Quest for principal arouses concern
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
BEVERLY HILLS -- As school officials move to replace Renna Jablonskis, the departing principal at Forest Ridge Elementary School, they're getting a lot of last-minute, unexpected help.
School staffers have flooded the administrative offices and School Board members' mailboxes with letters praising Jablonskis and encouraging the district to keep the Forest Ridge "family" together.
Eighteen staff members and Forest Ridge parents have sent individual letters, and 39 staffers signed another letter to superintendent David Hickey and the board, urging the administration to give strong weight to the staff's feelings.
Board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel said this level of participation in theappointment of a principal was extremely unusual. Hickey is expected to recommend a principal for the board to approve during its meeting Tuesday. While only one letter specifically mentions the school's assistant principal, Dave Stephens, as the right person for the job, many other letters imply that administrators need to keep Forest Ridge on the course that Jablonskis charted, and that only one applicant knows the school well.
Stephens was interviewed for the job Thursday, as were the other applicants: Teretta Charles, principal of Inverness Primary School; Mark McCoy, assistant principal at Rock Crusher Elementary School; and Debra Johnson, a Polk County educator.
Jablonskis is leaving her post at the end of December to become the district's director of student services.
Among other things, the letter writers express concern that the selection will be politically motivated. They also worry that advice the staff previously offered won't be adequately considered.
In her letter, parent and teacher Susan Kempton indicated that, while some applicants would do a good job, "others could destroy all that we have built instantly." She did not say whom she meant.
Principal's secretary Cynthia Tobin wrote: "I know of only one candidate that can state they know our school and community intimately. Bringing in any other candidate from another school will only serve to disrupt two schools unnecessarily."
She also didn't name names.
Tobin said Thursday that the letters were the result of a recent informal staff meeting in which Jablonskis did not participate. "We just got together and decided what we were going to do," she said.
Several of the letter writers urged Hickey and the interview committee to talk to people at the school where other candidates work to see how they get along with the staff and parents.
"We do not want our staff, parents or students to become split and disrupted, as is the case in many of our Citrus County schools," wrote Elizabeth Bergstrom, data secretary and registrar at Forest Ridge.
No letter specifically speaks out against any applicant, but School Board Chairwoman Pat Deutschman said she had heard some specific concerns about Charles.
Deutschman said someone had voiced a concern that Charles would bring major changes to Forest Ridge and that, because she might be close to retirement, Charles might not be the best choice.
References to problems among principals, staffs and parents at other schools might also apply to Charles, who found herself at odds with a small group of parents and staff members last year who opposed a real-life lesson known as IPSville taught two days a week at Inverness Primary.
Charles eventually canceled the program because she couldn't get 80 percent of her teachers behind it.
Several of the letters mention that mere qualifications, as listed on a resume, should not be a deciding factor when administrators replace Jablonskis.
After her interview Thursday, Charles said she had heard of the letters. She said any concerns about her future retirement were just speculation. She has not announced any plan to retire soon.
Charles came out of retirement to become an educator in the Citrus schools after a long career in administrative jobs in major school districts stretching from New York City to Los Angeles.
"Renna has done such a fabulous job out there motivating the staff and the students," Charles said. "It's a perfectly predictable reaction to change. They sense that their processes and their vision are in jeopardy. . . .
"They need to know that leadership is about people; it's about walking along with people to whatever vision they share." School system personnel director Steve Richardson said he did not know about the letters. He said they would not play a role in the very formal process used to screen and recommend a principal to the superintendent -- a process that already includes staff participation.
Administrators gather comments by conducting "climate surveys" at schools. The interview committee also includes a teacher and an advisory council member from the school, Richardson said.
Hickey and School Board members could take the letters into consideration when they consider the matter Tuesday.
Board member Himmel said the situation was difficult.
"What if they (interview committee members) picked Terry Charles as the best candidate? What's she going to do? I hate that," Himmel said. "No matter who applies and gets picked, there are going to be hard feelings."
-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or 564-3621.
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