Three of the four top administrators at Southwest High School have left the school in the past two weeks, sparking surprise and disappointment in the school community.
District leaders announced the retirement of longtime principal Bill Smith on July 27 and the departure of two assistant principals, Sue Mortensen and Brian Nutter, a few days later. They have appointed an interim principal, Karen Wells, for the 2017–2018 school year. They are also working with the school’s leadership council, comprised of staff, parents, community partners and students, to fill the assistant principal positions before the start of the school year.
District leaders say they can’t comment on the moves due to state laws protecting the privacy of employees.
“We know some people have concerns about leadership changes at Southwest,” a district spokesman wrote in a statement. “And we understand. But state law prevents us from providing additional information about personnel changes. Please know students’ success remains our top priority during this transition. We believe it will be another great year at Southwest because of the committed staff, families and students who make it such a fantastic school.”
However, many community members say they are concerned about sudden turnover and the lack of answers. Several spoke at the School Board meeting on Aug. 8, questioning the late date of the moves and the lack of transparency in the process.
“I appreciate that (this) is a private matter that you cannot share with the public, but what I ask is that we have the ability as a community to address those issues effectively,” parent Karen Kleinhans said. “So, keeping it under wraps is problematic.”
Administrators well liked
Smith came to MPS in 1997 and was named principal of Southwest at 2003. In an interview, he said his decision came after a year-and-a-half of thinking about it.
“The thought that my retirement was going to happen was already there,” Smith said.
In a blog post, he called his years at Southwest “the highlight of my professional career.” He pointed to the school’s graduation, proficiency and “college success” rates as evidence of success.
“I trust you will understand my request for time and privacy,” Smith wrote near the end of the post.
He’ll be working on special projects for the district through the end of the year, a spokesman said.
School Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon, who had two of her children attend Southwest, said Smith had incredibly high expectations for all students and was excellent in developing talent in staff. Gagnon noted that she’s only seen him wear clothing with a Southwest logo on it.
Isaac Van Wert, a student and member of the school’s leadership council, said Smith came to a large majority of basketball games and even showed up at 4:15 a.m. one day to send off the choir on a trip to Colorado.
“I’m told he didn’t own a shirt that wasn’t purple or white,” parent and leadership council member Gwen Spurgat said, referring to the school colors.
Mortensen and Nutter also appear to be well liked. Mortensen had been at Southwest since 2000, and Nutter had been there three years.
Ellen van Iwaarden, outgoing executive director of the Southwest Foundation, said Mortensen was “the kind of assistant principal who really develops relationships with the kids.”
“Everyone liked her,” said Van Wert, the student.
Nutter, a Roosevelt High School alumnus, is easy to work with and helpful, van Iwaarden said. Southwest math teacher Annette Gorgoglione said she considered going into administration because of his example.
“Southwest had become his community (and) his school,” Nutter’s wife, Jada, said at the board meeting. “Brian’s new assignment was beyond surprising and disappointing for him to learn about.”
Selecting new leaders
When the moves were initially announced, parents expressed frustration about the selection process. The district had granted Southwest greater autonomy in 2016 by granting it community partnership school status, and parents felt that the designation meant the community would get to choose the next leader.
There initially appeared to be miscommunication about the level of community involvement in the process that district leaders later attempted to clear up. It’s now understood that Southwest’s leadership council, comprised of parents, students and staff, will interview candidates and make a recommendation to the superintendent, who will have the final say.
It’s a standard process across the district, said Michael Thomas, chief of academics, leadership and learning.
Thomas said Cecilia Saddler, his deputy chief, will host a training session for the Southwest leadership team so they know what “the parameters are” and what questions they can legally ask. The final hiring decision will rest with the superintendent, he said.
The former administrators at Southwest worked to ensure the school would continue to be successful after they departed, Thomas added.
“What we’re going through at Southwest, we literally go through this every year,” he said. “But we also know that we’ve got a community (at Southwest) that’s involved, staff that are involved and a common vision so that we can support and build a leadership around that next leg of the race.”
Wells, the interim principal, has years of experience as a building principal. She has been a coach and mentor for principals and newly appointed teachers since her retirement in 2014.
She wrote in a letter on the school’s website that her intent is to support and advocate for the stable learning environment that families and students have come to expect.
Assistant Principal Tara FitzGerald, who is entering her second year at Southwest, will join her in the school’s administration.
Still, some parents and community members are wary of the changes. They note the complexity and size of the school and have asked that Nutter, the assistant principal, be allowed to stay.
“Moving forward we just simply need stability and a plan for stability,” said Spurgat, the parent and leadership council member.
In her comments, Kleinhans cited an article by local education writer Sara Lahm, who reported that an investigation took place at the school. Lahm reported that the fallout appears to have included the administrative shake-up.
The district spokesman confirmed the district received a complaint, which was investigated.
“Per state law, the only public information is the district received a complaint,” he wrote.
Parent Matt Voda at the meeting asked for more engagement from the superintendent and demanded more transparency.
“It’s missing now and it’s breaking the trust with us parents,” Voda said. “We’d love to know what the plan is beside just backfilling a principal.”