BONIFAY - Parents, school staff, students and even school officials from Washington County showed up last Tuesday in opposition to the superintendent's recommendation to move four principals to other schools in the district.
Although an official at Holmes County District Schools Superintendent Terry Mears' office said Tuesday morning that the names and the schools of the principals was not officially available to the office, social media has spread the word that students will lose their previous principals at Ponce De Leon High School, Ponce De Leon Elementary School, Bonifay K8, and Poplar Springs.
The issue is so near to the heart of families in the district that a petition was started a week ago with a goal of getting 500 signatures. By Tuesday, the petition had 432. In addition to making a virtual impression, more than 100 people descended on a School Board meeting at Bonifay K-8 last week to approach elected officials and the superintendent about their views on the recommendations.
"Education research will tell you that it takes three to five years for a principal to reach maximum effectiveness," retired Washington County School District Director of Operations Bill Lee said, confronting the board.
"We're proposing that we change four principals and give them four different schools all of that institution knowledge change and operational knowledge change based on what - we don't know," he later added. "There is no reason given other than ... they thought it was a good idea. Well, that's not justification."
While only two of the assumed four principals to be shuffled were discussed, person after person approached the podium to express their desire to retain Poplar Springs High School's Farica West as principal.
"I thought it was a rumor to be dismissed at first, but it was not," said Josh Mattox, a parent of two Poplar Springs students who opposed the principal change. "Our school deserves better than for her to be moved.
Within a five minutes of meeting Mrs. West, my doubts had disappeared and I knew she was what's right for the school. She was going to bring discipline and stability to the school I call home. Mrs. West has turned our school around. Our school looks better, runs better than it has in a decade."
Each School Board member said a few words about their view on the recommended changes.
"This is a shock to some of us just as much as it is to you," said School Board member Wilburn Baker, showing support for Mrs. West remaining at Poplar Springs and noting that he spend hours that same day of the meeting talking with Mears about the changes. "I hope that we can make some decision to do some things different. And I hope that because some things that happened to other people don't effect everybody."
"All of these principals are really great principals and I have no doubt that they can do great anywhere in the state," said School Board member Kaci Johnson. "Whether my opinion is that they remain where they are, they're doing a great job there, is one thing," she added, noting an upcoming workshop on the issue should provide answers that couldn't be immediately answered.
Following the amending of the agenda, the board did not vote on the staffing recommendations at the meeting. Mears said the vote was withheld because he wanted to make sure he spoke with the board on those changes.
During the meeting, Mears expressed his approval and gratitude for the public's feedback and emphasis on data-driven decisions. He said he would "consider" the feedback, "revisit the decisions," and schedule a workshop to further assess and communicate to the School Board members why he and his staff had made the recommendations.
"I promise you that I will do that," he added, noting that he shares their sentiments and would "not want to lose Ferica West at Poplar Springs either."
Following the meeting, in an interview, Mears slightly walked back some of his statements.
"No we're not going to have a particular workshop, we cannot go into discussion on everything that is out there about some personnel issues because it's against the law to do that," he said in the interview. "But we are going to actually meet and talk about those decisions more in depth," he said, noting it could be in executive session, which is not open to the public.
It is important to note, it is a typical and usual process that superintendents recommend moving principals from one school to another. In most cases it is because the talent could be used better somewhere else. In the case of HCDS, Mears pointed to the same idea - that his principals would be better used elsewhere - hence his recommendation.
"I look at the stress level for each one of my administrators and I also look at the administrators at those particular schools .... that get involved with the routine aspects of that," Mears said. "We talked with each one of the principals. We thought we had buy-in. Obviously, there is not as much buy-in as we thought we had, but I felt it's time for change and I'm willing to stake my future as superintendent on this district."
It will not going to be an easy sell to the people of the school district. Under West, Poplar Springs achieved 100-percent graduation in the past school year. Also, as many pointed out, over the past four years the administration at the school had been changed about four times.
Mears concluded, saying he has confidence that the next person that steps in at any of the schools will do well.
"I will never put another principal in another position that I think would harm that school or be detrimental to that school's climate," he said.