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Mecklenburg school board extends superintendent’s contract

South Boston News
Mecklenburg County School Board members Sandra Tanner, Thomas Bullock, Robert Puryear, Mary Hicks, Debra Smiley and Joan Wagstaff vote in favor of extending school superintendent James Thornton’s contract until June 30, 2018. Opposing the extension were trustees Glenn Edwards and Dora Garner. The vote to extend the contract was taken while there were two years left to the superintendent’s current contract. / August 01, 2014
In the face of strong opposition from parents, students past and present, and a few teachers, the Mecklenburg County School Board extended the contract of school Superintendent James Thornton for two additional years until June 30, 2018.

The vote was 6 to 2 with trustees Glenn Edwards and Dora Garner opposing the extension. Trustee Dale Sturdifen was absent, having previously notified chairman Robert Puryear that he was unavailable for the July 31 meeting.

The majority of those who spoke at Thursday’s meeting of the trustees were not calling for Thornton’s ouster. Instead they asked the board to delay the contract vote for at least one more year – to give Thornton more time to prove that the changes he has implemented in the school system are having a positive impact on both SOL scores and student achievement.

Speaking after the meeting, Thornton thanked the parents who spoke up, promising to look into their concerns. At the same time he questioned the timing of their concerns, “Why did it take the reconsideration of my contract for me to hear about many of these issues.”

Thornton also expressed pleasure with the school board for supporting him as he works to instill more rigor and deeper learning into the curriculum at the Mecklenburg County public schools.

Those who supported Thornton’s contract extension included Clarksville Elementary School teacher Wendy Thompson, Bluestone Middle School principal Missy Shores, Bluestone High School principal Chris Coleman, Project Based Learning coordinator Karla Gravitt, Bluestone Middle School art teacher Todd Muller, and La Crosse Elementary School assistant principal Michael Camden.

Muller and Camden both shared examples of positive changes Thornton made to the schools after becoming Mecklenburg County school superintendent, among them were the new beginnings program for at-risk students and the adoption of project based learning.

Muller said, “I was using PBL [in his art classes] before it was called that, and I saw those kids learn.”

Muller also challenged the claim that before Thornton, Mecklenburg County schools were high achieving schools. Muller said before Thornton SOL test scores were manipulated to show an artificially high passage rate. Students who school administrators deemed unable to meet the rigors of the test were not allowed to take the SOL. Instead, Muller said they were dumped in an art class where there was no SOL test.

Also speaking in support of her father was Kelsey Thornton, who said she was there, contrary to his wishes. She shared her personal experience with the school superintendent, images of him, late at night, “sitting in the kitchen talking to [Director of Secondary and CTE Instruction] Kristy Somerville and [Deputy Superintedent] Melody Hackney, and researching” the latest on school achievement and best practices.

It was only when she decided to apply to Governor’s School that, Kelsey said she developed a true appreciation for her father’s passion about deeper learning. “Colleges don’t want my SOL scores, but projects like my interpretation of [Edgar Allen Poe’s] “The Raven” help me write essays that colleges will consider.”

Those speaking in opposition to the contract extension painted a picture of a school system in disarray, with teachers being moved between schools without warning or explanation, school schedules that limit student choices, and an administration that created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

The one teacher who spoke in opposition to the contract extension, Jennifer Elliot, said she was doing so because “silence will not solve anything.” She expressed frustration with the lack of “consistency when it comes to developing a successful plan of accreditation, and called last year’s class schedules, “a logistical train wreck.” To Thornton she said, “Your teachers are pouring the foundations and you are down at Morningstars [a reference to a home goods outlet in Clarksville] picking out the curtains. Let your teachers do their job and you will see a return to full accreditation.”

As to Thornton’s and other administrators’ claims that teachers are leaving Mecklenburg County because of inadequate pay, Elliot said, “There are teachers who will leave here and go somewhere else for half the pay. It is not about the pay. It is about the way we are treated.”

It was former Park View High School student Colter Powers who summed up a host of concerns of the community: a school board that is deaf to the concerns of its constituency, the loss of experienced teachers, schools that are not fully accredited, reports of improper grade changing, lack of discipline of students to falsely portray a sense of improved school conduct, and low morale of teachers and school personnel. Using a sports analogy, Powers said, “In sports, when a team loses successfulness you do not fire team you fire the coach.”

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