Protests, petitions and testimonials fell on deaf ears Thursday evening as the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District governing board voted to request the resignation of Vasquez High School Principal Michael Murphy.
Now, in the aftermath of the decision that led to staff members and hundreds of students conducting a mass walkout on the final day of school Friday, Murphy’s supporters seem to still be in the dark regarding why the governing board voted 3-2 in favor of terminating the principal’s employment.
Described by many as a beloved figure on the high school campus, Murphy was dismissed after being at the helm of Vasquez High School for less than a year. Those administrators and governing board members who supported Murphy’s removal either did not respond to The Signal’s request for comment or declined to speak on the issue, citing that they do not comment on personnel matters.
However, Murphy’s dismissal, though initially shocking to those who attended the meeting on Thursday evening, seemed to follow the pattern of the Vasquez High School principal position being a revolving door.
Amanda Stillwell, a social studies and yearbook teacher at the school, said she has been teaching at Vasquez for four years and between both the people who have served in the position on an official and/or interim basis, she’s worked under five different principals for the campus.
“It just seems very personal and petty coming from the district office,” said one teacher who The Signal spoke with on Friday. They added that they, along with everyone else present at the protest, still had not heard why Murphy had been let go by the district.
“We’re letting go of a guy that has been very good in his community, his school and to students and parents,” said Chad Wadsworth, Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District governing board vice president, who cast one of the two dissenting votes. “And if you could find somebody who speaks bad about him, besides the superintendent, I’d love to know.”
District Superintendent Eric Sahakian did not respond Friday to The Signal’s requests for comment.
Declining to take their finals in order to stand in front of their school to hold protest signs — bearing phrases such as “Stand with Murphy” and “#FreeMurphy” — the students at Vasquez High said they had attended both the meeting and rally in support of their now-former principal.
“We’ve gotten absolutely no information, no hints as to any reason why he’s fired,” said Aeslin Cameron, a Vasquez High 10th grader. “Dr. Murphy is really beloved in the school system so everyone’s really angry and confused… It was really kind of an unexpected thing.”
Kids and adults alike describe Murphy as having been a principal who “cared about the students” and went out of his way to make sure people felt respected. A petition was circulated around the 350-student school on Wednesday, with more than 100 kids and adults signing on to keep their principal.
“He would pull students aside who might be struggling in their classes and encourage them to do better and help seniors and juniors apply for financial aid and colleges,” said Cameron. “He stays after school for long hours just to make sure every student gets help.”
“I came out to protest because Dr. Murphy has had one of the biggest impacts, of any administrator or person in school, in my entire life,” said sophomore Zach Levine. “He was actually one of the first people in all of Vasquez to bring in college courses and we partnered with (Antelope Valley College). I took that and it actually raised my GPA and helped me become salutatorian of my sophomore class.”
Levine’s classmate, Brooklyn Burger, said that when her soccer team was short of a coach, Murphy took the team himself to the away game and then bought the whole team dinner afterward.
“I don’t really understand why the board is going to take him away from us because he’s the best person we’ve had in years,” said Burger. “I’ve had siblings and family that have all gone here and we’ve never had a good principal (until Murphy).”
The students, however, were not alone in their support for Murphy, with classified and certificated staff joining to protest the firing of their boss.
“Murphy is beloved and he does a wonderful job,” said Stillwell. “He supports the kids. If you go on our district website … we have a thing for the 14 or 15 kids who have committed to universities, and some big-name universities. A lot of those faces on that website would not have been on that website without Murphy.”
“He’s actually spent the night in his office. He has not gone home,” said Chip Krolik, a Vasquez math teacher. ”That’s how dedicated he is to the students and the staff.”
His former staff reported that Murphy would come in on weekends, nights and holiday breaks to help kids — some of whom will be first-generation college students — with college and financial aid applications. Additionally, the 2022 VHS senior class had a reported 100% graduation rate under Murphy’s leadership.
In one instance, a staff shortage resulted in some of the advanced placement classes potentially being taught for the remainder of the year by day-to-day substitute teachers, something that results in students performing worse due to a constant turnover in their instructor.
