Principal protest—Students, parents challenge school board actions
About 35 parents and students showed up for a meeting that never took place at the Lumpkin County Board of Education early Monday morning.
And though the person under discussion was not listed on the agenda for the 7 a.m. called meeting, everyone in the room knew it was about Lumpkin County High School principal Billy Kirk.
A public outcry erupted last week when word got out that Kirk had turned in his resignation to the school board.
Rumors surrounding the reason for the move prompted students to stage a walk-out as local Facebook pages blew up with concerned questions and comments.
Getting through to the school system’s administrative offices was nearly impossible throughout the day Wednesday, due to the number of calls coming in. And a petition on Change.org to prevent Kirk from leaving reached and exceeded 200 signatures in less than five minutes.
As of press-time the list had grown to 1,300. On Wednesday afternoon, the student walk-out turned into a walk-into-the-gym in support of Kirk.
Joseph Thomas, a sophomore who plays on the Indians football team, organized the event, which was attended by 200-plus students.
It was not, however, attended by parents or the press at Kirk’s direction.
Both Superintendent of Schools Rob Brown and Associate Superintendent Sharon Head were out of town at training.
“The school has afforded the students the opportunity to be inside and congregate and have a voice,” said Shannon Christian, Chief Financial Officer, who met people at the doors to the school, “but we are not allowing any media inside. It is the principal’s desire to have a normal school day.”
Christian directed media to the School Board Administrative Offices’ parking lot—about a quarter-of-a-mile away. He also asked that reporters not speak with any students or parents in the upper level lot.
PRAISE FOR THE PRINCIPAL
After the event, Thomas told The Nugget he was satisfied to stay indoors for the protest for fear a walk-out might have gotten Kirk in trouble.
“We got to say what we wanted to say and get it off our chests,” he said. “We want Billy Kirk to stay. … He’s strict, but he’s the right kind of strict. He loves all the kids—even the trouble makers. Just thinking about him not being here is sad.”
Some parents as well are anxious to see Kirk stay.
Joey McKinzey said if it wasn’t for Kirk, his son Elijah, would be failing this year.
The LCHS senior said he had been struggling, especially with math and English.
“[He] pulled me into his office and asked me if I was OK and why my grades were falling. He told me he wanted to see me walk across the stage, and succeed in life. He spoke to my teachers to see if they would work with me after school and provide me extra credit work,” he said. “He’s the best principal I’ve had, the first one who ever talked to me about classwork, who stops me in the hallway to ask how I’m doing."
Students are not alone in their praise of Kirk.
“The high school has run better in the past two years than in the last 20. My oldest daughter is 24, and I’ve dealt with a lot of principals,” said Donna McKinzey, Elijah’s mom. “Mr. Kirk doesn’t pick and choose, he doesn’t have favorites. He’s fair all the way across the board.”
John Dowdy agrees.
“I owe him everything. My daughter owes him everything,” he said.
Dowdy’s daughter, Rebecca, was having a hard time with school and with her parents during her senior year after turning 18 years old.
“I played softball and I got hurt and softball was taken away from me. I forged my dad’s signature and skipped school and got ISS for the first time,” Rebecca said. “My dad and mom and I were in Mr. Kirk’s office and I told him I wanted to drop out and move out.”
John Dowdy was understandably upset.
“I was bawling,” he said. “Mr. Kirk asked me to give him five minutes. So I went out of the office, and in five minutes my daughter came running out and hugged me and apologized. I don’t know what he said to her and I’ve never asked her what he said. I don’t need to know. But she graduated with honors and is now enrolled in Lanier Tech.”
Rebecca remembered exactly what he said.
“Mr. Kirk told me about his personal experience with sports. He made me see that I didn’t have to drop out. He really showed me that he cared and really encouraged me,” she said. “I believe with all my heart that if he had not had that conversation with me, I would not have graduated with honors—or at all.”
A look at LCHS stats shows an uptick since Kirk took the helm in 2017.
SAT scores went from 1,086 in 2017 to 1,099 in 2018. ACT scores gained 8/10th of a point. Graduation rates are up as well, from 89 percent to 91 percent.
“The overall direction of the high school is on an upward and positive trend,” Brown said. “This is based on my own observations, an avenue for anonymous employee feedback, teacher retention rates and student achievement data.”
