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No reason for ouster of Beachland principal

Photo: Beachland Elementary principal, Caroline Barker at a School board meeting.

It wasn't too long ago that Schools Superintendent Mark Rendell tried to fire a successful, respected and beloved teacher at Sebastian River High for doing exactly what his job required him to do.

Fortunately, a state administrative law judge stopped him, mocking Rendell's wrongheaded allegations in what most of us saw was a trumped-up case, and strongly recommending that the School Board return the teacher to the classroom.

Now, Rendell is at it again, this time firing Caroline Barker, the successful, respected and beloved Beachland Elementary School principal who, throughout her two decades as an educator in this district, has done exactly what her job required her to do.

And, again, somebody needs to stop him.

The School Board, thus far, has shown no inclination to do so. For some inexplicable reason, the people elected to represent us have chosen to stand by their man instead of standing up for what's right.

Maybe it's a lack of conviction. Maybe it's a lack of courage. Either way, it's now up to us. It's up to the people of this community to remind board members that we put them there. It's up to you to change their minds and correct Rendell's mind-boggling mistake.

Technically, Barker wasn't fired. Her contract wasn't renewed. But the result is the same: As of July 1, she'll no longer be the principal at Beachland, or even a district employee.

Unless she gets rehired by the district – she has applied for principal positions at another elementary school and middle school, as well as an opening for a high school assistant principal – she'll be out of a job.

Probably, with her impressive credentials, she wouldn't be unemployed for long. Surely, someone in a neighboring county would be smart enough to hire her. It would be their gain and our loss.

Rendell, whose two years as superintendent have been marked by an alarming run of district controversy, has told one of the best principals on Florida's Treasure Coast that she's no longer wanted here.

That's not only wrong; it makes no sense. Barker isn't merely very good at her job, but she's also a credit to our community. This move should make all of us, including the members of our School Board, wonder whether someone else should be making these decisions.

Worse than Rendell's decision, though, was the way he broke the news to Barker, who received a two-paragraph letter, dated May 16, that stated: "I will not be recommending the renewal of your contract for the 2017-2018 school year."

The second paragraph informed her that her job-related benefits would be terminated on June 30 and she would be receiving COBRA information for any health, dental or vision plans in which she participated.

There was no expression of appreciation for her years of service, no acknowledgement of her accomplishments, no explanation as to why her contract was not renewed.

Surely, after 22 years as a teacher and administrator, Barker deserved more than two lousy paragraphs – a cold, impersonal, plug-in-the-name form letter.

She deserved advanced notice that her job was in jeopardy. At the very least, she was owed some reason for her non-renewal.

Rendell's handling of her dismissal was as gutless as it was disgraceful. It was well beneath what we should expect and demand from our school district. And if we allow him to get away with this, then shame on us, too.

Contacted by phone, Barker said she did not wish to comment on her situation.

District sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, said Barker can't comment because she doesn't want to hurt her chances of getting rehired here – or getting a good reference that she might need to get hired elsewhere.

Fortunately, others have rushed to her defense and have spoken on her behalf.

Last week, 28 members of Beachland's faculty and staff sent a letter to the School Board, stating that they were "stunned and concerned" by Rendell's decision to not renew Barker's contract and "wish to have her remain at our school."

The letter, acknowledging that a school's "success" is now "measured in terms of data and test scores," cited Florida Department of Education and district statistics to bolster the teachers' case.

Beachland had the "highest gains in the entire district this academic year," the letter read, crediting the school's performance to Barker's leadership.

"A school is defined by the climate that it creates due to the leadership of the principal, as well as the performance of the faculty and staff," the teachers and staff wrote, adding, "Our students love school because of the climate we have."

The letter also described the May 15 emergency meeting, called by Rendell to inform Beachland's faculty and staff of his decision – a session at which he was asked why Barker would not be back.

According to the letter: "Dr. Rendell replied that he did not have to get into the reasons for his decision and would not discuss them. However, he indicated by using hand gestures that we did not meet his level of expectation. The faculty was left feeling that we had failed our students."

