LaFayette High School principal's ouster triggers protest, confusion

LaFayette High School principal's ouster triggers protest, confusion

March 21st, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Students, parents and concerned Walker County residents exit the school board in LaFayette Monday night following Superintendent Damon Raines' statement concerning Mike Culberson, principal of LaFayette High School. "He will return to work tomorrow," Raines said.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

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The Walker County Board of Education declined to renew the contract for LaFayette High School's principal Monday, sparking a student protest, a packed public meeting and confusion among employees.

Superintendent Damon Raines said Mike Culberson, who has led the high school since 2010, will not return this fall. Raines said he is not allowed to explain why Culberson is out, citing privacy involving any personnel decisions.

LaFayette High School Principal Mike Culberson, right, pictured with Amanda Lanier in this file photo.

LaFayette High School Principal Mike Culberson, right, pictured...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Standing in front of the Walker County School Board, Superintendent Damon Raines speaks to an over crowded board room of more than 100 about his silence on the issue of Mike Culberson, principal of LaFayette High School. "He will return to work tomorrow," Raines said. Board members from left are, Bobby McNabb, Karen Stoker, Phyllis Hunter, Mike Carruth and Dale Wilson.

Standing in front of the Walker County School...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Walker County School Board Superintendent Damon Raines speaks to an over crowded board room of more than 100 about his silence on the issue of Mike Culberson, principal of LaFayette High School. "He will return to work tomorrow," Raines said.

Walker County School Board Superintendent Damon Raines speaks...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Walker County School Board members exit the meeting room for an executive meeting prior to Superintendent Damon Raines' statement concerning the future Mike Culberson, principal of LaFayette High School. "He will return to work tomorrow," Raines, far right, said after the meeting.

Walker County School Board members exit the meeting...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

"I don't think there are questions we can answer, just based on the reasoning I just gave you," Raines said after a board meeting Monday night. The crowd of about 100 included people sitting on the floor and students in the building's lobby. " There has to be a level of trust here. I hope that level of trust exists. That's all I have to say."

Before the meeting Monday, Culberson declined to comment on why he thinks he was let go. He said he has been an assistant or head principal at elementary, middle and high schools in the county since 2000 and has strong performance reviews, including from Raines. His wife, Heather, is the principal at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School.

"I don't know why they're doing this," he said.

The board voted 4-0 against renewing the contract. Dale Wilson, the board's chairman, declined to comment after the meeting.

Confusion

Students and teachers posted online this weekend, announcing that Raines fired Culberson on Friday. But Raines said he and the board didn't make a decision until Monday's vote. Asked why the rumors swirled before the meeting, Raines said he did not know.

Two school employees, who spoke anonymously out of fear they would be disciplined at work, said students spoke publicly throughout the day about Culberson's firing, exchanging rumors about why he was gone. His school email address also did not work Monday. There was no announcement when classes began at 8 a.m. But at 9:30 a.m., after first block, about 300 students walked out of the school and protested in the football stadium's bleachers.

Administrators and some teachers met the students outside. An assistant principal told the students that not even school employees knew what was going on, the sources said. The protest lasted about 30 minutes, and one employee believed it was a symbol of Culberson's popularity.

"It's hard to get a student to do something that isn't on their phones, that doesn't start and end with their phones," he said. "It's pretty remarkable."

Another source said a couple of Culberson's actions have endeared him to students and teachers. When he came to LaFayette High School, he moved his office from the back of the administration area to a room connected to the hall at the school's entrance, where students could stop in to see him.

He also made signs for the parents of honors students to post in their yards. He brought his camera to high school games and other events, making posters of the students and posting them in the halls.

At an after-school meeting Monday, an assistant principal read a statement to the faculty from Raines: "There have been no personnel changes in the Administration at LaFayette High School. Mr. Mike Culberson is still the Principal; however, he is not on campus today for personal reasons."

Raines said after Monday's meeting that Culberson will be the principal for the rest of this school year. He also told the crowd that administrators could not speak because of a pending federal lawsuit. Jim Barrett, the head of the local teacher's association, sued the board in 2015 because its policy did not allow for public comment unless someone first met privately with Raines.

After Raines investigated any concerns himself, the person could then ask to speak at a meeting. In 2016, a federal judge sided with Barrett, calling this policy "facially unconstitutional." The board's appeal of this ruling is still pending. And because it is pending, Raines said, there is no public comment policy.

"That's a joke," Barrett said, arguing the board could write a new rule while waiting for a court ruling. "That's a nice out."

Jessica Ray, who said her daughter would not have graduated from LaFayette High School without Culberson's help, argued with Raines.

"It's pointless to even come to meetings like this because you already made your mind up and do what you decided," she said after the meeting.

"Not at all," Raines said. "Not at all. We ask for public input all the time."

"The man's still not getting his contract renewed," she said. "An awesome principal is losing his job."

"He's still under contract," he said. "Until next year. He's still under contract."

Policy debate

Barrett said Monday that Culberson is not returning because the principal argued with Raines about standards-based grading, the policy Raines implemented at the start of the 2014-15 school year. Used in other districts around the country, standards-based grading is supposed to ensure that students understand all the key concepts of a class.

Essentially, students geta rubric from a teacher, laying out all the important areas the class should cover. The students also receive a rating from 1 to 4 in each area, telling them how well they've mastered each. Throughout a semester, students can work to improve in those specific spots.

But as part of the policy, Raines at first told teachers they could not make homework and classwork count for grades. Students also could retake tests when they didn't like the results. Some teachers, including Barrett, balked at the policy.

He said Raines has tweaked the rules, but not enough. In the high schools, homework and classwork can now count for up to 30 percent of a grade. But students still can retake tests.

Raines said firing Culberson had nothing to do with standards-based grading.

"We're moving forward," he said. "That's not an issue here."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.