Peeved Parents Protest Palisades' Principal Plan

March 19, 2012

What do Meatloaf, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bonnie Tyler, and Palisades School District Superintendent Dr Bridgett O'Connell have in common? They all sing "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad".

One year ago, then-Assistant Superintendent O'Connell was named to replace retiring, revered superintendent Dr Francis Barnes. It didn't take long for the former QCSD Director of Curriculum to put herself in middle of a firestorm of parent protests.

My column of August 29, 2011, warned of potential problems: O'Connell's departure from here was not without controversy. Board members felt that she had simply "fast tracked" her career at our taxpayer expense. She started in Palisades as a teacher, but left for an administrative position here. QCSD residents then paid for her PhD degree, and she immediately went back to Palisades as assistant superintendent....As a result of that shortsightedness, our community simply wasted its money on O'Connell's doctorate....Some Palisades residents, who are aware of O'Connell's connection to QCSD, have expressed misgivings.

Last month, O'Connell announced that Springfield Elementary School principal Andrea Farina would be taking a sabbatical next year to get her PhD, (paid for by the residents under the terms of the union contract). Farina would also be receiving half-salary during that time. With Palisades enduring the same huge economic problems facing every district, parents questioned whether this was taxpayer money well spent.

The bigger issue is that O'Connell is not hiring a replacement for Farina, but "reconfiguring" the three elementary schools by having the remaining two principals, and other administrators, rotate among them. This plan, initiated without any input from the community, outraged some parents at Tinicum Elementary, who are particularly fond of their principal, Scott Davis. Kimberly Casterline, a parent of two young students, sent a long email message to other families, which said, in part:

"By taking Mr. Davis away from Tinicum Elementary, this reorganization is expected to have a negative impact on our children both from a quality of education perspective and emotional well-being perspective....I understand that Dr. O'Connell is in a position where decisions need to be made in order to maximize the school district's educational success. However, I and many other Tinicum parents do not feel that her decision to disrupt all of the elementary schools in the process is necessary nor has been adequately justified or explained."

O'Connell met with some parents at the end of February, and repeatedly cited "continuity" as the reason for the two-principal rotation. Eric Bottelier responded with "When you defined continuity by citing the "Standards Based Report Cards" example of program implementation across the district, (this) does not necessitate moving multiple principles to implement effectively. Parents attending the meeting were focused on continuity as defined by Webster's definition of 'an uninterrupted duration or continuation especially without essential change', and minimizing disruption....Disrupting all three schools, when alternate options exist, will cause all three schools to spend significant time going through this disruptive process. This will lower the productivity, engagement and effectiveness of all Palisades elementary students and faculty."

Eric's wife, Melissa, offered a list of reasons to oppose the idea, and asked parents to add to the list and pass it on: Reduction in Morale, Productivity and Engagement Disruption to School Culture, Student body and Staff Performance Diminished, Continuity Disrupted, Ineffective use of time, Inefficiencies across the board, Downtime, Confusion, Take long time to get up to speed, Create new systems and set new goals and build support, Principal Roles or duties may modify and drop various duties because their is simply no time for customized and unique activities or treatment or programs, Male role model lost, Relationships severed, strained or broken, Favoritism shown to 1 person above all others, Students lacking that one on one attention, Student confusion, Bonds & Unity & School Pride broken or damaged, Trust Broken, Didn't include Key Administrators in decision process & finding solution, A collective brain trust not utilized, A win/win solution not found yet, Intangible Value of Emotional Attachments disregarded.

You can't blame Tinicum parents for wanting to maintain the status quo. But before we get upset, let's be sure that there is really anything to get upset about. Hyper-long lists smack more of preliminary pessimism than valid points. Two veteran principals should be able to get on the same page, and share responsibilities, especially since they will be acutely aware of the need for "continuity". And for parents truly concerned with gender role models, the young kids in all three schools can certainly benefit from seeing that men and women can do the same job together. That is real role modeling.

Predictably, Davis, and the other principal involved, Janet Link of Durham Nockamixon Elementary, are not commenting publicly, but one parent who spoke to them concluded "Scott and Janet are glad for those who support them, and there are 2 board members that are not too happy. Scott and Janet, in my mind, will not be able to run things too effectively and be the best they can be. Their hearts will not be in it as they are now. It will tax them."

Yes, it may tax Davis and Link. They now must recognize, and deal with, the issues of three times as many kids. But it may be less taxing on the community. The school board has already committed to capping any 2012-13 tax increase at the PA Act 1 limit of 1.7 percent, but with the huge surge in PSERS in future years, program cuts are looming everywhere. School boards and administrations will have to get creative with available dollars. If Palisades can save art, music, sports, and teacher positions by successfully rotating elementary school principals, it could be an example for other districts to follow.

Typically, teachers' union contracts require that the district pay for professional education such as Andrea Farina's - especially since she is expected to return as a middle school principal. But O'Connell's recent behavior is an excellent reason why the taxpayers should not be footing this personal enrichment. Farina could do to Palisades exactly what O'Connell did to QCSD - obtain an education at the residents' expense, and then use it elsewhere. Maybe the school board will keep this in mind when negotiating the next teacher contract: require any teacher or administrator receiving an education on the community's dime to spend that dime in the community.

Most important, if Palisades finally adopts a reconfiguration plan that does not please everyone, even the parents who object must, at least initially, support it. There is little to be gained, and potentially a lot of harm, in allowing the kids to see, and hear, open fighting and badmouthing among adults over principals and teachers, who the kids see as important, perhaps beloved, authority figures. The rotation concept can be presented to them in a positive way, and children have a remarkable ability to adapt. They will see it as far less important than the adults do.

It may be hard for parents to actually discern whether there are problems in day-to-day school activities under the Palisades plan, if adopted, but the Tinicum families are sure to be watching. Either way, this issue is going to continue to make news.

If it works, it could provide an excellent model for saving much-needed dollars in other districts. If it crashes, O'Donnell could be singing a new tune. Like "On The Road Again".