Dowdy has been vocal in his support of Kirk.
“If we will stand by and run a man off that has that kind of connection with your kids,” Dowdy said. “ …This community cannot do that. We cannot let small town politics run this man out of Dodge.”
Whether it is small town politics, as Dowdy claimed, or some other reason, the public may never know. Board members are not permitted—by law—to discuss personnel matters. This is as much for the protection of the employee as anything else. A contract that has not been renewed does not look good on a resume, while a resignation is seldom questioned.
What is known is that Monday’s meeting called to discuss a request from Kirk for the board to rescind his letter of resignation began and ended in an unexpected manner, leaving many frustrated, shocked and upset.
Board member Jim McClure made a motion to go into executive session and an upset Craig Poore announced he would not vote to do so.
“I’m livid at the unprofessionalism in our school [Wednesday]. … I am not going into executive session. I will not sit there and talk about this where you [tie] my hands and I can’t speak about it [in public],” he told fellow board members and the crowd.
Without a second to go into executive session Chairman Bobby Self was ready to adjourn the meeting. However, Brown said he had a recommendation to make. He proposed rescinding Kirk’s letter of resignation and keeping him as LCHS’s principal for next school year.
Before Self could ask for a motion, Poore once again interrupted the process as he said he wanted a chance to make his opinion known to the public.
“If Billy Kirk had come to me instead of using and abusing those kids in that building …,” he said, insinuating that the principal had been an organizing force behind the student protest to save his job.
The crowd reacted with shouts.
As Self banged the gavel, Poore explained that he had received phone calls from parents who did not want their children taking part in the student-led assembly.
One young man in a T-shirt with “Keep LCHS Great” written on it made the statement that students “didn’t have to” attend.
When Self asked for a motion on Brown’s recommendation McClure once again spoke up, but there was silence when Self asked for a second.
“So that’s it,” said John Dowdy, standing at the back of the assembly, throwing up his hands.
Dowdy warned the board if the motion died for lack of a second the board would have to answer to the public.
Reaction from the crowd was noisy, and a board member told them there was to be no public input at Monday’s meeting.
The public will be allowed to speak at the regular BOE meeting Monday, April 15, 7 p.m. Citizens must arrive early and sign up to speak.
When asked if they were in favor of Brown’s recommendation to keep Kirk employed both McClure and Mera Turner said they were.
“But we only have authority as a group,” McClure added. “I don’t think we’re doing what’s right in this situation.”
Lynn Sylvester, Poore and Self left the meeting as soon as it was adjourned, but not through the front door, where the foyer remained crowded with those who attended the meeting.
Contacted later, Sylvester said, “Billy Kirk’s name was on the list as resigned, and we approved the list at Dr. Brown’s recommendation. The people elected us and I assumed they trusted us to do what is right and take everything into consideration. I believe I did that. All of us take our job extremely seriously. We don’t make flippant decisions or decisions based on public outcry.”
In a phone interview Poore said he learned during the March 11 executive session that Kirk had tendered his letter of resignation.
“Dr. Brown said he would be recommending to the board to accept the recommendations on the personnel list, and that was on the consent agenda,” he said. “I didn’t see the letter asking us to rescind that until today.”
Kirk’s letter, addressed to Brown and each individual board member, was dated 3/15.
In it he said the past four days had been very stressful, but he came to the decision to request the board to “consider rescinding my resignation …. I have never felt more loved and supported than I have the last five days. … I was given a gift that not many educators ever get to tangibly see—validation for the job I am doing. I am grateful to be here in Dahlonega, and I am hopeful you will provide our students and teachers continuity, stability, and me the opportunity to serve them for years to come as their principal.”
Poore said he feels Kirk has handled the situation improperly.
“If Billy Kirk had changed his mind and wanted to rescind his resignation I would have been more than glad to talk to him,” he said. “But he went around talking to the kids about his personnel issue. I feel kids should never be used like that. It’s a very unfortunate situation—very unprofessional all the way around.”
Meanwhile, Brown said he feels that it was certain board members who handled the situation unprofessionally.
“I think when the board won’t go into executive session that’s very unprofessional,” he said. “I can recommend this again at another meeting. I’m very disappointed. At some point, something’s got to give.”