Hamilton County Schools officials stand behind their recent hire for a new principal at Brainerd High School, despite a suspension and a pair of internal investigations by the man's current employer.
After Superintendent Rick Smith announced the hiring of Uras Agee, principal at Columbia High School in Atlanta's DeKalb County, word about Agee spread among teachers and staff members here. His work history has drawn criticism on Georgia blogs and news sites, but Agee says he was targeted, mostly by one teacher, for implementing new procedures and policies at his school.
Agee will replace Charles Joynes, who served as principal at Brainerd for three years. Joynes is moving to Middle College High School at Chattanooga State Community College.
On May 10, Smith told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that online reports about Agee couldn't be substantiated and said there was no documentation of any wrongdoing.
"I've not seen anything documented. Any of us can put something out there online if we choose," he said.
Agee's personnel records, files made publicly available under the Georgia Open Records Act, show at least two internal affairs investigations conducted by the DeKalb County School District and one suspension for a physical altercation with a student.
While other officials say they were aware of Agee's work history, his hiring has at least one Board of Education member questioning current principal vetting and hiring procedures.
"I wasn't too thrilled with this process," said Jeffrey Wilson, who represents Brainerd.
Because principals play such an important role in schools, Wilson said administrators should have done more thorough research.
"I don't think they did their homework. All you really have to do is Google it. You don't have to be a private eye to find it," Wilson said a few days after Smith's May 7 announcement.
Both Smith and Marvin Lott, director of high schools, said the school system completed a thorough background and reference check on Agee like they do with all new hires.
Lott held a meeting to reassure Brainerd teachers after several called central office with concerns. He brought along about a dozen emails from teachers, administrators and parents in DeKalb County supporting Agee after he asked Agee about the online accusations.
The correspondence praises Agee's work, including feats like building a ninth-grade academy from scratch to help students transition from middle to high school, hiring highly qualified teachers, raising test scores and helping increase the amount of college scholarships given to students.
Head counselor Joanne Jackson Jones described a "corrupt" and "divisive" culture at Columbia High that was resistant to Agee's efforts to improve. The school had high turnover, with four principals in five years.
"Mr. Agee made a difference; unfortunately, he did not get the support that he needed to fully realize his dreams of restoring Columbia to its glory days. The students, staff, and faculty at Brainerd High School are blessed to have Mr. Agee at the helm as their leader," she said.
Records show Agee was suspended in 2004 for getting involved with an "inappropriate aggressive physical altercation with a student." After investigating that case, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission suspended Agee for five days without pay and ordered him to take a classroom management course.
Agee said he was breaking up a locker room fight between two boys.
"I was just trying to diffuse the situation," he said. "If I wouldn't have broken up the fight, I would have gotten in trouble."
Another internal affairs investigation in March 2011 looked into the dedication of that year's yearbook. A teacher accused Agee of trying to dissuade students from dedicating the annual to a white teacher and instead dedicating it to black teachers.
In her investigation, an area superintendent found that Agee wasn't forthcoming about the allegation of discrimination and tried to influence the testimony of students, claims that Agee denies. The complaint went unproven, and Agee did not face any disciplinary action, records show.
The teacher who filed the complaint made numerous other allegations against Agee, including favoritism toward black employees, a loose temper and physically aggressive behavior.
Agee described the teacher as having a history of complaints against administrators.
"At this point, I just think it's a disgruntled employee doing what they can," he said.
A former football player at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Agee worked at Hixson High School for several years before teaching in Georgia schools. He said his 17 years in education, including varied experiences as teacher, administrator and coach, have prepared him to work in many environments.
"I don't think there's a school I can't go into," he said.
He said his current 1,200-student school is nearly all black and more than 85 percent of students are classified as poor.
Agee said he's proud of his previous work building and managing a ninth-grade academy at his last school to help ease the transition from middle to high school. He said far fewer ninth-graders are dropping out since he started the program.
At Brainerd, he plans to first assess the school, find out where students are academically and build programs to help support and move those who are struggling in his efforts to improve the school.
His teaching background is in special education, which Agee said allowed him to stick up for the voiceless. While in Chattanooga, he worked at the Orange Grove Center.
"People counted me out. I had teachers who didn't think I would do well," he said. "I wanted to just give other kids a chance where maybe I didn't have."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.