superheroes.''