The price of politics

Community outrage drove Santa Ynez High School’s principal to resign

Alyce Barrick was excited for her daughter to transfer to Santa Ynez Valley Union High School because of Principal Michael Niehoff. 

As Santa Ynez Valley Pride’s vice president and the owner of a local coffee shop, Barrick works with a lot of the students either for employment purposes or as part of Santa Ynez Valley Pride’s mission to support local LGBTQ-plus youth in the community—including the high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), she said. 

click to enlarge The price of politics
Photo courtesy of Michael Niehoff
STEPPING AWAY: After facing community outrage and complaints on a weekly basis about school decisions or events, Santa Ynez Valley Union High School Principal Michael Niehoff plans to resign at the end of this school year.

“I loved hearing from my staff as well as GSA students how supportive this principal was and knowing my own daughter could attend there,” Barrick said. “We have board members that were at the high school that are now in permanent positions, and routinely they would say they wish this kind of support was around when [they] were in school.” 

She saw Niehoff’s support firsthand at a GSA event for National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11 when the principal met all of SYV Pride’s representatives at the schools and told them to reach out if they ever needed anything, she recalled. 

“He was just excited to show inclusion, everything was so inclusionary. We as an organization were just super happy to have something streamlined, open communication,” Barrick said. “As a nonprofit that experiences pushback, it’s nice to know our mission would be supported by another administrator.” 

Niehoff joined the school at the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year. His hiring was part of the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District’s goals to address issues of equity and inclusion after a student survey indicated high percentages of bullying and reports of students not feeling welcome or included, said school board member José Juan Ibarra. 

“He was addressing issues and providing more opportunities for student voice. The administration adopted the No Place for Hate initiative, and that was the first [inclusionary] action item that the administration has ever taken in generations,” Ibarra said. “I think he has brought a very positive, caring, inclusive energy that the valley hasn’t seen in a long, long time, and it’s exactly what the district needs.” 

Niehoff helped build student trust and boost teacher morale, but Ibarra said that adults in the community made it nearly impossible to focus on his job as they brought their own political battles or agendas into the classroom—ultimately pushing the principal to resign at the end of his first school year. 

In response, parents and faculty sent hundreds of emails sharing support for Niehoff and expressed frustration with what pushed his early departure. As vice president of SYV Pride and a parent, Barrick said the news was devastating. 

“As a result, we completely lost an ally as a direct support connection on the campus,” Barrick said. “We are always going to have these community attacks. As an ally this is what you sign up for; it’s very frustrating to me personally when I see an ally say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

She said she wished that he could have stayed longer, and she’s now worried about the school finding a replacement who will continue Niehoff’s work to support underrepresented students. 

Principal Niehoff told the Sun that he’s been putting out fires on a weekly basis since the beginning of the school year as community members complained or questioned what was happening at the school. 

“There’s small groups in the community that have divisions with one another, and it feels like they are using the school to fight whatever battles they want to fight,” Niehoff said. “I think there’s a disconnect with what’s happening at the school and what folks [have] determined what’s happening.” 

The most recent blaze ignited in late March after Niehoff approved the GSA’s plan to temporarily repaint a crosswalk with a rainbow pattern as part of No Place for Hate Week. Adults protested this decision, saying it brought political ideologies that had no place on campus. 

Although students weren’t divided on the issue, Niehoff said, the school painted the crosswalks back to white earlier than planned—causing student organizations to cancel their events in solidarity with the GSA. 

“It certainly was a part of my frustration and ultimate decision. Again, it felt like the students weren’t as divided, but community members were and bringing that division,” Niehoff said. “Because the school is one of the few public entities, everything seems to come to the school, whatever the divide or conflict is.” 

Since his announcement during the April 18 school board meeting, he’s received an outpouring of student, teacher, and parent support for his work and has been asked if he would reconsider staying. But Niehoff said his decision is final. As much as he’s enjoyed many aspects of the school, he said, there are some things he doesn’t think he can’t fix.

“I do want to work on education things, it does include culture and feeling safe and feeling welcome and included, but it feels like I’m not going to be able to focus on that,” Niehoff said. “I’m going to have to deal with external culture.”  

Moving forward, Niehoff sees himself supporting the next principal as a “thinking partner,” but he’s concerned about the school’s future.

“I do worry about the students not being the focal point as they should be about everything,” he said. “If you really want to work on problems, let’s not attack people. Let’s get together, let’s be constructive, let’s bring in experts. The tactics that have been used are not constructive and they’re not fair.” 

Niehoff is the fourth principal who’s left the school in five years, Santa Ynez High social sciences teacher Greg Wolf said. 

“I can’t speak to why they left, but usually when things are going well you don’t have turnover. When things are funky, you have turnover,” Wolf said. 

Political battles have been increasingly cropping up at the school since the pandemic when people were divided on the school’s closure, mask mandates, and vaccinations, Wolf said. As pandemic restrictions eased, the divide shifted to other topics like the rainbow-painted crosswalk.

“My outside perspective is that certain individuals jumped right into nuclear mode before there was a chance to have a discussion about the full story,” he said. “For me, personally, the whole issue is when we have these intense confrontations, regardless of what it’s about, there’s always one loser, and that loser is the kids.”

Students expressed their frustration with these situations during class, Wolf said. They feel the disruption and see it play out on social media—with one of his high school seniors saying it was sad that the students have been more mature than the adults. 

“And he was referring not to the concerns themselves, but the nature of the discourse,” Wolf said. “Frankly some of the behavior you’ll see from the adults, especially with something that’s become politicized like the [crosswalk] speed bumps, is not civil discourse.”

The rainbow crosswalk issue caused adults in the public Facebook group, Santa Ynez High School Administration/School Board Transparency Project, to publicly debate and go back and forth with more than 160 comments.  

“It’s hard to stay emotionally detached when the drama is raging, but it’s not difficult to address with the kids. They transcend the partisan stuff; discussing it with them is actually refreshing,” Wolf said. 

He added that he hopes the superintendent will find a principal with a philosophy similar to Niehoff’s and that adults will listen to the students and put their needs first.

“My perception is that Niehoff’s announcement was a shock—regardless of demographics or political affiliation. I’m hopeful that the lesson will be learned a little bit and temper the volumes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who wins, whether it’s a battle related to athletics or a full-fledged culture war thing like the rainbow stuff, if we do it in such a heated manner, the kids always lose.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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