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Treatment of Randolph draws harsh criticism

South Boston News
An audience of some 300 people turned out Monday to register their opposition to the planned transfer of HCHS Principal Albert Randolph to the middle school. (Tom McLaughlin photo) / June 12, 2014
The decision to demote HCHS Principal Albert Randolph — reversed Tuesday — set off a community backlash that translated into one of the largest turnouts for a public meeting in Halifax County in recent memory.

Some 300 people packed the upper floor Bethune Complex meeting room on Monday night to implore the School Board to reinstate Randolph, HCHS principal for the past 14 years, to his old position rather than allow Superintendent of Schools Dr. Merle Herndon to transfer him to the middle school as assistant principal.

Former school trustee Arthur Reynolds, one of a handful of people in the audience to address the School Board directly, urged members to “give honor to whom honor is due,” and provide a better send-off than a demotion before Randolph retires.

But the dominant thread of the night was harsh criticism of the person who made the decision — Herndon, who sat stone-faced throughout a 40-minute public comment period as speaker after speaker called for her to reverse the decision, resign or face an ouster attempt.

Some speakers wondered if Herndon acted out of a personal vendetta, racial motives, or underlying contempt for school employees. Mattie Cowan accused Herndon of “malevolent, seemingly vindictive” behavior, and blamed members of the School Board for letting her get away with it.

“I cannot believe you continue to allow Dr. Herndon to so poorly lead our school system to the best of your abilities,” Cowan said.

Cowan called Randolph “an outstanding principal” who has been fair and firm in his dealings with members of the high school community. “I cannot say the same about our superintendent,” she said.

Corlys Ballou, a HCHS teacher who retired in 2009, praised Randolph’s devotion to his job, his church and the community, and continued, “It was appalling, to same the least, to see this man demoted after seeing first-hand the hard, dedicated work he has poured into this system as high school principal.

“Principal Randolph was always fair and professional in his dealings with the parents, students and faculty” at HCHS, said Ballou, who accused Herndon of a “vendetta” towards minority staff. She further demanded that the School Board “stop politicking with the lives of people who have given their best” to the local schools.

“Much havoc has been wreaked under Dr. Herndon,” she said.

Becky Donner, an English teacher at HCHS who retired two years ago after many years under Randolph’s supervision, called him a “presence we could always trust” who “backed us up, praised our successes [and] shared the news.” While the School Board or Herndon may have the authority to transfer Randolph to a different position, she reminded trustees of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The time is always right to do what is right.

“Do what is decent and right for our schools and to a man who has given so much,” she said.

Debbie Griles, a retired associate HCHS principal who served a dozen years at Randolph’s side, called him a role model for staff and students and “the right man for Halifax County High School.” She continued: “He did this by seeing every situation as a challenge and rising to meet that challenge. His work ethic cannot be challenged.”

Joe Bailey, a former school board member, brandished petition signatures calling for Herndon’s firing and said if the School Board wouldn’t purge “corruption” in the Central Office, voters soon would.

Detra Carr, taking a gentler tack, chided School Board members for holding an hour-plus closed session in the spacious Bethune meeting room prior to the public comment session, even as the crowd of attendees welled up in the warm and humid hallway outside. “Y’all could have gone down to your little boardroom [to continue the executive session] and citizens could have come in here and sat down,” said Carr.

“I’d really like to see you have more consideration,” he said, before turning to the Randolph decision: “It really should never have gotten to this point.

“But you still have the opportunity to right this wrong.”

One of the final speakers to address the trustees was county supervisor William Bryant Claiborne, who said he came out for the School Board meeting not in his capacity as an elected official or local lawyer, but as a friend of Randolph’s going back to the days when both men were college students. Claiborne said he empathized with the trustees’ position but said that as a supervisor, he had a rule for handling difficult personnel decisions: “I look in an imaginary mirror and ask, ‘Do I want to be treated the same way I’m about to treat someone?”

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