BROOKSVILLE — Like most school superintendents, Aaron Mackey understood that his job security as top executive in Ohio's Princeton City School District relied not just on performance but also on the prevailing political winds.
But Mackey said he was surprised on Jan. 14, 2008, when Princeton's five-member School Board, after discussing the issue behind closed doors, voted unanimously not to renew his contract.
"I was shocked and kind of dumbfounded. Nothing was in the cards for me to see that coming. Achievement was up. I had cut the budget where needed. I had built eight schools," he recalled last week.
"It's just the political nature of boards," said Mackey, who is one of seven candidates expected to interview for the Hernando superintendent job next month. "As far as my record of achievement, it's clear, and I felt good about the 38 years and especially the four as superintendent."
Mackey, a graduate of Princeton High, had worked for the district about 15 miles north of Cincinnati for nearly four decades — his entire career — and served as superintendent for four years. When he left, the district had about 7,500 students, roughly 1,000 staffers, and a budget of about $73 million.
But in early 2008, two new board members had just taken office and a third had won re-election. They joined a fourth member who was reportedly a critic of Mackey.
Mackey said he met the previous December with board members who told him he'd served the district well, then suggested he resign to make room for someone with a fresh perspective. He declined.
He said the new board members wanted to put their own stamp on the district by hiring a superintendent.
After the vote on Mackey's contract, the board thanked him for his contributions and said a change in leadership would better position the district to move forward.
"Princeton City Schools is at a critical juncture requiring accelerated progress on the challenges and opportunities that face the district," board vice president Lillian Hawkins said in a statement.
The move angered many in the community, and Mackey supporters submitted a petition demanding the board renew the contract.
Two former board members publicly criticized the decision as foolish, especially, they said, because it brought a perception of instability as the district lobbied voters to approve a $141 million bond levy for school construction. The levy ultimately failed by a slim margin.
"The bottom line is, they didn't do very well by the community," Gary Bryson, one of two outgoing board members in 2007, said of board members who ousted Mackey. Bryson said he and another board member stepped down and supported their successors with the assurances they would keep Mackey for at least another year.
None of the five Princeton School Board members responded to requests for comment from the St. Petersburg Times. They asked district spokesman Tom O'Neill to speak on their behalf.
"We wish Mr. Mackey the best of luck in his future endeavors," O'Neill said in a statement, declining further comment.
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Mackey, who earned $121,700 as superintendent, served the duration of his contract, which ended in July 2008. In February, Mackey, who was 59 at the time, lodged an age discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Attorneys who represented Mackey said language board members used in discussing his departure indicated age discrimination, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Board members denied the accusations and offered other reasons for not renewing the contract.
Board member Sandy Leach said Princeton's academic performance was "average" compared with other districts and that some disadvantaged students and schools were underperforming, the Enquirer reported.
Between 2001 and 2008, Princeton had improved 15 points in Ohio's performance-based rating system, putting the district in the "effective" category, the middle of five rungs. Board members thought a new superintendent could do better.
"Overall, we have made improvements in academic achievement, but not at an acceptable rate when compared to other districts," Leach said during the meeting. "We need to be an excellent-rated school district."
Bob Maine, one of the two new board members, said, "My decision was based on what I consider to be mediocre academic performance and less than acceptable financial performance," according to the Enquirer.
Mackey said he filed the discrimination complaint because he hadn't been evaluated for his past two years and worried the board would try to deny him bonuses he was due.
"They were kind of turning a deaf ear, and I wanted to get their attention," he said. He received $20,000 and dropped the complaint.
Leach later praised Mackey in a letter of recommendation upon his departure in which she called his efforts a success.
"During Mr. Mackey's tenure, there was noteworthy progress in the areas of graduation rates, student discipline, district finances and facilities," Leach wrote.
Mackey helped the board manage the district's money wisely, helped promote character-building programs, and worked well with the six mayors in the district to garner their support for the schools, Leach wrote.
The district's graduation rate had risen more than six points to just more than 96 percent in the past two years, she wrote. And Leach, who earlier complained that some minorities were underperforming, noted that the district had "closed the achievement gap" with an African-American graduation rate of 96.9 percent.
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Mackey is a native of Glendale, one of six municipalities in the Princeton district, and has a master's in education from Xavier University.
He got his first teaching job at Lincoln Heights Elementary in 1970 and served as an assistant principal at the junior high level and then as principal for two elementary schools. After 11 years as a junior high principal, he was appointed in 2001 to assistant superintendent for administration and then to associate superintendent in 2002.
Mackey worked under and then succeeded superintendent Don Darby, who said he watched Mackey's ousting with displeasure. There were no performance issues to justify the move and two board members had personal axes to grind, Darby said.
He described Mackey as a progressive administrator who makes student achievement a top priority and garners respect from staff, especially principals.
"He'll set some pretty rigorous standards, but he'll also be a person who will listen and will be willing to work with them," Darby said.
The Princeton district has a diverse student body — with about 46 percent African-American and 35 percent white, there is no ethnic majority — and includes poor neighborhoods and affluent suburbs. Susan Wyder, a teacher at Sharonville Elementary who helped arrange the petition drive to keep Mackey, said he reached out to all segments of the district and had a reputation as an advocate for teachers.
"He did whatever was necessary to lure good teachers here and he always wanted the contract to be fair and generous so they would stay," Wyder said.
Mackey, now 61, says he's "way too young" to stop working. After leaving Princeton schools he worked as an adjunct professor teaching school law at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and co-founded an education consulting firm called Administrator Assistance Inc., though the business has not been active in recent months, he said.
Mackey said he is excited about the prospect of a move to Florida. His wife, Karen, is an elementary school teacher in another Ohio district; his daughter is in her first year at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Mackey said he would use a hands-on approach to guide the district to academic improvement.
"If I get the opportunity, I'm going to be involved and not look at Hernando County as a steppingstone," he said. "I'm going to bring the small-town, small-district approach to a big district."
Times researchers Will Gorham and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.