By Barry H. Hendrix
Parents and family members of students in the Thomasville City Schools District had an informal discussion June 29 on the hiring of faculty with members of the Thomasville City Board of Education.
The discussion was held after a special called board meeting ended in the Thomasville High School library.
The discussion began with a letter read by Jennifer Stephens, a mother of two students in the school district. She is also the wife of coach and teacher Russell Stephens, an employee in the school district.
“I would like to express my concern for our system,” Stephens said. “My children have been in our system for going on 10 years.
Included in her letter, “I am greatly disappointed to see time-and-time again we are filling open positions with ‘outsiders’ instead of using the existing educators we already have in place. We have teachers applying for positions with many years of experience, but we aren’t giving them the chance to better themselves while staying with their students whom they have invested in already.
“…I think our board members need to have tough conversations with the teachers and families that are leaving; and need to walk the halls of our school buildings while having talks with existing teachers and families,” Stephens said.
“Are we doing anything to try and figure out why they (the teachers) are leaving?” asked parent Perla Norris, who has three children in the school district. “…Why are they seeking other options?”
“I think a huge part of learning comes from trust,” said parent Jessica Crocker, who will have a senior at Thomasville High School during the upcoming school year. Children pay attention to teacher turnover, she said. “It’s people who they have established relationships with. It makes it hard for them (the child) to trust. Kids have got so many things being thrown at them. They need to have that trust. They need to be able to talk to a teacher…and know that person is invested in them. It’s hard to do that when someone is in-and-out of a seat every other year.
“My concern is for our children…and what they are…seeing as a system as a whole.” Crocker was concerned that it might be hard to attract good teachers when they see constant change.
“It’s important was us to hear what our community has to say,” said school board member Martha Gramelspacher. The parents who spoke out at the meeting are very active in PTO, she said. “They are very involved with the school.” She also encouraged other parents to get involved.
Gramelspacher has encouraged the school system to have exit interviews with teachers resigning. Garth Moss, Thomasville School superintendent, said that the system does talk to faculty who are leaving. The loss of teachers can have an effect on the perception of the system, she said.
“We would like to hear some of your ideas that can make things better,” said board member Marshall Pritchett.
Norris asked if parents could be a part of the interview process for faculty. By state law, board members only approve or disapprove the written hiring recommendations of the school superintendent. The candidates for employment are vetted by the superintendent and the particular principal. “There are procedures…and policies in place,” Gramelspacher said. “All things have to be done by the book.”
Board member Jim Davis encouraged parents to bring their concerns to the school superintendent Moss. Pritchett also encouraged parents to have their concerns put on the formal agenda for a future board meeting.
According to board policy, “any person or group desiring to be placed on the agenda shall file with the superintendent, by twelve o’clock (12:00) noon at least seven (7) working days prior to a meeting, a request to be placed thereon. Such request shall contain the following information: A. The name and address of the person making the request; B. The organization or group, if any, represented; C. Content of the information to be presented - if written material is to be passed out, a copy of such material shall accompany the request; D. An estimate of the time necessary for such a discussion; E. Specific action desired of the Thomasville City Board of Education.”
The next school board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on July 21 in the THS library.
“Everything is done through policy and procedure,” said Sharon Buford, school board president. When the system loses a teacher, it may be a case where they are trying to better themselves. “It’s their decision. It’s our decision to listen to them and give them the opportunity to stay if they want to.
“…I think we have a good board. The board goes on policy and procedure.” The board considers candidates “who have been vetted by people we have hired and put in place to do the interviews. …We still have the opportunity, if we’re not comfortable, we can vet them ourselves.”
Stephens said she wanted the school board members to be “more involved” in the hiring process. Buford said the board members don’t work in the school system. The board members are appointed by the Thomasville City Council, and are not paid for their service. Buford described the board members as “advocates” for the schools. She did not believe the board members should micro-manage what the superintendent and principals are hired to do. “They know what we need,” Buford said. “They know what is a good fit, and then they present it to us.”
Confidentiality is also crucial when someone is applying for a faculty position with the local school district, Buford said. The names of personnel being considered are not released to the public until the person is approved at a board meeting.
“I will say this about our hiring – I think we are pretty open with what we do,” said superintendent Moss. “Many of our principals use committees, which include teachers. If it is a special ed hire, Ms. (Donna Calhoun, special education coordinator) is included in that. …It’s almost impossible for a board member to do that. First of all - it is not a part of their job. Second of all, if they are going to choose to do that, which they have a right to do, they have to be there for every single interview. They can’t just come to one interview.
“…I think our folks do a great job of vetting these people, calling references and checking with past principals, to make sure that the people we are hiring are quality people. I think we bend over backwards to make sure we are putting the best applicant we can into a position.”
Stephens said many parents believe they cannot speak at a school board meeting, but the board members encouraged parents to have their issues placed on the board meeting agenda. “We welcome anyone,” Buford said. “…As long as I have been on the board, I cannot remember a time where we told someone that they cannot say anything.
“…Call somebody and tell them to come. We want this room to be filled, but we need to have it (the particular issue) on the agenda.”
“I would love to hear what you have to say,” said board member Pritchett.
“We do appreciate the parents of the Thomasville city system – all that you do,” Buford said. “You pulled us through when we had to let school out, when the governor called for a State of Emergency. We do appreciate that. We cannot say that enough.
“And we’re ready to go with this new school season. We don’t know if we’re going to jump in there and jump back out. It’s going to take all of us to work together to get through this (the coronavirus pandemic). …We appreciate your concerns. Your concerns just might be the spark for the community. We always welcome community and parents’ engagement. …We need that spark. We need that fire back. I’m depending on you.”
Etta Wicker, a grandmother of two children at THS, attended the June 29 meeting but did not speak during the discussion.
School board member Dr. Jerry Schreiner was not present at the called board meeting.