Problem principals: Bibb school leaders had problems at previous jobs

jhubbard@macon.comFebruary 1, 2010 

  • By the Numbers

    Two — number of Bibb County school system investigators.

    Six — number of different complaints that would prompt an educator to be investigated by the central office (physical contact of child, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, ethics, racial slur)

    64 — number of Bibb County school system employees investigated by the central office in 2008-09.

    417 — number of Bibb County school system employees investigated by the central office since 2005.

In the past 18 months, four Bibb County principals were investigated for allegations ranging from choking a student and mismanaging federal money to testing blunders and having an affair with a subordinate.

Three of the principals had repeated problems in previous jobs, and the other one was the subject of several complaints before he was placed on paid leave and then resigned, school records show.

A former Northeast High School principal was hired even though he was given an “ineffective” job review when he was a Florida high school principal.

The current principal at Southwest High and a former principal at Rice Elementary weren’t going to be rehired as principals in their former school systems.

At Appling Middle School, the former principal had racked up complaints from teachers starting in 2007. He resigned effective a month ago, after he was accused of choking a seventh-grader.

The cases have called into question why the Bibb County school system has hired principals with problems — some serious — in their background, to work in low-income schools that need effective leaders the most.

“I think we settle too quickly for people,” said Gary Bechtel, the Bibb County school board president. “We get a résumé, and when we get (to the board meeting) we are asked to vote on it. We try to ask questions, but I don’t know if we are given the entire story.”

“It’s their responsibility to know” prospective employees’ full background, said Lisa Curtis, a Bibb County parent advocate. “There is no follow-up or follow-through. We need effective leadership. We can’t have mediocre.”

Bibb County school officials say the hiring process isn’t always clear-cut, that there’s a certain art to hiring leaders for Bibb County’s schools.

“We’ve been very careful to check references so we weren’t just getting piece-of-paper statements,” Superintendent Sharon Patterson said. “Anytime you hire someone, you are in no position to know if they will work out. Sometimes you can’t always get the truth from people. You are making the best professional decision.”

Aside from Internet searches, background and reference checks, they also consider other factors when hiring principals: whether candidates boosted test scores at a previous stop, tackled discipline issues effectively or have worked in urban schools before.

“We spend a lot of time trying to look at the bigger picture and not home in on one thing,” said Sylvia McGee, Bibb County’s deputy superintendent. “We want strong principals who are going to be what we consider to be change agents. ... That, many times, comes with some controversy.

“Most of the time, I would say, we get it right,” she added.

Northeast High School

This past June, Sam Scavella resigned as principal at Northeast High after leading the school since 2006.

Central office administrators said he resigned to take another job in Atlanta. Later, they revealed that his departure also came after an investigation into his affair with a graduation coach at the school. Scavella was engaged to another woman at the time.

The graduation coach claimed that after breaking off the relationship with Scavella in early 2009, she received a poor job-performance evaluation. In previous years, during the relationship, she said she had received good reviews, according to school records.

She contended that Scavella, who earned $116,000 a year at Northeast, retaliated and discriminated against her and was guilty of sexual harassment. The school system’s investigation didn’t find evidence to support those claims, but it did require the two not to have contact with each other.

The graduation coach was transferred to an elementary school, and Scavella resigned two months later.

Before he was hired to run Northeast, Scavella also had problems in his previous Florida job, school records show.

While he was principal of Blanche Ely High School in Florida in 2004-2005, his performance records from the Broward County school system show that he was deemed ineffective as a leader, in terms of “human resources” and “management processes” and for his overall performance review.

His former superior, Ulysses Jackson, said in a deposition that Scavella’s inability to learn about the school community led to “interpersonal conflict in his school.”

During his one year as principal at Blanche Ely, he was put on a performance improvement plan, his personnel file from Broward shows.

Scavella, who did not respond to requests from The Telegraph for comment, also was named in a lawsuit before he left Florida.

A suit was filed in the Southern District Court of Florida in May 2007 alleging that a 15-year-old Blanche Ely student had been raped by her math teacher in March 2007, after Scavella was principal there.

The suit filed against the Broward County school system and Scavella contended, however, that before the 15-year-old’s assault, there were two previous complaints of sexual misconduct by female students against the math teacher. The suit claims that while Scavella was principal, he did little to investigate those complaints and withheld information from school investigators.

A judge has since ruled that Scavella was not negligent in the suit. The case is now on appeal in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Despite Scavella’s performance evaluation in Florida and his involvement in the lawsuit, Bibb County still hired him for a leadership position based on his ability to raise test scores.

“We did a background check on Sam,” McGee said. “He had moved a D school to a C school (in Florida), and he made us aware of the pending lawsuit.”

McGee added, “We did not get a copy of any ineffective leadership (evaluation), and in a reference check we weren’t told about that.” The Telegraph obtained a copy of the evaluation after a phone call to the Florida school system.

