Superintendent, principal spar at public meeting

John Thompson • Apr 4, 2013 at 10:42 PM

ELIZABETHTON — A large and vocal crowd made it clear Thursday night that West Side Elementary Principal Doug Mitchell has their support and they want him to remain as principal next year.

Elizabethton School Superintendent Ed Alexander has recommended that Mitchell be moved to another position next year. He said the decision is not final, and he was getting input from the audience during the meeting and later from the 23 others on the administrative staff of the school system before a final decision is reached. He said there were other matters he would discuss with the school board.

Although there were some highly emotional moments, the meeting was orderly. There were two occasions where Mitchell and Alexander got into short, but loud, shouting arguments.

Alexander had scheduled the meeting and began by laying out his reasons for moving Mitchell as principal next year, after five years in the position.

These reasons included a lack of communication, failure to record discipline, consistent complaints from parents about a lack of accessibility, failure to be accessible by phone to supervisors, failure to address clear and repeated direction on personnel, building concerns and homework overkill, a failure to “get back to me” on numerous issues, failure to address issues that could lead to lawsuits and failure to become a “integral part of our administrative team.”

After hearing from several citizens, Alexander’s plan to respond to the comments changed when Mitchell stood at a separate podium and shouted that while Alexander often visited the school, he had not sat down in the classroom to observe instruction.

When Alexander began to speak again, Mitchell told him “don’t you forget, you are in my building.” He then said “I am going to respond to every mistruth you come up with.”

That confrontation encouraged even more people to make comments and there were few further confrontations between Alexander and Mitchell for the rest of the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, most of the citizens commented on Mitchell’s obvious love for the children or Alexander’s reasons for removing Mitchell. Many said the reasons were too vague and there was no way to measure improvement. Others said they thought that verbal and written warnings should have been given to Mitchell before taking the drastic step of removing him.

Mitchell denied some of the reasons, displaying a telephone log for three months that he said included 84 calls on his personal cell phone to the central office. He said he also had a stack of emails in which he had corresponded with administrative staff. He said it was Alexander who had failed to respond to his emails about an awards recognition.

Later in the meeting, some possible underlying motives were mentioned by the citizens who spoke. Some said Mitchell was being moved because he was from outside the community.

Retired Supervisor Addy Hyder responded to that accusation by saying she had worked for the system for 34 years and she had once been friends with Alexander. She said he “turned on me” and told her “you are not from here, this is my town.”

As the meeting went on, Mitchell said the “root of the problem” was a personnel request he ignored. He said there were some employees Alexander wanted removed and asked him to take care of it. Mitchell said he did not approve of the removals and ignored them. He said Alexander “didn’t need my permission” to make the changes.

As those comments were sinking in, a woman in the crowd said “I am the one. I am the one they want to get rid of and that is the bottom of it.”

The woman was Peggy Moore, the school’s bookkeeper. She said she had been an employee for 16.5 years.

At one point, a speaker compared Alexander’s current position to the one he experienced when he was removed as principal at Elizabethton High School by then-Director of Schools David Roper. That ended with a recall election that unseated two school board members and led to Roper being replaced at the top by Alexander.

Alexander said there was one key difference. He said Roper had dismissed him in June, when there was little chance of finding a new position. He said that he was acting earlier in the academic year to give Mitchell a chance to pursue other administrative positions outside Elizabethton.

One citizen said he planned to start a petition to have Alexander removed. Alexander said that was the man’s right.

When one citizen asked if there were any thing the audience could do to affect the final decision on Mitchell, Alexander told the audience they had.

“I think I got the message,” Alexander told them.

At the close, some in the audience thanked Alexander for setting up the forum even though he knew he would be the target of crowd anger.

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