CHAPEL HILL - Two Chapel Hill High School teachers will contend in court that their involuntary transfers came as retribution for drafting petitions calling for the removal of school administrators, among other reasons.
Superintendent Thomas Forcella’s office and a vice principal at the school say this isn’t true, and that involuntary transfers are common in school districts throughout the state and the country.
Late in the 2010-11 school year, Honors English teacher Anne Thompson proposed that her colleagues write a letter asking that Assistant Principal Kevin Kay be removed from supervising the English Department, after one of the department’s teachers filed a grievance against him.
The letter was written and signed by 13 of 14 members of the department, Thompson said. Kay was not the department’s supervisor during the 2011-12 school year.
Kay said he never discussed transferring Thompson or A.P. Biology teacher Bert Wartski prior to the teachers’ unsuccessful appeal to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board last month and coverage of the transfers in the news media.
“No,” he said. “Dr. Forcella never came out and said, ‘who to transfer?’
“The decision to transfer teachers was not mine,” Kay continued. “Did he consult with me? We met. He asked me a couple questions about the climate and culture at Chapel Hill High.”
Wartski said he believes he is being transferred because of private conversations he had with Forcella in which he criticized Chapel Hill High’s principal at the time, Jesse Dingle.
Wartski also circulated a petition seeking Dingle’s ouster as principal, which he says was signed on condition of anonymity by 40 of the school’s faculty members.
Wartski said he told Forcella of the petition, but that because of guarantees made to some of the petition’s signers, he would not show it to him. His lawyer confirms the document exists.
“I am in possession of the file that contains the signatures,” attorney Trey Tanner said. “I’m constrained by what he agreed to do, which is keep those in confidence.”
Tanner, who is representing both teachers, said they will take their appeals to Orange County Superior Court.
Thompson also feuded with Dingle over what she said was the improper use of an online course in which a student was enrolled as insurance against failing her English class.
Dingle left Chapel Hill High at the end of the 2012 school year to take a job at John Handley High School in Winchester, Va. The district is interviewing candidates for his replacement.School ‘culture’
Forcella met with Wartski and other teachers to discuss issues at Chapel Hill High School. During those conversations, the “culture” of the school came up, and Wartski said Forcella cited the teacher’s criticism of Dingle during Wartski’s closed-session appeal before the school board.
“They weren’t meetings, we just met for coffee,” said Jason Curtis, who taught A.P. Physics and coached soccer. Curtis said he was present for at least two of those discussions over coffee.
“Half of our conversations were about what we should do as a school,” Curtis said. “We were actually encouraged by those meetings.”
“Things would come up,” Curtis continued. “There was an issue that came up with a teacher and the principal, and we brought it to Dr. Forcella’s attention.”
Curtis said that although Dingle’s leadership was discussed, it was in the course of informing Forcella about a number of issues at the school, and that Wartski did not have a personal vendetta.
“So many people on that faculty have used Bert to say what they need to say,” said Susan Oliver, who was head of the English department at Chapel Hill High School.
Oliver, who wrote the letter requesting Kay’s removal as the English department’s supervisor, said she was privy to a grievance that another English teacher filed against Kay during the 2010-2011 school year. The teacher objected to Kay’s sharing details of her job performance review with other teachers.
Kay said Tuesday he was disappointed by Dingle’s decision to remove him, but hopeful to work again with the English Department this coming year. He said he felt that his relationships with the English teachers were for the most part repaired and he praised the faculty.Leadership issues
Kay, who entered Chapel Hill High School during the first semester of the 2010-11 school year, discussed his own first impressions of the school’s “culture,” something that has often been cited in reference to the transfers.
“As a member of this leadership team, I fully acknowledge that there were some leadership issues,” Kay said. “I think that was a piece of it. I think there was a level of mistrust that existed from … I’d say from a few people in the building. And that that distrust manifested itself sometimes in inappropriate fashion.”
It was after the grievance was heard that Thompson suggested writing the letter that led to Kay’s removal.
“I think this impacts what’s being done to Anne,” Oliver said. “But we don’t know, because she’s never been told.”
Thompson and Wartski were two of about 15 teachers in the district who received involuntary transfers for the upcoming school year.
“This is something that is commonplace in districts throughout the state and throughout the country,” Forcella said. “I’ve never seen a reaction like this.”
“I’ve really been surprised at the amount of legs this has had in the news media and on Facebook,” Kay said. “I’ve heard from a number of teachers, from some people who are supportive of these transfers and some people who are not supportive.”
Forcella said the school district is entering a period of change as North Carolina Common Core state standards are adopted as the new model of teaching. Coaches have been hired to train teachers in new methods of instruction.
“You can’t be effective in doing that if the culture that exists in the schools is less than positive,” Forcella said. “I’m not saying that (the transferred teachers) wouldn’t do that, but understand, I made decisions based on what I understand was the culture of the school, which had been an issue for many, many years.”