“Because we’re a very, very small school, we could not find a substitute,” said Cameron. “And Dr. Murphy, without hesitation stepped up and taught those five periods on top of being principal. And that alone is the best example I can give on the willingness and impact that he has.”
“He didn’t want the AP classes falling behind and missing out, and he did that just out of the goodness of his heart and then still went and did his principal duties,” said Stillwell.
“He’s here for the kids, he’s in it for the kids,” said Heather Lundquist, a ninth grade English teacher, later adding: “I thought that’s what we wanted in a leader.”
The Superintendent & Board
Board members Wadsworth and Brianna Taksony were the only members of the district governing board on Thursday to stand alongside Murphy in supporting him as the Vasquez High principal.
Board President Tim Jorgensen, board member Ken Pfalzgraf and board member Kelly Jensen, who all voted in favor of the forced resignation, either did not respond to The Signal’s email on Friday or declined to comment via telephone call.
“Usually you can’t shut me up, but given the nature of the business, I can’t make a comment about this,” said Pfalzgraf. “It’s a personnel issue and I can’t comment.”
“I’m in a position, especially right now,.. this is not about a theoretic or programmatic development thing,” he added.
Wadsworth told The Signal via a telephone call that while he could not comment on the actual reasoning discussed in closed session that led his three colleagues to vote against Murphy, he said that the decision “baffles” him.
“I don’t have a total understanding of why he was released,” said Wadsworth. “I believe it’s maybe personality differences, but outside of that I can’t comment.”
Wadsworth, who joined the board in 2020 and has lived in the community for more than 30 years, recognized that there had been a lot of turnover in the Vasquez High principal position in recent years, with there having been three people serving in the spot — either on a full-time or interim basis — over the last year.
“I always ask the question, ‘Why?’ but you never seem to get a good answer on that,” said Wadsworth. “It seems that industry-wide, people move around a lot more than they used to, or really kind of use spots as stepping stones to get somewhere else they want to go.”
According to the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education research institute based in Palo Alto, the national average tenure of principals in their schools as of 2016-17 was four years but 35% don’t even make it past two years.
And while there were situational explanations for the last handful of people to walk away from Vasquez, calling the search for the “right fit” for the school so far a “calamity of errors,” Wadsworth said he knows from listening to his own son, a freshman at Vasquez, that Murphy is near-universally loved on the campus.
“We had the right fit; maybe he needed a little more guidance, a little more training, a little more instruction on how the district wanted him to perform — he wasn’t a polished diamond per se,” said Wadsworth. “But he was constantly a shining star in the community for the last five or six months that he was involved in it.”
“This is our school, our community and we are supposed to work together for what’s best for our students,” board member Taksony said on Friday. “We need to do better.”
Both Wadsworth and Taksony commended Murphy for his leadership these last few months, both noting the obvious impact he had on students and calling his dismissal a “loss” for the district.
“He’s an incredible educator and he connects with students on a personal level that makes them feel wanted and that they’re able to succeed under his watch,” Wadsworth added.
Wadsworth said he voted against Murphy’s dismissal from the district because he said it didn’t feel warranted, and that doing so would be a “tragedy for the community” where he has lived for most of his life.
“Just to watch the heart-wrenching outpouring, crying, begging and pleading to the superintendent last night that completely fell on deaf ears was heartbreaking,” said Wadsworth. “It was… it was pretty disgusting.”
Despite calling the night before “unfortunate” and “disappointing” — simply offering for his own explanation of the firing that the board decided to go “in a different direction” — Murphy seemed to live up to the character that his students and colleagues had described:
“I think it’s a testament to the teachers and how they help these kids develop their voice and advocate for themselves,” said Murphy, heaping praise and expressing his pride for his students who had organized the weeklong resistance to his firing. “I’m proud of the kids. I’m proud of this community and I’m just very thankful.”
“I haven’t enjoyed coming to work this much in the last 15 years.”
Signal Staff Writer Chris Torres contributed to this report.