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Unjustifiable action / May 15, 2013
Dear Viewpoint:

Note: This letter is in reference to Randall Spain’s removal as principal at Park View Middle School. I am Mr. Spain’s father and also a retired veteran educator with 38 years as an administrator. Thirty-four years of service were in Mecklenburg County. My wife, Gale, also a retired educator, shares in the views and opinions expressed in this letter.

Friday, October 26, 2012, started out as a typical fall day at Park View Middle School (PVMS). Mr. Spain had been in his first principal position for four months. Over the summer, he had made sure that the campus had been cleaned and groomed, the school buildings and contents had been cleaned, trash had been removed, and some painting had been done. On this day the teachers were teaching, the students were learning and there was a busy hum in the air. He had affectionately started to refer to PVMS as the “new” Park View Middle School.

As a native of Mecklenburg County, Mr. Spain received his public education in Mecklenburg County prior to receiving his B.A and M.A. degrees from Longwood University. Continuing his education, he earned his Ed.S. Degree from Cambridge College. After earning his Ed.S. in Educational Administration, Mr. Spain was granted a Division Superintendent License by the Virginia Department of Education. With 16 years classroom teaching experience and 5 years assistant principal experience behind him, he was excited to be returning to Mecklenburg County for his first principal position. He believed this was his opportunity to “give back” to his home community.

It was late morning when Dr. Thornton walked into the PVMS office. He was accompanied by Dr. Keeler, his assistant. Dr. Thornton told Mr. Spain to give Dr. Keeler his school keys and leave the building, as he was being placed on administrative leave effective immediately.

Mr. Spain was in shock. He had asked Dr. Thornton on numerous occasions since school began how he was doing. Dr. Thornton had responded that he was doing a good job. Mr. Spain had not been formally evaluated. However, he took Dr. Thornton’s positive and complimentary remarks as indication that his performance was satisfactory.

Dr. Thornton told Spain that a teacher had complained that he had raised his voice at a student in the hall. Also, another teacher had said that he had been too aggressive in interviewing a student who was suspected of writing a vulgar email sent to Dr. Thornton. Even if these complaints were true, they did not justify the action taken by Thornton.

To place the principal on administrative leave for almost two months is a serious and extreme act. If performance was not considered to be satisfactory there were other steps that Dr. Thornton could have and should have taken. Typical steps might include a conference with a warning, the development of an action plan, or, perhaps, probation if performance did not show improvement.

Over the next three weeks Mr. Spain spoke with Dr. Thornton several times. He asked repeatedly to be permitted to return to his duties at PVMS. Thornton refused the requests. Teachers, parents, and students were asking, “Where is Mr. Spain. When will he be back?” On one occasion, in response to Mr. Spain’s request to return to his duties at PVMS, Thornton told him, “I make people and I break people.” Later, Dr. Thornton told Mr. Spain that he had decided to reassign him to a curriculum development (new) position and he would write curriculum and lesson plans for the county. Mr. Spain indicated that he would accept that position but preferred to return to his position at PVMS. Thornton asked Mr. Spain if he was going to file a grievance against Mecklenburg County Schools. Mr. Spain told him that he needed to work and that he would accept the reassignment. However, Mr. Spain expressed concern that the School Board may not approve this recommendation from the superintendent. Dr. Thornton’s response was, “The School Board will do whatever I ask them to do.”

After the November School Board meeting, Dr. Thornton told Spain that he had discussed the reassignment with the Board and that they agreed. He also reminded Mr. Spain that the deadline for filing a grievance was close at hand. Mr. Spain again told Thornton that he did not plan to file a grievance since he was being reassigned. Interestingly, after the deadline passed for Mr. Spain to file a grievance, Dr. Thornton wrote Spain advising that he was not going to reassign him; but, rather, he was going to ask the Board to terminate him at its December meeting. Did Dr. Thornton lie to Mr. Spain? Was he only buying time by promising him a reassignment until the deadline for filing a grievance passed? What do you think?

On two occasions, I emailed Mrs. Sandra Tanner (my School Board representative) expressing my concerns with Mr. Spain’s treatment at the hands of Thornton. On the second occasion, I asked her to investigate the matter and ask hard questions at the December meeting. Result? Mrs. Tanner did not even attend this important December Board meeting and did nothing to help Mr. Spain.

