11/13/09 — Rosewood principal resigns

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Rosewood principal resigns

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 13, 2009 1:46 PM

Susie Shepherd

Rosewood Middle School Principal Susie Shepherd resigned Thursday afternoon, amid a swirl of controversy that prompted national exposure for the school when word spread about a fundraiser created to give students higher grades in exchange for donations.

Earlier in the week, school officials canceled the fundraiser.

School officials and Board of Education members said they had been unaware of the fundraiser until news broke about the project Wednesday, and were investigating the matter.

The school's parent advisory council allegedly approached Ms. Shepherd with the idea of selling points because last year's candy sale had failed. She approved the fundraiser, saying it would not ultimately impact any student's final grade.

The effort would be based on donations -- $20 would buy two 10-point credits to be used on two tests of the student's choosing; $30 would buy test points and admission to a fifth-grade dance; for $60, the student would receive test points, the dance invitation and a pizza lunch shared with a friend; and for $75, students could also have pictures taken with the principal, vice principal and a homeroom teacher that would be posted on the school's bulletin board and Web site.

During a called staff meeting after school Thursday, Ms. Shepherd announced she would be taking annual leave beginning today. Her retirement will be effective Dec. 1.

Nearly three dozen teachers and staff converged on the central office immediately afterward, intent upon seeing Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor. Taylor was attending a meeting off-campus and the group spoke with other leadership, who told them the superintendent would be in contact to arrange a meeting.

None of the group agreed to have their names appear in the News-Argus, but several said they were "upset over the situation and what has happened" and were there in support of Ms. Shepherd.

One staffer said the principal's resignation was "unnecessary" and "a big misunderstanding" as the fundraiser had been the consensus of parents and teachers as a way to help students get technology for the school.

"The bottom line is the school's budget, the county's budget, did not support what we wanted to do," said a spokesman, who agreed to speak under condition of anonymity. "These are very hard times and we didn't want to again have a fundraiser where kids would sell things that people really didn't want. We saw this as an easy way to generate funds for the kids."

While Taylor was not present when the school group showed up, he said he had met with the principal earlier in the day as part of the district investigation into why the fundraiser had been approved at the school. Ms. Shepherd's resignation was not entirely prompted by the publicity, however, he said.

"She indicated to me earlier in the year, in fact several weeks ago, that she planned to retire at the end of the year anyway," he said, adding that it will not be an early retirement for the 30-plus-years "veteran educator."

"It was her decision. We certainly talked about all the issues involved."

Taylor said he also has an "open door policy" for staff and plans to meet with a delegation from the school today, "if I can get them together."

The superintendent said notes will be sent home to parents today announcing the principal's retirement. He said he hopes to name a replacement next week, whose duties will begin Dec. 1.

The News-Argus attempted to contact both Ms. Shepherd and the parent advisory council.

Ms. Shepherd politely declined making a statement.

Deborah Breedlove, a member of the parent advisory council who had expressed support for the fundraiser, refused to answer any questions when contacted Thursday.

George Moye, school board chairman, said he was surprised that it had become such "big news."

"It's my understanding from being in the barber shop (Thursday) morning that this was talked about on the Jay Leno Show as well as another nationally broadcasted show, I think it was Conan O'Brien," he said. "We have had network inquiries about this, it was so unusual."

Moye said he had been contacted by ABC and NBC as well as National Public Radio, but spoke to none of them.

"This is highly unusual that a school would attempt to offer grades for money," Moye said. "I would have to go back and look at our policies. I doubt that we have a policy that says that you can't sell grades. I wouldn't think anybody would have ever thought that we would need a policy for that."

As to whether the national exposure embarrassed the district or in any way influenced the principal's resignation, Moye would not comment, except to say it was a personnel issue and he was unable to discuss it.

"But it's my understanding that ... when the administration found out about (the fundraiser), actions were taken to stop the practice and refund the money to those who had contributed to the school," he said. "It was stopped immediately as soon as the administration learned of the plan."

Dave Thomas, school board member representing District 1, which includes Rosewood, was unaware of Ms. Shepherd's resignation when reached Thursday evening. He said he had only learned about the fundraiser Wednesday morning and promptly called the superintendent to express his concern.

"Later, he called (me) and said that there would be a press release and that the fundraiser would not be acceptable," Thomas said. "I agreed to that."

He did not, however, agree that the mushroom effect of media exposure caused the district to force the principal out.

"To my knowledge, I don't know anything about pressure to resign," he said.

As to the staff's allegations that county and school funding justified the need for a fundraiser to supplement school and student needs, the officials took issue with the implication.

"I think the schools can always raise money to supplement the budgets that they receive," Taylor said. "Certainly we have tried to be equitable with technology to all our schools and tried to keep new computers at all the schools."

But while the district did not receive money for computer leasing from the General Assembly this year, Taylor said Rosewood Middle is not unique and "there's always the need for more" technology.

"Schools use fundraising for a variety of reasons," he said. "If that's what they chose (to focus on), that's fine. It's not what they were going to use it for, it's the process -- it was not what they had planned to spend the money on that was the issue. The issue was the funding method and process, which had to do obviously with the dollars yielding you so many (grade) points."

Thomas said schools will always need money, be it for teachers or athletic programs or any other area. But he said he could not condone the way the school went about it.

"I would be against any type of thing that you can change grades or scores by money," he said. "I just don't agree with that kind of philosophy."

"This is not permissible, regardless of the finances of the school system or county, state and federal government might be," Moye said.