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Oak Park shift: Principal is out

Published Oct. 9, 2005

After serving one controversy-filled year as principal at Oak Park Elementary School, principal William Smith is being transferred to a position as assistant principal at another elementary school, Superintendent Walter Sickles has recommended.

Smith's reassignment is not the only change planned for Oak Park, whose staff has been divided generally along racial lines this year. Sickles also plans to recommend to the School Board that two teachers and three non-instructional staffers be transferred from the school.

"This is because of the communications problems we discovered during our investigation of the school," Sickles said Friday. "I believe this is in the best interest of the school and the school system."

Sickles said he would not characterize any of the moves as being punitive, even though Smith's move clearly would be a demotion.

"I see it almost as a retraining situation," Sickles said of Smith's reassignment. Sickles said he would not blame all of the communication problems on Smith, adding that the problems existed at the school before Smith arrived.

The other staff members were selected for transfer because their names came up repeatedly during the investigation of the communication problems. One of the teachers being transferred is Daniel Levin, who recently was disciplined for referring to a student as a "son of a b----."

Sickles said the five transfers represent both sides of the divided staff.

Smith could not be reached for comment Friday. Sickles said he understood that after school let out, Smith left town for a few days.

Whether deserved or not, Smith has been the focal point of the turmoil at the school. Some staff members have accused Smith of racial insensitivity. Others have defended him vigorously and characterize Smith's accusers as troublemakers.

The school's troubles became a public matter in March when the grandmother of a student appeared at a School Board meeting and accused Smith of uttering racial slurs in a conversation with her. School officials found no evidence to corroborate the accusation and found no first-hand evidence that Smith made racially insensitive comments.

But Sickles said it was not that accusation that prompted him to demote Smith.

"We found no evidence to substantiate those charges," Sickles said. The superintendent said he decided that because of communication problems and because the staff was becoming increasingly divided, he needed to make changes at the school.

Sickles and his staff investigated problems at the school for more than a month. Sickles made himself available to Oak Park staffers who wanted to talk to him, and he ended up with dozens of interviews.

"When I started, I thought there was just going to be a handful of people," Sickles said. "People kept adding themselves to the list. I think I ended up speaking to just about everybody at the school."

Even after the interviews, Sickles proceeded carefully. He decided to wait until school let out before making a decision and announcing it. Sickles acknowledged that regardless of the decision he made, it was likely to anger some segment of the divided staff.

Smith, 42, is a former Marine who graduated from Robinson High and the University of South Florida. He began working for Hillsborough County schools in 1978. In 1989, he was appointed assistant principal at Clair Mel Elementary. In March 1992, he was given the top job at Oak Park.

Oak Park has about 700 pupils. Many of them are poor; nine of 10 children at the school are eligible for the federal lunch program. More than 60 percent of the pupils are black, and about 35 percent are white.

Smith, who is white, clearly had a great deal of support at the school. School officials did a survey at the school, which indicated that a majority supported the principal. But he clearly had several outspoken critics, and Sickles decided the school environment had to be changed.

"I just hope it stops the problems out there," said School Board chairman Glenn Barrington.