Parents at a Scottsdale private school for students with learning disabilities are incensed that a longtime school leader was fired without explanation, and have vowed to open a new school around the ousted educator if they don't get answers.
But Lisa Keegan, head of New Way Learning Academy's board of directors, said the full story about why Director of Education Dawn Gutierrez was let go can't be revealed because of student privacy concerns.
New Way Learning Academy, 1300 N. 77th St., was established in 1968 as a nonprofit private school to serve children with learning disabilities. It currently serves about 140 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The controversy centers on Gutierrez, who has been in a leadership role at the school for 20 years.
"She's the heartbeat of the school," said Reggie Sanders, the former Arizona Diamondback, who has two children who attend the school. "If you're going to fire her, that's all fine and dandy. But as a leader, there's a certain way you have to go about doing that."
Gutierrez was let go March 7, the day before spring break started. The reasons have to do with several issues over a long period of time, but those reasons can't be released because they have to do with private student matters, said Keegan, a former state superintendent of public instruction and an education adviser to Sen. John McCain.
Gutierrez did not return calls for comment.
The decision was left up to the school's director, Jeff Watkins, and the board backed him up.
But Keegan said mistakes were made.
"It wasn't handled well from a communications standpoint," she said. "It was a nightmare."
Parents were outraged and circulated a petition that got signatures from 207 parents and students asking that Gutierrez be reinstated, Watkins resign and a new board be established. They presented the petition to the board at a March 18 community meeting, said parent Rosemary Shockman.
"Given such a gross lack of appreciation for the way teachers, parents and students at the school see things, the executive board needs to transition control to people who do," Shockman said.
And several parents are already working to open a new school in case the situation with New Way isn't resolved. They are already researching possible school sites and have started working with Gutierrez to develop new curriculum, Shockman said.
Parents have also started collecting tuition down payments for the new school. While not all the tuition checks have been collected in one place, Shockman said at least 70 students have committed to the new school.
But about 30 parent meetings have also been scheduled with the school's interim leaders, who replaced Watkins, Keegan said.
New Way Academy will survive even if several parents and faculty members leave, Keegan said. The school always has a waiting list and gets contributions outside of tuition.