Parents criticize decision to swap South Portland school principals

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Some parents are angry that they were left out of a decision to switch two elementary school principals next fall.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said in a May 7 letter to James O. Kaler Elementary School parents that she has decided Principal Diane Lang will be swapped with Principal Bonnie Hicks of Doris L. Small Elementary School.

She said the change is an administrative decision that doesn’t require community input. 

It is part of the School Department’s reform efforts at Kaler, which earned the seventh-lowest scores in the state’s public school rankings last year. The scores qualified the school to apply for a federal Title I School Improvement Grant, which requires schools to make radical transitions to be eligible for a three-year maximum grant of $1.6 million.

The “transformation” model Godin chose for Kaler’s application requires the low-achieving school to replace its principal, implement more staff development, and lengthen school days and years to maximize student progress. 

The School Board unanimously authorized Godin to submit the application for Kaler in their meeting Monday, and the Department of Education will notify the district if it has received the grant in early June. 

After learning of the principal switch, some parents of students at Small were upset to be losing Hicks. Several put together an online petition against switching Lang and Hicks, and advocating for more transparency in the replacement process. The petition attracted 170 signatures. 

Because “there was no open position,” Godin told the board Monday, the staffing change was strictly an administrative decision that did not require community input. 

Though she admitted the process was difficult, the superintendent firmly defended her decision to switch Lang and Hicks. 

“The problems at Kaler are not the results of one individual,” she said.  

She also confirmed the switch will happen regardless of whether Kaler receives the grant, because the school’s improvement goals will not change.

“It was time for both administrators to try something new and be in a different environment,” Godin said. “I have complete confidence in both administrators involved. … It’s not going to be easy, but the support will be there.”

Erin O’Connor-Jones, co-president of the Small school PTA, told the board the petition was as a “knee-jerk reaction” by several “outspoken parents,” and not the PTA. But she reiterated the need for additional transparency and parent input in Godin’s decision-making process.

“It’s not about the personal stuff, it’s not about (Lang’s) commitment; she’s spent years working in an under-funded, high-needs school district, and that is unfortunate,” O’Connor-Jones said after the meeting. “I think sometimes as parents you get emotional about your school and your leaders, and especially your children.” 

Lang said Wednesday that she understands parents’ concerns, but she believes the two schools would benefit from the change.

“The most important thing in anyone’s life is their children, so they’re going to be very concerned about direction their school is going in,” she said. “I’ve always had an open-door policy with staff and parents. I want to sit down and problem-solve.”

Hicks said Wednesday that leaving Small, where she has worked for 14 years, would be bittersweet, but an exciting challenge.

“It’s going to be a big undertaking, but I’m ready to hopefully enact some positive change,” she said. 

One problem brought to light by public comments was the socioeconomic status of most Kaler students; more than 60 percent of them qualify for free and reduced lunch, compared with 27 percent at Small. Kaler currently allows open enrollment, but several parents said new city districting does not do enough to equalize income levels in the city’s five elementary schools.

“It’s not surprising the (students living near) property overlooking oil tanks would yield lower scores,” Georgette Stone of Bonnybriar Road said. “The initial petition drawn against Diane is weak information; the real issue is in the inequity of the district.”

Godin met with parents at Small on Tuesday evening and will hold a meeting with parents of Kaler students May 20 to establish transition teams for the principal switch, and to advise on the allocation of funds for Kaler if the school receives the grant. 

Although the decision to switch principals proved contentious, board members and some members of the public agreed that the result would hopefully improve the schools.

“We have to work for each other, all of us,” Jeff Selser of Summit Street said. “Every single school in South Portland is our school.”

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.