PELLA — Michelle Chaplin’s resignation as vocal music teacher at Pella High School was accepted Monday night, but only after 20 people spoke in support of her.
Chaplin, who also directs the school’s show choirs and other extracurriculars, announced that she’d step down during a Jan. 10 event involving choir members and their families. Their tearful response carried over to Monday, when the Pella School Board moved its meeting to the high school library to accommodate about 80 people who defended Chaplin and her programs.
The board didn’t accommodate the pleas of some to decline Chaplin’s resignation, but vowed to hire a strong teacher to replace her.
Chaplin’s lengthy resignation letter described a toxic environment among the school’s music teachers and said she was unfairly blamed for their poor relationships. The 16-year veteran had been placed on an assistance program, in which school personnel are given time and guidance to meet goals toward correcting problems. Chaplin said she was in an untenable situation and had decided to quit, effective at the end of the school year.
Dozens of students — many wearing purple and yellow show choir shirts — supported the teacher that some described as another mother. Among them was senior Kaylin Vos, a four-year show choir veteran, who said Chaplin instilled values such as perseverance, patience, self-awareness, cooperation and humility. Like many who spoke, her concern was not only for Chaplin but the future of the school’s vocal music program.
“Honor her work and the family she has gathered under a common love of performing,” Vos told board members. “I greatly fear, even though I hope that it is not the case, that losing the mother of the family that she has gathered here, the whole family will soon cease to function.”
Parent Robin Egesdal said Chaplin made the show choirs not only popular with students but a winner of awards and respect.
“We currently have a highly successful program led by a highly motivated individual with great personal support and passion for what she does,” Egesdal said. “It’s a rare person who would put so much of her own time and resources into the success of our kids.”
Rob Sanders, a youth pastor at Liberty Evangelical Free Church, said Chaplin had turned to him for guidance. The district had failed to follow its own rules regarding conflict resolution, he said.
“When you foster an environment where co-workers learn that all they need to do to get their way is complain about something, what do you think they’re gonna do?” Sanders asked. “It just leads to a toxic environment.”
After more than an hour of audience input, district Superintendent Greg Ebeling assured the crowd that the show would go on and attempted to set the record straight. His candor, he said after the meeting, was prompted by Chaplin’s public revelations about her assistance program.
“Usually we get to a point where, in those plans, we’re able to get to a reconciliation and be able to move on from that. In this case, we weren’t able to do that,” Ebeling told the crowd. A four-person district team, which included Ebeling, had reached a crossroads with the teacher, he said.
“Mrs. Chaplin decided not to continue on that road.”
Ebeling declined to share details, but told the crowd that some of its statements reflected a twisted version of the truth. He said he empathized with students grieving over Chaplin’s resignation and vowed to seek their input in hiring a solid replacement.
“Sometimes things are unreconcilable because there’s a difference of opinion,” Ebeling said. “That is a hard life lesson. I am very sorry for all of the students that have to experience that hard life lesson.”
Senior Brady Van Waardhuizen and junior Colby Van Gorp were somber as they left the meeting wearing show choir shirts that bore the mantra “Never Give Up.” They balanced skepticism with hope about the person who’ll replace Chaplin, but said she’ll be a tough act to follow.
“She’s always felt like a second mother to me. She’s always been there for me,” Van Waardhuizen said. “It’s just really hard to find any around in this town or in this school district these days that will devote their time to their students as much as she has.”
In other action, the board:
- approved an increase in the district’s instructional support levy from 8 to 10 percent. The move will generate an extra $200,000 annually, while the burden on taxpayers will be offset by changes to another levy, Ebeling said.
- began its annual review process of Ebeling. The superindent’s evaluation will continue at the board’s Jan. 30 meeting.
- approved two new computer-aided design and drafting courses to be taught in the 2019-20 school year by newly hired teacher Taaf Vermeulen.