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Gifford principal sharply criticized in teacher survey

Photo: Gifford Middle School, which many island students attend.

After Vero Beach 32963 revealed serious problems with student discipline and teacher turnover at Gifford Middle School, District Superintendent Mark Rendell rushed to the defense of Gifford Principal Roxanne Decker, providing the School Board with copies of a survey he said showed teacher support for her.

Rendell said there was a 66-percent response rate to the survey, which was sent out by Decker, with 36 out of 55 teachers participating.

But there were noticeable problems with the undated, 6-question survey. While it was supposed to be anonymous, teachers had to enter an identifying code to get online to fill out the document.  There were no questions that asked specifically about Decker’s performance.  And no space was provided for written comments. 

Rendell did not supply the School Board with the results of another, more comprehensive survey that paint a devastating picture of conditions at Gifford Middle School, and constitute a serious indictment of Decker.

Conducted at the end of the last school year by the Indian River County Education Association, this survey included 16 questions and was specifically designed to elicit feedback from teachers on their principals. Thirty out of 55 teachers at Gifford responded, many of them slamming Decker in harsh terms.

The survey was conducted at 20 other Indian River County schools in addition to Gifford Middle, and Decker received far more negative comments than any other principal.

The prompt, “This administrator uses multiple sources of data, including staff input, to make informed decisions,” resulted in 11 “rarely” and six “never” responses out of 30, and elicited 14 negative written comments, including this one:

“This principal is extraordinarily anti-teacher. She does not value staff input/opinions and regularly goes against teachers’ input or suggestions. The mass exodus of SKILLED teachers over the years supports this statement.” (Gifford has lost approximately 20 percent of its teachers so far this school year.)

The prompt, “This administrator resolves problems using a variety of problem-solving techniques,” resulted in half, or 15 respondents, responding “rarely” or “never.” Nine teachers wrote negative comments, including these:

“She seems to follow unquestioningly anything sent down from the . . .  [district administration] office. She denies that there are problems when faculty presents concerns and she lashes out at those who speak up. Faculty is overwhelmingly afraid of retaliation for speaking up. This administrator is a bully and has become dangerous.”

“She fires teachers and goes directly to the district level prior to ever confronting the teacher.”

“This administrator routinely undermines staff, refuses to listen and continuously refuses to address student behavior on any meaningful level.”

Twelve teachers responded “never” or “rarely” when asked if Decker “provides and/or facilitates teacher support on corrective student behavior methods to promote a positive learning environment,” and there were 12 negative written comments on the topic, including these:

“Mrs. Decker is not in the ‘trenches’ with correcting student behavior . . . I have seen her disregard students who have gone to her to express they are being bullied, slapped and slandered.”

“Repeat offenders return to cause the same disturbances . . . Guidance counselors are becoming test administrators and not available to counsel students . . . The Alternative School is empty when more students belong there for a time and the code of conduct is too lenient.”

“She has been known to cancel detentions when a parent calls, not supporting the teacher. This does nothing to promote morale . . .  [at the same time] we have been asked to brag about all the wonderful things we do here at GMS.”

A second question having to do with school safety asked whether, “This administrator develops and/or implements procedures that promote a safe school environment.”  Fourteen out of 30 teachers responded “rarely” or “never,” and there were 14 negative written comments:

“We need a principal who is stricter with students . . . Students yell profanities at teachers, are allowed on campus wearing ankle bracelets due to criminal activity, are given lenient discipline for major infractions . . . No wonder our teachers are leaving!”

“Students know they run the school.”

“The students run GMS with no consequences.”

“I feel that the students at GMS are out of control and their chaos causes an unsafe environment. Likewise there are far too many students wandering around during classes unsupervised. Car and bus duty are both understaffed and I fear that a student is going to be seriously hurt.”

“This has gone from an unfriendly, accusatory workplace to a dangerous, hostile work environment and this administrator should be removed from her position. . . Would love to elaborate but fear retaliation.”

The prompt, “This administrator maintains honesty in all professional dealings and doesn’t make malicious or intentionally false statements about a colleague,” drew eight “rarely” or “never” responses, about 30 percent, and there were the same number of comments:

“Our teachers are not safe – she has been known to fabricate situations that never occurred.”

“We have the lowest morale at this school I have ever seen.”

“I have been lied to and have heard many reports of others being lied to or about.”

“Mrs. Decker does not treat the teachers equally. She goes after certain teachers. It is very uncomfortable to witness it.”

“She would tell teachers to change student grades if the parents wanted it to happen.”

The prompt, “This administrator maintains a professional, respectful manner when communicating with teachers,” garnered 11 negative written comments and only five answers of “always” out of 30 participants.

Responses to this prompt included:

“Roxanne Decker promotes negativity. She tries to play her teaches against one another, but fails. She is a malicious person who has no business being in an administrative position working with our youth.”

“There are so many great teachers and staff at GMS but we are losing people more and more. She is driving out some of our best. They are leaving because of her, whether or not they tell her this face to face. Our school has been destroyed . . .  How many more of us have to leave before things change? I would be embarrassed by the numbers who have left if I was in charge. It is a travesty what she has done to our school.”

Rendell and school board members were asked to explain the disparity between Decker’s personal survey and the teachers’ union survey.  Neither Rendell nor any of the School Board members responded.

What steps are being taken with Decker and to improve school safety also went unanswered by the board and superintendent. Decker also chose not to comment.