LAKEWOOD RANCH — An anonymous letter calling for action against McNeal Elementary School Principal Norma Scott has been met with staunch support of Scott from Manatee County School District officials and some parents at the school.
The unsigned letter, which raises questions about staffing changes and Scott’s management style, among other concerns, was authored by concerned parents and placed in Greenbrook Park during school hours about two weeks ago. A copy also was left at the East County Observer office.
Another letter sent to Superintendent Tim McGonegal and Director of Elementary Schools Joe Stokes calls for investigation of the situation. The author, who signed the letter “A concerned parent at McNeal Elementary,” writes: “(Scott) has definitely not made good choices and is ruining the ‘spirit’ of this great Manatee County school. … We parents are not happy, and I assure you neither is the staff.”
A third letter, signed by 21 parents, echoes similar sentiments and said Scott has been unresponsive.
The letters cited the turnover that has occurred this year as evidence of a larger problem at McNeal. Since Scott became principal, 13 teachers and staff members have left their respective positions for various reasons, including moving to a new position, not having their contracts renewed, transferring to other schools, retiring or taking leaves of absence. Among those are several staffers whose history with McNeal stretches back to the school’s beginning at Braden River Elementary, including longtime front-desk clerk Tami Uphaus, whose contract was not renewed this year, and teacher Amy Bradl, who had worked at McNeal since it opened in 2003.
Scott’s opponents also cite her decision to move teachers to different grade levels as cause for concern.
The parents and school employees upset with Scott’s leadership only would speak under the condition of anonymity.
“There’s been a mass exit by regular standards of staff,” one former McNeal teacher said. “Some chose to retire (early). Some chose to go to other schools (or took a leave of absence).
“She’s cleaning house,” the teacher said. “The problem is you don’t clean house on an ‘A’ school. Decisions are being made on personal feeling, not based on professionalism and based on the children.”
Another teacher said there was a “climate of fear” at the school and teachers were afraid to voice dissenting opinions without fear of retaliation of some sort.
“If you say anything against the way they are running their program, they’ll come after you,” another source said. “The teachers are running scared. That alone should justify the fact some investigation should go on.”
However, parents who remain supportive of Scott call the letters inaccurate and praise their new principal for the changes she has made at McNeal.
“It’s garbage,” Parent-Teacher Organization President Nicole Squitieri said. “It’s unfounded lies. It upsets me as a parent who has been at McNeal for eight years. She’s turned around the school for the better. Parents are happy.”
Squitieri noted Scott has reinstated field trips, has started an “A Team” to help kids who are falling behind academically and has been a proponent of the school’s STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) initiative as well as its new science lab and greenhouse. Squitieri said she has not heard complaints from parents about Scott being unresponsive but had during the previous administration.
The school’s kindergarten roundup boasted 97 prospective students this year, compared to just 63 last year. And school enrollment also has increased from 560 to about 700 in the last two years during Scott’s tenure.
“It’s a breath of fresh air from just a few years ago; you can sense it,” said parent Dean Consiglio, who had considered sending his daughters to another school. “Lots of parents are choicing back in.
“I’m happier now than when I first came to (McNeal),” he said. “I know there’s unhappy people, but these tough decisions have to be made. It’s all about the kids. I think (Scott) is on the right track. Change is hard, even when it’s good.”
Furthermore, district officials say the number of faculty and staff who have left is not high compared with other district schools, especially at schools such as Wakeland, where virtually every teacher has left the school under its new principal. It also is common for teachers to be asked to change grade levels.
“It is not unusual for this amount of staff members to be relocated for one reason or another at the end of a school year,” district spokesperson Margi Nanney said. “The bottom line is that the principal has the authority to make the type of changes that are in the best interests of the students and school community.”
In the East County, however, McNeal’s turnover appears high by comparison.
Freedom Elementary School Principal Jim Mennes, who is finishing his second year as principal, said he has had little turnover, with two positions lost because of a decrease in student numbers and two hired for increases in student numbers. At Willis Elementary, Principal Bill Stenger has lost less than five teachers to moving and for other reasons over six years and less than 10 in total when counting all staff members.
Similarly, Principal Hayley Rio at Braden River Elementary, who is finishing her first year in her post, said she has had no teacher turnover and will get more teachers next year to meet the Class Size Amendment. Because the district has allotted her only 2.5 teachers (instead of the three needed), a certified teacher, who has been the school’s art teacher, will be moved into the classroom and a teacher’s aide will teach art.
“We’re having to do more with less, but thankfully we’ll be able to continue to service students,” she said.
The “Call to Action” letter accuses Scott of impure motives for moving a longtime kindergarten teacher to fifth grade. But Scott said the teacher was moved to meet a need at the school and the teacher’s background would be a valuable asset to students. Several positions simply have been eliminated as mandated by the district.
“Everything that I have done is looking at what the school needs,” Scott said. “That is my commitment.”
Scott said she was disheartened by the letters and believes the majority of teachers and parents are happy. She also said she had worked hard to assess the needs of the school and make changes to better student education.
“I love my school; I love my teachers; I love my families,” Scott said. “Really, whenever a new leader comes on board, they have to assess the needs of the school. I really listened to the parents and the teachers and thought about what I was hearing and the vision of the school. Most of the really great ideas came from (listening) to people.”
Changes to the school’s Exceptional Student Education program, which also has received criticism, have developed with the support of district officials and its curriculum team.
The model is one Stokes said the district is “very interested in,” as Scott’s new program is based on research that says gifted students benefit from being together in a classroom setting.
Furthermore, Stokes said even “A” schools have areas in which they can improve and principals are tasked with finding and correcting them.
Aside from talking with Scott, Stokes said he would not investigate accusations in the letter unless directed by the superintendent. The letter contains inaccuracies, he said.
“The content is always a concern,” he said. “We want people to have positive images of our schools. But I get lots of positive comments about what Norma is doing at McNeal.”
Below is a list of McNeal teachers and staff who either changed grade levels, left or whose contracts were not renewed in the last two years.
Amy Bradl (moved to Willis Elementary)
Jennifer Burchfield (moved to a different school)
Janet Gesten (retired)
Debbie Haag (moved to a different school)
Theresa Hoogerheyde (retired)
Nicki Kelly (on leave)
Kathy Kimes (moved to fifth grade)
Rachel Kutz (moved to a different school)
Heather Manley (leave of absence)
Marzena Murphy (contract not renewed)
Kristen York (moved to middle school)
Tami Uphaus (position eliminated)
Charlene Walser (on leave)
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].