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Education Opinion

Charter School Board President: Lesson 101

By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — December 19, 2007 4 min read

I’m not sure where to start with this story of turmoil, hurt feelings and differing views. I apologize if I am incoherent, but it is 5:00 in the morning and I can’t sleep. The story in the morning paper reports that some of the teachers and the former principal of our charter school felt that I was micromanaging the school. From my perspective, I was not as much trying to carry the ball as I was trying to pick up the fumble. Is it possible that I was creating interference instead of helping the team? Obviously, some people think so.

We’ve had two days of constant scrutiny from the media. It’s hard to work or meet or have open discussion when every word or utterance might be quoted for the world to read. Emotions are very high. That would be a good thing, if the emotions were about children and their education. I don’t feel as if that is what is happening.

It may be hard to blog about what’s happening because I am at the center of the controversy. I learned that the former principal did not ask for a five-week leave of absence because she had personal business to conduct. That’s what she wrote in her request for time off. In reality, she wanted to be away from the job long enough for me and the rest of the Board of Directors to miss her leadership. She explained this in a telephone conference on a morning news show six days after leaving the job. I thought she needed time to repair her house which she started renovating recently. I even designed a plan for her to take the leave without jeapordizing her status as the principal. She left last Wednesday morning, two days before the plan was to be presented to the Board in a special meeting.

When she left, the principal took her personal belongings, including her mini-refrigerator. She left her school cell phone and the keys to the office with the business manager. She didn’t call the next day. But, in her mind she was not really quitting her job. She was still trying to make a point. Her departing message was something like “Roslyn needs to get a weak Assistant Principal and run the school herself.” I missed all of the clues that she felt this way. I loved being an elementary school principal. But, I swear that I have no desire to return to that level of pressure and responsibility.

Our teachers staged a sick out that has made us look like we can’t manage the educational programs of our own children. I’m not sure how we can repair the damage and get back on track. The new principal is confident and excited about his work, including healing the wounds of injured staff members. The irony about this situation is that while the Board was meeting to select the new principal, our staff was planning the sick out at a local fast food restaurant six blocks away. Why didn’t they just come to the meeting? Why air our dirty laundry and make a spectacle of our school? Was it fear of retribution or a calculated power play? I have a hard time accepting that our employees plotted to shut down their own school. They can’t possibly know that their actions could result in the loss of the charter and their jobs as charter school employees. I’m sure they didn’t know that the lower than anticipated number of returning students has created a reduced job market for teachers. Other schools are cutting surplus staff, not hiring. Or maybe they did know and acted out of desperation, anger and frustration.

Although the conversation in the marathon meeting yesterday was about Board and Administration relations, I sat out most of the meeting with reporters. Too many Board members in the auditorium would have constituted a quorum and made it subject to the open meetings law so I left the room and provided a venue for teachers to speak their minds without fear of being quoted by the reporters. Also, I knew that they wanted to talk about me.

One of the reporters asked me “How do you know that the selection of the new principal will not result in the same type of problems?” I know that communication is critical to our progress and I know that trust is equally important. I can take responsibility for being overzealous. I don’t want this principal to take drastic measures to get the Board’s attention. He’s a real team player. I was impressed that he took the large charter application plan home after the interview and returned the next day with a list of tasks to complete that included many of the things his predecessor had not started. He also asked more questions than I did during the interview.

I’ll let him carry the ball without interference. If he fumbles, I’ll wait to see if he can recover it before diving into the melee. I’ve been a principal—state principal of the year and president of a principals’ association. I’ve been an area superintendent—supervising over thirty school principals (including McDonogh 42’s exiting leader). I’ve never been a charter school Board president until now. How hard can it be? This lesson is hard, but I’m still learning.

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The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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