When Scavella came to Bibb County, he worked as an assistant principal at the alternative school for one year and proved himself, McGee said. That helped land him the job at Northeast.

Southwest High School

Tyrone Bacon took over as Southwest High School’s principal in 2006. Since then, teachers have complained about his behavior, saying that he yelled at them, “furloughed” students and once threw a “Halloween in the Hood” party.

He’s also been investigated four times by the central administrative office, according to school records: for allegedly choking a student, grabbing a student’s arm, putting his finger in a student’s face and mismanaging federal Title I funds.

The school system suspended Bacon for 10 days without pay after he held a summer tutoring program in June 2008. He had been told by the school system that he didn’t have enough money to operate the program, according to school records. But Bacon instructed his staff to sign and submit falsified time sheets, the records showed, saying that they worked in July 2008 in order to draw Title I money from a new fiscal year.

Bacon said “poor accounting practices” at the system’s central office were to blame, and that the central office approved the change.

Linda Holmes, a former Southwest High data clerk, filed a grievance against Bacon over his temper.

“When things don’t go his way, he snaps,” she said. She was granted a transfer.

Math teacher Tajuana Washington said other Southwest employees had issues with Bacon’s allowing his administrative assistant to perform some of the duties of an assistant principal.

“Last year, my students thought he was the assistant principal,” Washington said of Bacon’s assistant. “He’s in the hallway disciplining children.”

In 2008, students who were on the verge of failing at least three of five courses just before the holiday break were “furloughed” and told to go home and not to come back for finals. The school was told it could not continue that practice in 2009, teachers said.

Other employees, including former choir director Jimmy Mills, didn’t like Bacon’s throwing a “Halloween in the Hood” party because of the negative connotation.

“We are trying to upgrade our kids,” Mills said. Bacon said students came up with the name.

Bacon, who makes $115,000, said that when he was hired to lead Southwest, there were gangs, students graduating without the necessary credentials, and the school was about $37,000 in debt from overspending in various programs.

“We owed $7,000 to the Centreplex” for a retirement party for the former principal, he said. “When I got to Southwest, it should have been closed.

“Yes, there are issues, but I have to maintain control,” he said.

Before his stint at Southwest, he was a high school principal in Lamar County. His problems there resulted in his not being offered a principal’s contract, according to his Lamar personnel files. He was offered a demotion to a teaching job.

He was also investigated in Lamar County for whether he turned over a teacher misconduct case to the Department of Family and Child Services in a timely manner.

In that case, one of Bacon’s teachers sent a picture of his genitals, via his cell phone, to a student.

“It did go to a grand jury and I did testify,” Bacon said. “I was cleared of any wrongdoing.”

His Lamar County personnel file also showed that in 2004, a parent alleged that after her son refused to hand over a CD player he wasn’t supposed to have in school, Bacon used “undue force” to discipline the student.

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission found no probable cause to take action in the case, but Bacon was cited by the Lamar County superintendent for his temper and was ordered to take an anger “workshop or low-profile intervention.”

“(The superintendent) was telling me to go to a place to de-escalate,” Bacon explained.

Bibb County school officials say they knew about most of those incidents.

“We knew there had been some issues with parents” in Lamar, McGee said. “We sent our campus police chief ... and (a school system investigator) to Lamar County so we could get primary information. They came back with a report with what we thought was pretty much satisfactory.”

Bacon was energetic, a good disciplinarian and his former school had made academic progress, she said.

“If you are doing your job, that is what should count,” said Bacon, who was told recently that his principal’s contract would not be renewed for next school year.

Rice Elementary

This past fall, the Bibb school system’s central office spent almost a month interviewing 55 teachers and paraprofessionals at Rice Elementary School while investigating complaints against former principal Teresa Yarber.

A 164-page central office investigative report cited dozens of problems. Twenty-two of the people interviewed said Yarber caused numerous teachers to quit or transfer, and 36 of them said Yarber caused low school morale.

The report also raised questions about where the school’s $7,000 Parent Teacher Student Organization fundraising money for playground equipment had been spent, since no playground equipment had been bought. The report noted that there would be a separate investigation of the PTSO money.

The report also cited problems with administering the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test at the school.

A central office investigation found that after the school system revised its testing dates for the CRCT, which helps determine whether some students get promoted, Yarber failed to give the test on the scheduled first day.

Instead, she sent her staff an e-mail saying that there would be no testing because of a suspected school break-in earlier that day.

“This e-mail insinuated that testing failed to occur on Monday, April 20, because of the delays relating to the suspected break-in and not because you had been mistakenly operating under the original testing schedule,” an investigation letter said.

The report also noted that teachers were told during a faculty meeting “that either the number of office referrals would drop significantly or (teachers) would receive write-ups for excessive referrals” of students to the principal’s office.

