Greencastle school issues dominate City Council session
Concern over ongoing issues within the Greencastle Community School Corporation dominated discussion at the Greencastle City Council meeting Tuesday night.
Worry over employee and teacher turnover, overall morale of teachers and students and how the school situation reflects on the community as a whole were raised three separate times during the December Council meeting at City Hall.
At the conclusion of the 80-minute meeting, City Council President Adam Cohen made a recommendation that the school board not extend GCSC Superintendent Lori Richmond's contract as is being proposed under the so-called "evergreen clause."
"The Greencastle Common Council, while expressing no views on job performance, wishes to recommend to the school board that the current superintendent contract not be extended by what is commonly called an evergreen clause at this time," Cohen's motion read.
Cohen said he was "simply saying at this moment in time, at this juncture," it shouldn't be done.
The administrator's contract is not about to expire, so extending it would be "an illogical move," Cohen reasoned, and his fellow Council members agreed in a unanimous vote.
City Attorney Laurie Hardwick reminded the audience that the motion was "just a recommendation."
"We understand we don't have jurisdiction," she said, although the City Council actually appoints two of the five members of the school board (currently Denise Sigworth and Bill Tobin).
Nonetheless, Council member Phyllis Rokicki stressed, "this is not something the five of us just decided." She said the recommendation was "based on the frustrations" Council members have been hearing from parents, teachers and community members at large.
"People in our city are hurting," Rokicki, a retired schoolteacher herself, said.
One of those apparently hurting is Greencastle High School junior Carly Rhine, who came to Tuesday's meeting to urge the City Council to do something about the school issue before it is too late.
"It goes beyond school," she said during the public comments portion of the agenda.
Greencastle Schools have "literally become the laughing stock of Putnam County," Rhine said, pointing out that Facebook and social media remarks from students in the other county schools have basically said, "it's too bad" about the demise of Greencastle Schools.
Rhine ended her remarks by noting that students "are still waiting for one of those decisions to be made in the best interests of students" as promised.
"This just shows how deep our problems are," Councilman Cohen commented, noting how unusual it was for a student to feel compelled to "come forward with a plea for help" to the City Council.
Cohen was the most outspoken of the Council members on the evening, using time during the Council reports section to read a prepared statement relative to the school issue.
"Over the summer, members of this Council and I expressed frustration with the status of the Greencastle school district," he began. "We said we were concerned about the morale of the employees, the high turnover rate, and the lack of what we saw as transparency.
"We offered some recommendations to the board," Cohen continued. "I wish I could sit here tonight and say that I feel as if our comments were considered."
Since the Council's letter to the school board, Cohen noted, the board has had "one short meeting with the public where the superintendent asked for public input. At that meeting, all questions had to be in writing with names signed to it. How can a parent or an employee feel free to speak or to express their concerns in that situation?"
"They have failed to meet basic laws on public access, and suppressed constructive criticism," he charged. "This situation has led to our city being ridiculed on television (news). We watched the school board president run from a reporter and the superintendent drive away in her car.
"A more appropriate response," he said, "would be to tell the reporter that mistakes have been made, but that the school is working hard to improve its procedures. Let's be clear, the Greencastle School Board was in violation. But their response was to publicly criticize the citizen who filed the complaints. Intimidation and bullying of citizens who hold us accountable is not acceptable by any public official."
Cohen also pointed to the recent resignation of GHS Principal Jennifer Shepherd as perpetuating "the revolving door for the high school position."
"I am concerned," the Council president said in his statement, "of the deleterious effect it will have on the current high school seniors," who have now experienced four principals during their GHS careers (Shepherd, Randy Corn, Russ Hesler and now Tamra Walker).
Cohen also took issue with how the appointed board is apportioned.
"Another fact people may not realize is that despite the fact that the overwhelming numbers -- approximately 70 percent -- of students are from Greencastle, Greencastle appointments comprise only 40 percent of the board.
"Even more troubling," he said, is that "when a person appointed by the city leaves the board (as Monica Fennell did when Tobin replaced her), they are replaced by the school board, not the Council. In effect, the three non-Greencastle appointments get to tell the people elected by the citizens of Greencastle who our representative is."
Cohen did point to recent successes in the schools, including improvement to the middle school state grade and overall scores of GCSC schools. He also commended the school board for visiting each of the schools last week to listen to teachers and staff concerns.
However, Cohen stressed, "there have to be changes."
"These are my opinions," he said, "but they are based on my observations and the many, many people who have contacted me and other members of the Council, hoping that we somehow had jurisdiction over the schools."
Cohen concluded by saying, "It is time we came together as a community to arrive at solutions to rectify these problems ... We need to look at current structures and personnel. We can affect change. It is in the best interest of the staff, the teachers, the community as a whole, and most importantly, our students."
Cohen advised the Council that he was sending a copy of his resolution and his overall statement to city appointees on the school board, which meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday (tonight) in the Ridpath Primary School cafeteria.