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William Ferchland

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Jim Valdes, South Tahoe Middle School vice principal, chats with students during lunch Wednesday.

For 18 years Jim Valdes sat in the vice principal chair at South Tahoe Middle School.

For reasons unknown to him, he was tapped to go back into the classroom next school year and teach, a move that ignited a staff uproar and would have cost him tens of thousands of dollars in retirement, at least two years away.

But on Tuesday, Valdes received a reprieve, when the Lake Tahoe Unified School District Board of Education voted to accept program specialist Kathi Jensen’s request for a yearlong leave of absence.

Jensen, chosen to replace Valdes in a return to the middle school, stated she wanted the time to tour orphanages in Asia and study Spanish in South America after receiving an inheritance.

Jensen did not return a reporter’s phone call for comment. In the swell of public protest, supporters were dismayed to see Valdes’ departure, not Jensen’s arrival.

“I think it’s wonderful that he’s back here,” said David Berne, a middle school teacher with 29 years in the district. “He’s so well supported and appreciated by the majority of staff.”

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Berne attended Tuesday night’s board meeting armed with a letter signed by 74 middle school employees, or roughly three-fourths of the staff. Even though Jensen’s leave of absence was accepted prior to his presentation, Berne read the letter and submitted it to the board.

Valdes was called into Interim Superintendent Lorraine Garcy’s office on a Wednesday early this month. The meeting lasted 15 minutes, Valdes recalled. When it was over, an incredulous Valdes walked back to the neighboring middle school.

“I was kind of like in shock and said this is not right,” Valdes said. “I wanted to know why and couldn’t get a reason. That’s why I had to go to the board (on April 12) and talk.”

After Valdes’ reinstatement Tuesday, Garcy said it was an example of how problems sometime resolve themselves.

“Let things go through the process,” she said.

This school year he assisted two new arrivals, Principal Jackie Nelson and fellow Vice Principal Pat Harnett.

“What you see is what you get,” he said. “They know what I say is what I mean.”

Valdes began his career in education in 1971 by teaching students in Orange County for six years. Skiing lured him to Steamboat, Colo., to take a break from teaching for six years as he dabbled in the restaurant and construction trades.

Valdes began work in Lake Tahoe Unified School District as a middle school teacher in 1983. During the next four years he decided to obtain and eventually earned a master’s in administration.

When the vice principal position at the school opened, he applied and has not relinquished the post for 18 years. That soon will be 19.

“The staff is delighted,” said Carol Murdock, a middle school instructor and president of the teachers’ union.

Consistency and fairness, Murdock and Berne both agree, are traits Valdes uses to help form the respect he’s given.

“We know he’s an asset to the school, he’s fair-handed when it comes to discipline and he deals with parents well.”

Under a full head of thin, gray hair Valdes owns a stoical face that can easily be broken by a grin and laugh or an impassioned speech.

Both the smile and keen eyes can be seen during lunch as he often cruises the cafeteria, talking to curious students who recently have questioned him on his job status.

Valdes said he has been “overwhelmed” with the support displayed but now has an understanding his job might again be in jeopardy.

“I love the kids and I love the staff,” he said. “They’re like my family, my second family.”