HUDSON — Teachers at Hudson Middle School aren't happy with principal Terry Holback.
In response to an anonymous climate survey in May, a vast majority of the school faculty stated that Holback had smashed employee morale and treated teachers unprofessionally since taking the reins of the school in mid 2010. The United School Employees of Pasco conducted the survey after raising several concerns about Holback's leadership to the district during the past year and seeing no improvement, president Lynne Webb said.
"In the past when we've done these, I don't remember any being so one-sided," Webb said as she released the findings. She said she hoped the district would fix the problems identified in the results. Among them:
• 95.7 percent disagreed with the statement that the current administration had improved teacher morale and the school climate.
• 87.5 percent disagreed with the statement that teachers feel free to share ideas and concerns about their school with the administration.
• 91.7 percent disagreed with the statement that the day-to-day operation of the school promotes a feeling of confidence.
"Please help our school become a happy place again," one teacher wrote in the comments section of the survey form.
Holback, who received the results late Friday, said she is taking the feedback to heart.
"If this is their perception, then this is the reality," Holback said, tears in her eyes. "I quite honestly didn't know those perceptions were out there. … Clearly I am coming up short. I recognize that and will work harder and do more because that's what I need to do."
She said she already has signed up for courses to learn better management skills, particularly on how to relate to those she supervises. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she had faith that Holback would find ways to improve morale and her performance at Hudson Middle.
"I think she has a great skill set for leading," Fiorentino said.
USEP representatives brought complaints about Holback to Fiorentino's team beginning early in the year. Holback said she met with district and union leaders a few times, and she attempted to implement many of their recommended changes.
For example, she said she tried to give school leadership teams more room for input and decisionmaking. One change they helped make improved the school's in-school suspension system, leading to 180 fewer referrals.
Holback said she also tried to listen to staff desires: Acting on teachers' requests, she replaced regular all-faculty meetings with a staff bulletin, for instance. Assistant principal Barbara Marshall, who has been at the school seven years, backed up Holback's efforts.
"I never heard a word about it," Marshall said of the discontent evident in the climate survey. "I never heard a negative word. … If you don't know what's wrong, how can you fix anything?"
Former assistant principal Buffey Simon, by contrast, has said she was fully aware of the disagreements between the staff and the principal. Simon was demoted in June, after filing a discrimination complaint against the district.
Comments from the survey, which had a 78 percent response rate, indicate a thoroughly upset faculty.
"Ms. Holback belittles, bullies, screams and speaks condescendingly to her staff," one teacher wrote. "Teachers leave her office crying, angry and the general atmosphere has become anxiety-ridden."
Several wrote that Holback micromanaged them, targeted some staff members while showing others favoritism, did not listen to ideas and ordered people around.
"My colleagues and I teach at a Title I school," a teacher wrote. "At 82 percent poverty, they come from an oppressed culture. Getting oppression from both ends makes our job that much harder."
Another teacher wrote of an atmosphere of fear.
"I am afraid I will be called in to the office to answer for a problem I have no idea exists," the teacher stated. "I am afraid of making a mistake that will cost me my job because I didn't 'do it right' even though I don't know what I did wrong. … Every day I consider where to move so I can get a new teaching position, but then I am afraid to try for fear of what would be said about me by the principal. It seems like she just can't stand us."
Holback said she made no excuses for the way people viewed her leadership.
Being a school principal is "really difficult," said Holback, in her first top job after a couple of assistant principal assignments, and the learning curve is steep. She said she focused on technical issues, such as teacher evaluations and common core standards, but apparently to the detriment of the "relationship piece."
"I truly care about teaching. I truly care about students. I sincerely care about Hudson Middle School," she said. "I am sincerely sorry that I haven't done a good enough job showing it. But I will work on it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.