Upset at the prospect that they will lose their much-loved and widely-respected principal, two members of the Tisbury school committee this week lashed out at the Vineyard schools superintendent for his decision to move principal Richard Smith to the Oak Bluffs School.
At an emotional meeting Tuesday, committee members Janet Packer and Colleen McAndrews said they were disappointed and angry that Dr. James H. Weiss did not include them in the decision.
“This is about the process and policy not being followed; it is about our school taking a dip, which it will in many ways,” said Mrs. Packer. “As of August 1 our school goes down, that is a point-blank fact. We have set ourselves up to be the best school on Martha’s Vineyard. We need to have a choice in it as a school committee. It’s not okay how this happened. I am not happy how it went on behind closed doors. It is awful.”
Mr. Weiss announced a series of leadership changes in the public schools two weeks ago. Beginning August 1, Mr. Smith, who has been principal for nine years in Tisbury, will take over as principal of the Oak Bluffs School. John Custer, assistant principal in Tisbury, will move up to become principal at that school. The current Oak Bluffs principal, Carlin Hart, who has been on the job for a year, will return to his former position as assistant principal in Oak Bluffs.
Mr. Weiss was on a previously planned vacation and did not attend the Tisbury school committee meeting this week.
Reached by telephone yesterday, Mr. Weiss defended his approach and said he had no choice but to take quick action.
“I believed the Oak Bluffs School needed stronger leadership than is being provided . . . and it needed leadership quickly,” Mr. Weiss said. Under state law the superintendent has the authority to hire and dismiss principals and administrators in any of the districts he oversees without consulting the school committees.
Mrs. McAndrews, the committee chairman, said she has scheduled a special meeting with the superintendent this Monday at 9 a.m. at his office.
“We had no time to absorb any of this; it’s the process that we are upset about. I need answers. People are coming up to me asking, how did you let this happen?” Mrs. McAndrews said. “I think it could have been handled so much better. This is so out of the norm. What’s the reason for it being handled so differently?”
Robert Tankard, the third member of the school committee, was not present.
But Mr. Smith, who did attend the meeting, attempted to soften the blow in eloquent words penned in an open letter to the school community that he read aloud.
“I have not been compelled by anyone to go to the Oak Bluffs School. Rather, I have been compelled by the circumstances at that school. Leaving the Tisbury School was my extremely difficult choice,” the principal said. “I have voiced my sadness over leaving people that I have come to love. Some might interpret my reluctance to leave the Tisbury School as my being forced to go to the Oak Bluffs School. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am choosing to go to the Oak Bluffs School because I have been asked to do so in a manner that inspires confidence in me that I can be of real help to the children of another town.”
The complete text of the letter is published on the editorial page in today’s edition.
“While we may not know the 400 children in the Oak Bluffs School, they are no different than our children at our school. I feel they deserve the help of somebody. I am honored that Dr. Weiss believes that I am the right person to help by leading that school,” Mr. Smith wrote.
The Oak Bluffs School has struggled to meet the state standards for performance and has earned a label as an under-performing school due to low scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System for the third year in a row.
The Tisbury School was named to Gov. Deval Patrick’s new list of Commendation Schools, the only school on the Vineyard to make the list.
Mr. Smith told the committee he had complete confidence in Mr. Custer’s ability to take the lead at the Tisbury School, and committee members agreed, reserving their anger for Mr. Weiss and the way the matter was handled.
Mr. Weiss could have advertised for the position, which would take six to eight weeks. He said he considered it, but decided against it given the immediate needs at hand.
He reiterated that his decision was based on the strong leadership shown by both Mr. Smith and Mr. Custer.
“My sense was to move Richie to Oak Bluffs and put John in at Tisbury — and neither school would miss a beat,” Mr. Weiss said. “I thought it would be a positive for Oak Bluffs and it wouldn’t be a negative for Tisbury either, it would be a fresh set of eyes if nothing else.”
Mr. Weiss said he told the school committees he was considering making a change over the year, but ultimately did not tell them until a few days leading up to the public announcement because he did not want rumors to swirl.
“I didn’t want this to get out in a typical Vineyard way,” he said. “ I wanted to be able to do this quickly and as nicely as possible.”
In the end his decision came down to the betterment of both schools.
“I believe both schools will prosper in this decision, and that was important to me,” he said. “I didn’t want to make one whole and destroy the other. I have two outstanding young administrators, different but both will do a fine job. I have faith in both of them to move forward without batting an eye.”