Maplewoodian by Joe Strupp

Columbia High School Principal's Removal Raises More Questions Than It Answers


The last Twitter post from Columbia High School principal Elizabeth Aaron is very telling. 

The four-year CHS schools chief, who was recently, surprisingly, reassigned to a vague “Principal on Special Assignment” post by the school district, was a Twitter regular on her @CougarPrincipal account. There she would often promote the school’s successes and notable staff and students.

From pushing summer reading lists to showing off CHS prom pics, Aaron is school spirit incarnate.

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But her last tweet, posted on June 29, 2018 -- just a day before the bombshell announcement of her removal from the principal position -- may be an indication that she knew what was coming. 

The tweet quoted Congressman John Lewis, the legendary civil rights leader, who said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” She added that they were “words to live by.”

A day later, the poorly-timed and weakly-announced decision was revealed in an email to parents that said Aaron was being reassigned even as it stressed she had “tremendous talents … strong commitment to the community … and … deep understanding of the many facets of the district” that are “invaluable.”

Putting the word out on a Saturday night before a holiday week with little explanation was a clear mistake, but perhaps the district didn’t want to face a lot of questions. But they’re facing them now as a groundswell of support for Aaron in the form of an online petition that has already garnered more than 1,200 signatures, plans for a rally on Tuesday outside district offices and mobilization for a large protest at the next school board meeting on July 16 has begun.

The push for her reinstatement has all the earmarks of an election campaign with tables set up to promote, banners and lawn signs in the works and lengthy appeals online for support.

But there is also a deafening silence, from Aaron herself and from district officials. Sources and friends of Aaron indicate she is not happy about the change and is likely upset after such a public rebuke. She has distanced herself from the reinstatment campaign, and they have from her, which is understandable.

On the district side, their standard defense of not being able to discuss “personnel matters” continues. Efforts to obtain any kind of explanation or more detailed reason for this move have fallen flat.

But sources within the district indicate the move was a long time coming. The recent CHS attendance policy issue, which sparked an outside audit last month, is among the problems that have arisen under Aaron’s tenure. Others include complaints from some parents about how certain HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) claims were handled, and even the 2014 arrest of former CHS teacher Nicole Dufault, who is charged with numerous counts related to claims of having sexual relations with up to six students.

Whie Aaron was not principal when those alleged crimes occurred, she was assistant principal for a year during some of the alleged incidents. Does that mean she had any responsibility for how the claims were handled? Perhaps not. But some who want her removed are including that dark day for the school in their complaints.

Aaron supporters point to the fact that Aaron received tenure just last year and ask if she was not right for the job, why did they give her that lifetime approval? Good question. And the lack of answers from the district do not help on that issue.

Columbia High School is not an easy place to manage. Its greatest assets can also be its biggest challenges. With nearly 2,000 students, the diversity is amazing. All sizes, shapes, colors, races, sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds roam the halls, creating a diverse environment that enriches everyone it touches with a world view and a variety of experiences.

Full disclosure: I will have two children in the school this coming fall, a freshman and a senior who has been there for three years. I have no concerns for their education and know they will continue to get a broad, educational and positive experience.

But CHS has also had its issues as we know. The 2014 ACLU lawsuit and the subsequent agreement to improve promotion and disciplinary rates for minority students exposed a racial divide that affects not only those practical matters but social elements within the school. While there are many examples of students of different races being together in a positive fashion, many say that a racial tension can still exist. The proposal years ago to assign a police officer to the campus exposed that concern when several African-American students protested the move and it was dropped.

Is any or all of this Aaron’s fault? No, she is one person in a management that includes many above and below her. By all accounts, Aaron has gone above and beyond in many ways with a rah-rah pro-CHS voice unrivaled by anyone in town. Certainly not the school board or district officials.

But that does not mean that she handled some issues in the best way. Put in the principal position with no previous experience in that role and just one year as an assistant was a challenge that many would not even attempt. 

It would not surprise anyone if she had some bumps along the way even as she excelled in most other areas of leadership, management, work ethic, and school spirit.  No principal gets the kind of huge support she is enjoying this week by accident. It comes from great one-on-one communication, outreach, inclusiveness and smarts. 

But while so many are coming to her defense, many others have had what they deem valid complaints about how some issues and problems were handled. Unfortunately, because of the way this is being pursued, such issues are not being explained. The district may have valid reasons for removing Aaron, but without knowing them many who know her and her work are left angry and frustrated.

It is also coming at one of the worst times for the district in terms of change. We have lost many top administrators and principals. In addition to Aaron, we have lost two other principals – at Seth Boyden and Marshall schools – a CHS assistant principal, an assistant superintendent, as well as a director of guidance, and when Dr. Kalisha Morgan, who will become interim CHS principal, moves, her job as director of planning and assistance will become vacant.  

Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra, who replaced outgoing and troubled superintendent John Ramos last summer, is not some naïve newcomer. He has a long career in several districts and really no reason to oppose or support Aaron. It would seem he would not make this move without clear review and deliberation.

But until or unless some indication is given as to why this shocking move is being made, the uproar it created will not be settled easily. Nor should it.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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