The letter closed with Beachland's faculty and staff referring to the school as a family, stating that, "Caroline Barker has always put children first and has always been there for them, as well as for her teachers."

If that show of loyalty and devotion doesn't move you, maybe this one will.

Margaret Ingram – the 1988 Florida Teacher of the Year and Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education who spent 29 of her 35 years in the district at Beachland – was so disturbed by Rendell's decision to dump Barker that she felt compelled to speak at last week's School Board meeting.

There, she praised Barker's efforts and her school's success despite a "significant change in the diverse make-up of the students Beachland serves," and asked the board to reconsider the move.

Ingram pointed out that, in 2016, the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches at Beachland increased to 53 percent – up from 38 percent when Barker became the school's principal five years ago.

"We know that there is a direct correlation between economically disadvantaged students and performance," Ingram told the board, adding, "Yet Mrs. Barker and her team weathered this change and pressed forward with fervor and innovation."

Ingram noted that Beachland, which also is undergoing a massive reconstruction project that causes considerable disruption to normal school activities, remains among the highest-scoring elementary schools in the district.

"Even in the face of recent change brought on by shifting demographics in student population, Beachland has remained steadfast in its mission," Ingram said. "And for the last five years, Caroline Barker has led the charge."

She reminded board members of the "effective" evaluations Barker received throughout her five years as Beachland's principal and the "highly effective" rating she received for the 2015-16 school year.

"I would not be here tonight if I did not think that she deserved another chance to continue championing the uphill battle of making the students at Beachland among the brightest 21st-century learners," Ingram said.

Schools sources said Barker also has received strong support – through phone calls and emails to the district and School Board offices – from parents who were surprised and upset by the news Barker had been fired.

One such email was sent to Rendell by Cliff Melvin, pastor of Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church, who wrote on May 18 that he has known Barker since she was an assistant principal at Beachland. He expressed "deep concerns and sadness" upon learning of Barker's ouster.

"I have observed her interaction with the faculty, staff, parents and students," Melvin wrote. "She is a person of deep integrity and personal caring for the children in her care. She is respected by her team.

"I am in shock that her contract was not renewed and that, at minimum, another position was not offered to her," he added. "As a leader and manager of people for over 35 years, it is difficult to understand an employer's decision to release an employee when they have had very fine reviews.

"If there is any way to change this decision or find her another position within the county school system, where she has devoted a great deal of her life, many people in this community would be appreciative."

Rendell's response?

"Making a change in leadership at any school or department is an extremely tough decision," Rendell wrote in a May 21 reply that was copied to Barker. "I do value the effort that Mrs. Barker has put in at Beachland and throughout her career in the school district. She will be duly considered for other positions in the district."

Let's hope so.

Let's hope Barker gets more than considered. Let's hope she gets one of the jobs for which she has applied. Better yet: Let's make sure our School Board makes sure we don't lose a valuable educator, especially when no reason was given for getting rid of her.

For the record: Rendell did say at last week's School Board meeting that any changes in leadership are made "based on what we think is best for the school," that "a lot of factors" are considered, and that such decisions are not "made in a vacuum."

He did not specifically address the decision to not renew Barker's contract, however. Also, he did not respond to my emails, sent to his administrative and executive assistants, requesting a comment on the matter.

Perhaps he was too busy. Or maybe he doesn't deem us worthy of an explanation.

I mean, who are we to question his decisions?

Sure, we pay his six-figure salary, but does that mean we have a right to know why he decided to fire a successful, respected and wildly popular principal who devoted the past 22 years of her life to educating our children?

"That's his job," School Board Chairman Charles Searcy said of Rendell's authority to make personnel decisions. "We trust him."

But should we?

Should we trust that Rendell had compelling reasons for making this decision, even if he won't share them with us?

Should we trust his judgment, despite some of his previous decisions, including his ridiculous push to fire Sebastian River High School teacher Joe Nathaniel, who physically subdued a classroom thug?

Is it possible that Rendell is right and everyone else is wrong?

Apparently, the members of our School Board think so. Now it's time to tell them what we think.