On the night of the December School Board Meeting, Dr. Thornton called Mr. Spain at home during the executive session. He told Spain that the Board was going to give him an opportunity to resign effective the next day (Tuesday) or they will “terminate you tonight.” At this point, Mr. Spain chose to resign, as he had no support from the Board. It was clear that the majority on the Board would do whatever Thornton told them to do.

Mr. Spain was still officially principal of PVMS and would be until he submitted his letter of resignation the following day. However, that evening, following his telephone call to Mr. Spain, Dr. Thornton introduced to the Board Mr. Spain’s replacement as principal of PVMS — the day before he resigned.

Why did Thornton really want to remove Mr. Spain as principal of PVMS? I can only speculate.

Was it because of an incident that occurred the week before Mr. Spain was placed on administrative leave? Mr. Spain had made an administrative decision to cancel a pep rally due to safety concerns. This was a judgment call on his part, which, as principal, he had the authority to make. Later in the day, he received an email from Sandra Tanner, PVMS parent and member of the School Board, communicating her displeasure with his decision. After this, Dr. Thornton contacted Mr. Spain and instructed him to have the pep rally. Of course, he honored Dr. Thornton’s directive.

Or, was it because Mr. Spain had expressed to Dr. Thornton his concern about the Project Based Learning (PBL) program? Spain believed that the program was not organized and structured in a way to be most effective. He had shared these thoughts with Thornton. At the time, Mr. Spain may not have been aware that this was Thornton’s “baby.” Was Thornton unhappy with Mr. Spain because he questioned the effectiveness of the PBL program at PVMS?

Or, was it because Dr. Thornton is a micromanager who was uncomfortable that Mr. Spain was exercising his authority under Virginia law to provide effective leadership in his school? I have been told that several years ago a principal in conversation with Thornton stated that he was proud of his school. Dr. Thornton’s alleged response was, “This is not your school. It is my school.”

Perhaps, Dr. Thornton needs to be reminded that Virginia Law (Code of Virginia 22.1-293) states, “A principal shall provide instructional leadership, shall be responsible for the administration of and shall supervise the operation and management of the school or schools and property to which he has been assigned, in accordance with the rules and regulations of the school board and under the supervision of the division superintendent.” Virginia’s law is in accord with the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “principal” which states that a principal is “a person who has controlling authority or is in a leading position. The chief executive officer of an educational institution.” What happened to the concept of school-based management in Mecklenburg County schools?

Sadly, the School Board has betrayed the trust of the voters in Mecklenburg County. We elected the board to provide leadership and make sound decisions in the best interest of students and employees. It is my opinion that the only two board members who have consistently questioned and challenged Dr. Thornton are Dora Garner and Glenn Edwards. The other seven members of the board have generally gone along with whatever Thornton asked them to do. They seem to believe that their job is to give him a blank check and “rubber stamp” his requests rather than to think for themselves and ask tough questions. Do we need to remind them again that they do not work for Thornton? He works for them; and, they work for the citizens of Mecklenburg County.

The Board cannot place all blame on Thornton for what happened to Mr. Spain. Thornton can only recommend to the Board regardless of his motive. Legally, they are the ones who gave Mr. Spain the ultimatum to resign or be terminated. As a result, they have placed his professional career and future employment opportunities in jeopardy. Their action implies that his performance was inadequate at PVMS. Therefore, it is my opinion that their action is both punitive and slanderous. They owe Randall Spain an apology and much more.

Many people in the community have shared with me that they were excited to have Mr. Spain back in Mecklenburg County as the principal of PVMS. They were excited by his enthusiasm and his earnest desire to create a welcoming, structured, and safe environment for their children. They appreciated his accessibility, open door policy, and willingness to work with them and their children as well as listen to their needs and concerns. I am sorry that he was not given the opportunity to fulfill his mission as the principal of PVMS.

Mr. Spain had a contract with the School Board. I may be old- fashioned but I believe a contract should mean something. They did not honor that contract. Therefore, it is my opinion that Thornton and his “yes” board are without honor. Thus, they have lost my respect, trust, and confidence. It is time for them to go! I am prayerful and hopeful that they will be “terminated” by the voters at the next election or before.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This is a quote worth remembering.

Steve Randall Spain Sr.

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