Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Education

Pasco's midyear flurry of principal switches a 'domino effect' after unexpected death

One mid-February Friday afternoon, Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning announced the reassignments of four principals, effective the following week.

The move came two weeks after moving two other campus leaders to new posts, and was followed in short order by the transfer of another.

Since January, 11 county schools — including two that will open in the fall — received new principals. One vacancy still remains.

The swift changes in the time leading to the state's spring testing period caused concern within school communities.

Several parents emailed the superintendent's office, with a few speaking to the School Board, to express their discontent with the sudden loss of their principals, in particular Seven Springs Middle's Chris Dunning.

"I think our community has gone through enough this year with all the rezoning issues, and removing our principal in the middle of the semester is another hit on everyone," parent Mary Denny wrote to Browning. "Why is there such an urgency to move him?"

Board member Steve Luikart raised similar questions.

"Those of us who have been at the school level see the impact good leadership makes," said Luikart, a retired high school assistant principal. "We need to take a closer look" at such decisions.

He and others worried that the timing was poor, noting that children, families and staff get close to their principals and their styles. Removing them mid-year could negatively impact the school's climate and, as a result, its performance, they suggested.

If Browning was so reluctant to allow teachers to switch schools during the academic year, Luikart added, why would he allow administrator moves "whenever we want to?"

In August, Browning prohibited teachers from switching schools during the academic year but later eased that policy after the teachers union complained.

Browning said he did not view the situations the same.

"The difference is, where you have teachers with students assigned to them in a classroom, you don't have students assigned to principals," Browning said. "They are not the one providing the instruction that drives so much."

Just as a classroom cannot go without a teacher, he acknowledged, a school cannot run without a principal. And this spring, the need arose unexpectedly when Crews Lake Middle principal Adam Kennedy died in a car crash on his way to campus on Jan . 20.

To give Crews Lake continuity, Browning turned to David Huyck, formerly an assistant principal at the school. But that meant removing Huyck from leading Chasco Middle.

"It's a domino effect," Browning said, explaining that every move he made was aimed at putting the best and most compatible leader into each school.

Other moves came after promotions or requests to relocate.

"Would I like to make all principal moves at the end of the school year? Possibly," Browning said. "But there's also a lot of preparation that goes on for the next school year at the end of the current school year."

That scenario makes spring moves close to perfect for several of the relocating principals.

"It's not a good time to come in and make changes, but it is a good time to assess," said Todd Cluff, who took over Seven Springs Elementary after a three-year stint as an assistant superintendent.

He replaced Vicki Wolin, who will open Bexley Elementary in the fall.

Since moving to the campus, Cluff said, he has met with all staff members to learn about Seven Springs Elementary and to explain his philosophy. Such visits wouldn't be possible if he came after classes ended, when the staff is on break.

"For me, it's very valuable to be here and have focus groups with kids, have focus groups with parents and get a feel for the culture and climate, so you don't violate any sacred cows," Cluff said.

Cortney Gantt, who transferred from Trinity Elementary's top spot to the principal post at Seven Springs Middle, agreed. She said she has changed administrative posts in the summer and spring.

"This is the best time," Gantt said. "You get the opportunity to build rapport with them before the next school year, when decisions are expected to be made."

She acknowledged that change can bring imbalance but had few concerns schools would suffer.

"My staff is very empowered," Gantt said. "I think they're going to be just fine."

Experts noted that the principal plays a key role in a school's success, setting a tone for the way things operate. They often build strong bonds with their staff, parents and students, which isn't always easy, said Eric Cardwell, vice president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a school leader in Michigan.

For that reason alone, Cardwell said, summer transfers also have their appeal: They give school communities a sense of closure at a time of natural progression.

"The principals' presence in a building can help build student achievement," he said. "But the departure can have the opposite effect."

Bob Farrace, public affairs director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, suggested that the best-case scenario would allow for an overlap of the outgoing and incoming principals to allow for a smooth transition.

"A midyear change is not ideal," Farrace said. "But there are, frankly, bigger issues to consider."

He said the key concern for a district is to have a strong pipeline of talented leaders ready to step up when positions become open. Those vacancies don't always occur when it's convenient, Farrace observed.

"Leadership transition can cause chaos," he said. "It doesn't have to. It's all a matter of what work takes place."

School Board chairman Allen Altman said he is satisfied with the district's approach to principal reassignments, particularly after hearing opinions from current and retired administrators.

"I certainly can see both sides of it," Altman added. "I don't know that there's ever a perfect time to make transfers."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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