Some teachers also complained that students who didn’t have the skills for promotion were passed to the next grade by Yarber without teacher input.

“I have students coming into second grade who cannot yet add, and they have been administratively placed even though they don’t have the skills,” one teacher complained in the report.

Four former and one current teacher at Rice confirmed the complaints, saying that Yarber would lock herself in her office and ignored student discipline problems.

Because of the problems at Rice, Yarber was transferred to a special education job at the central office in recent weeks. She kept her $95,000 salary that she was paid as principal.

These weren’t the first complaints against Yarber in a leadership position. When she was employed in the Peach County school system as principal at Hunt Elementary School in 2003-04, she also had problems, according to her Peach County school personnel records.

One Hunt teacher complained that Yarber caused class scheduling conflicts over the course of the school year after she reorganized the school structure, that she “humiliated and degraded” teachers on occasion and that she became agitated when her staff members didn’t respond to her idea to place regular education students in special-ed classes for timeout when they misbehaved.

Peach County school officials cited Yarber for acting “extreme and unprofessional” when she reprimanded one teacher. The system overturned that reprimand.

Peach County did not renew Yarber’s principal’s contract the following year.

McGee said school officials were aware of all the problems when they hired Yarber to be principal at Rice Elementary.

“We talked to board members and others about Teresa,” McGee said. “Many thought she had come in with high expectations.”

It turned out that Yarber was “not a good fit” at Rice, McGee said. Some people could argue that Yarber “was pushing that school, and there was resistance.”

Yarber did not return a call for comment.

Appling Middle School

Principal Robert Stevenson, 37, was placed on paid leave Aug. 28, 2009, for allegedly choking a student. He submitted his resignation Oct. 29. It was effective Dec. 31.

Six students and four teachers who witnessed the incident said that Stevenson should not have held the girl down by her neck on a desktop Aug. 20 after she had argued with another student. One teacher witness said that, in her opinion, what Stevenson did was OK.

A school system investigator recommended a simple battery charge, a misdemeanor, as appropriate in the case. A Macon police detective who interviewed witnesses said she thought there was probable cause to charge Stevenson with cruelty to a child, a felony, according to school system investigative records.

Stevenson, who earned $98,000 a year, was not charged with any criminal offense, however.

Bibb County District Attorney Howard Simms said three of his assistant prosecutors who reviewed the case didn’t think it rose to the level of a felony. His office referred the case back to the school system, suggesting that officials take it to State Court of Bibb County, which handles misdemeanor cases.

That wasn’t done, though.

“Apparently they didn’t turn it over,” Simms said.

Asked recently if the school system should have done so, Simms said “it might not have been a bad idea.”

McGee said school officials thought the matter was closed.

“In our minds, when the DA said not prosecute, we heard ‘end of case,’’’ she said.

But even before that episode, there were other complaints against Stevenson.

An assistant principal filed a grievance against Stevenson in 2007.

The assistant complained that Stevenson would leave school early after having attended school games.

One man, hired to be a substitute teacher, was given keys to the school and was paid to monitor the hallways. The school system eventually required Stevenson to repay $4,700 from school fundraising money that Stevenson had used to pay the substitute, documents show.

In January 2008, the central office also investigated another complaint against Stevenson by a physical education teacher.

That teacher accused Stevenson of reprimanding teachers over the intercom while students were listening. Doing so undermined the faculty’s authority, the grievance said. The teacher was granted a transfer.

In March 2008, the central office warned Stevenson that expectations of him as a principal had not been met, and that if he didn’t communicate more professionally with students, parents and staff members, his job was at risk, a letter to him said.

Former computer applications teacher Wanda Welch filed a grievance against Stevenson, too. She said he would chastise teachers during morning announcements over the intercom, saying that if teachers didn’t do what he asked, he would yell “you can go home or you will feel the wrath of the big panther.” Also, Stevenson had a mural of himself painted on a wall in the school foyer.

“I know that I (was) not the only teacher concerned about the working conditions at Appling Middle School,” she said.

Some teachers and parents questioned why Stevenson was left at the Appling helm so long.

“He was a first-year principal, so you want to give him a chance to settle in,” Patterson said.

Years of leadership turnover at the school also played a part in that decision, McGee said.

“Appling had had within five years, four principals,” she said. “We kind of looked at all that and tried to bring stability to the school.”

Stevenson responded to The Telegraph through his attorney, Charles Cox.

“Appling Middle School serves a very at-risk population, and Mr. Stevenson’s concern always has been and remains the advancement of the students at Appling Middle School,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, Mr. Stevenson’s former employment has become part of a larger discussion about the responsibility the superintendent and the Board of Education each have for the school district’s progress.”

None of the four schools, Patterson said, has lost ground in student achievement.

When problems arose, she said, “We investigated. They didn’t get away with it.”

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.