Students in the cafeteria at the Sustainability Academy in 2013.
Burlington parents are circulating a petition contending the hiring process for a new principal at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes was rushed and undemocratic. They want the school board to go with an interim administrator and delay a hiring decision set to be finalized Tuesday night.
The school board will be asked to confirm the hiring of Lashawn Whitmore-Sells as a permanent principal earning $101,000 at the elementary school on North Street, which is one of two magnet schools in the city.
Parents, including Tiffany Tillman, vice president of the school PTO and one of the petition organizers, say school officials ignored suggestions by parents who were asked to help with the hiring process. "They give their feedback, they make a recommendation and then that recommendation is completely unheard," Tillman said. "So it feels like a very token effort on their part, sort of a charade of democracy."
Perhaps school officials already had their mind made up about who should be hired, she added. "Maybe the writing was on the wall with their decision before we really began this process,” said Tillman, who has two children at the school. About 100 people had signed the petition by Tuesday morning, less than a day after it started circulating online, Tillman said.
Whitmore-Sells is the right person for the job and should be confirmed without delay, said Burlington interim superintendent of schools Howard Smith in an email. "With her background and track record from her previous work in our school district over a number of years, there was no need to go with an interim appointment," it said.
Whitmore-Sells did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She's an assistant principal at Camel's Hump Middle School in Richmond and prior to that worked as a teacher and administrator in the Burlington schools, as well as other districts. Last year, teachers at Hunt Middle School protested when Whitmore-Sells was passed over for a permanent administrator job there while working as an interim assistant principal at the school.
Race was an element of that public discussion. Whitmore-Sells is black. Several of Whitmore-Sells' supporters at Hunt noted Burlington's growing student diversity. They said that makes it important to bring more racial diversity to the mostly white administration and faculty in the schools, and that it was unfortunate to see a talented black administrator not get the permanent job at Hunt.
Tillman said the petition is not about Whitmore-Sells, but about a process that did not bring candidates forward with sufficient experience to lead the magnet school. The school launched six years ago in what was a high-poverty neighborhood school. Enrollment is now open to students across the city. The academy emphasizes community service and environmentalism.
“I think we want to be really clear that this is not about Lashawn," Tillman said. "Maybe the district is making it about her but for us it's really about the process."
Former Sustainability Academy principal Brian Williams took a medical leave in spring and has decided to leave the principal's office. He'll go back to teaching English at Burlington High School in the fall. Williams declined to comment on the hiring process at Sustainability Academy but praised the people associated with the school. He said he was ill but getting better and looking forward to teaching again.
"I enjoyed my time as an administrator in the Burlington School District but want to end my career doing what I love the most — teaching," he said in an email. He said he was honored to have had the opportunity to work at the SA, adding "the faculty, staff, students and community are among the finest I have ever worked with and that the mission of the school is inspiring and will continue to evolve in incredible ways."