Public deserves to know real story on principals

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 22, 2013 

Parents and the community at large put a lot of stock in the principals in charge of our schools.

Strong principals set the tone for educating our children, provide critical administrative and instructional support for teachers, make sure the right teachers are in the right classrooms -- all things that should lead to our children's educational success. They warrant our respect and the higher salaries we pay them.

So when a principal disappears from the hallways with little to no explanation, it's not surprising people want to know why. But we don't get answers from the Beaufort County School District; we get obfuscation and excuses about privacy issues that should be left at the public school door.

The district officials should tell the public what is going on with an important leadership job in our schools instead of leaving it to our collective imagination. It's neither fair to the principal nor to the district.

For the second time in a year, a principal was suspended from his job, and the district won't give a reason. Charles Johnson, principal at Pritchardville Elementary School, was suspended with pay Sept. 10. He resigned Thursday. As with Phillip Shaw at H.E. McCracken Middle School, who was suspended with pay last November and then went on months of paid personal leave, we're left to guess why.

School district officials say they can't tell us because these are personnel matters that must remain private. But we're not convinced the veil of secrecy drawn over these matters is as necessary as district officials say, and they can involve policy issues that deserve a public airing and debate.

Former Beaufort High Principal Dan Durbin's departure in February 2012 is a case in point. Durbin resigned after district officials confronted him over his changing about 200 grades for 33 students.

The public learned why Durbin was out because Durbin gave the district permission to tell us, and he talked about his reasons for changing the grades.

After Durbin's disclosure, a debate about the district's grade-floor policy -- or rather the lack of one -- ensued. We learned that about half the district's schools used grade floors. (A student couldn't earn less than 60 percent, still failing but offering a chance to bring up the grade.) The result was a new districtwide policy that prohibits their use.

Would that have happened had Durbin not disclosed his situation, raising the issue of how failing students were dealt with?

The St. Helena Elementary School community was very upset in 2004 when then-principal LaVerne Davis' contract was not renewed. Hundreds protested at school board meetings. Neither Davis nor the district would say why she was out as principal after 14 years.

Davis appealed the decision, but didn't show up for a hearing when she thought she had a deal to stay. The board didn't go for it. Then-superintendent Herman Gaither accused Davis of violating personnel policies, ignoring district-mandated staff training and failing to submit reports on time, among other infractions. That came out only after Davis didn't follow through on her appeal and after the community went through a lot of turmoil.

Davis later sued the district and settled out of court for $60,000. The terms were kept secret until the district was told by the state attorney general that it must disclose them. A disturbing element of the settlement was that it required the school district to keep secret all documents in her personnel file that included derogatory or unfavorable remarks made by Gaither. That would have been very helpful to Davis in seeking a job elsewhere, particularly one in the education field.

But the public isn't served by such secrecy. If Gaither were wrong in his assessment of Davis, that would have called into question his ability to perform a key part of his very important job. If he was right, the next school considering hiring Davis would have benefited from seeing his assessment.

Another disturbing element of the Davis settlement was a reason district officials cited for wanting to keep it quiet -- better leverage in negotiating future settlements. They worried that disclosing the terms would increase the cost of future settlements and insurance coverage.

Secret settlements treat symptoms, not the underlying problems. They might work well for insurance companies who pay out claims and school districts who don't want embarrassing or damaging information to get out, but they don't do much to encourage good governance and accountability. And whether news is good, bad or indifferent for school district officials, the public deserves to know what's going on.

Shaw, too, has appealed the decision not to renew his contract and asked for a public hearing before the school board. The public hearing offers the best hope of learning why he's no longer at H.E. McCracken and determining whether the district made the right call. The hearing hasn't been scheduled yet, but if a settlement comes instead, the district is on notice that it can't hide the terms.

Yes, we have new school board members and a new superintendent, who aren't responsible for past decisions. But Shaw's story and Johnson's story at Pritchardville Elementary have an all too familiar ring to them.

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