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Principal reaches for healing tone on first day

The Rev. Dr. Kent Austin chats with parents and students as he seeks to restore calm at Community Christian School.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published August 13, 2003

LARGO - Saying it was time to begin healing, the Rev. Dr. Kent Austin took over at Community Christian School on Tuesday, hoping to move beyond the controversy that raged around the previous principal for the past three weeks.

Austin chatted in the morning with parents, some still angry the school board had not told them of a previous criminal investigation of Dick Baker, the principal who resigned Monday. Baker was not charged, but some parents considered his frequent Disney World trips with schoolgirls to be inappropriate.

Austin also met Tuesday with more than 100 students in the chapel next to the school, seeking to reassure them.

"What led me to come here is the Lord," said Austin, 58. "This is his school, this is his work - to give young people a Christian education. That's important, and I don't believe he wants that to stop."

He alluded to the school's recent problems only subtly. "Sometimes God puts into our lives potholes and changes and detours, because there's new things out there. Better things. Greater things."

Austin is the pastor of Five Oaks Community Church in Pinellas Park and has run a school there. He also has a history with CCS; he chaired the board that oversaw its creation as an independent school in the 1980s and sent his son to school there.

He said some people asked whether he was crazy when he accepted the unexpected call to take over for Baker. But he said he prayed about it and believes the school can still help more children.

He will continue as pastor of Five Oaks, and his wife, Joyce, will manage the school there.

Taking over at CCS will not be easy. In addition to the controversy that has divided the parents, the school also is facing possible eviction by its landlord, Westside Church of the Nazarene.

The school has lost dozens of students to other schools, although school officials hope to woo back some of them now that Austin has been hired. School officials also want to regain the accreditation CCS lost amid the controversy.

Some parents still are irate over the board's failure to share financial information, such as whether Baker used school money on his Disney trips. Austin said he would favor disclosure on most budget matters.

"I don't see a problem with being accountable," he said. "We're accountable to the Lord, so why not just extend that?"

Others are pressing Austin to rehire staff members who were fired because they complained publicly about Baker's actions.

School spokesman Joe Riccardi said the school board discussed that issue Monday night and would likely revisit the issue soon.

The Largo police investigation into Baker earlier this year concluded he had committed no crimes. But the police report quoted several girls as saying Baker took them to Disney World as many as 81 times over the years, held bathing suit-changing contests and took pictures of them in swimsuits. Sometimes there were no other chaperones, and some girls said they had shared a room with Baker, but not a bed.

For Austin, Tuesday was mostly a day to listen, offer soothing words and speak to the kids.

Standing in the chapel before the schoolchildren in the morning, he asked the students for questions and waited through an excruciating pause. One boy finally raised a hand: Do you like football? And then came more: Do you like baseball? What's your favorite vegetable? Do you like video games?

It may have been the first time in the past three weeks a CCS principal has faced questions that were silly instead of stinging.

"They needed to laugh today," assistant administrator Eleanor Ladd said of the students.

[Last modified August 13, 2003, 01:32:38]


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