Thursday, April 26, 2012

The mystery of disappearing principals

The families of Polo Ridge Elementary are living the latest installment of an ongoing mystery series in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:  "What happened to our principal?"

After a confusing communique from fill-in administrators at the south suburban school, CMS officials explained that Principal Patricia Riska had recently been sent on a special assignment to help evaluate teachers, while Assistant Principal Cassandra Gregory had been reassigned to Eastover Elementary.

Things got even odder today,  when someone discovered that Riska was listed as a principal at West Charlotte High on the school's web site, along with Principal Shelton Jefferies. Spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said Riska's special assignment is at West Charlotte, but she's not serving as a principal there.

Rumors are flying,  and people are asking why the Observer is accepting an official explanation that's clearly incomplete.  Some have suggested it's due to staff shortages here.

There's some truth to that.  CMS is seeing an unusual level of churn among administrators at its 159 schools this year,  and we could probably keep all our reporters busy checking out the changes.  Even when a principal retires,  there are often questions about what led up to the decision.

But the bigger issue is this:  There's a limit to what reporters can get  --  and what CMS can release --  when it comes to personnel issues.  N.C. law makes personnel files confidential.  CMS must disclose  promotions, demotions, suspensions and transfers,  but officials don't have to give explanations.  At Polo Ridge,  Stalberte has said only that the moves were not for disciplinary reasons.

We generally run checks of public records on lawsuits and arrests when questions are swirling about a school situation.  In this case,  as in most,  nothing popped up.

With unlimited staff time,  we could call everyone who might have heard something.  But without records to confirm or refute rumors,  we might just end up with a thick stack of unusable notes.

It's frustrating,  I know.  Principals play such a vital role in schools and communities that people legitimately want to know whether they've been treated right by their bosses,  or whether CMS is withholding information about incidents that affect the school or its students.  I wish there were a better way to get the answers without violating the confidentiality of employees  -- or the law.

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