LaFayette (Ga.) High School principal partially fabricated emails

Walker County School Board Superintendent Damon Raines speaks to an overcrowded board room about his silence on the issue of Mike Culberson, principal of LaFayette High School.
photo LaFayette High School Principal Mike Culberson, right, pictured with Amanda Lanier in this file photo.

In September, LaFayette (Ga.) High School Principal Mike Culberson partially fabricated emails from his employees before sending them to his boss, expressing his complaints about the school system in other people's names.

The messages were about Julie Portwood, a mission support specialist based at the high school. Her job is to work with students at risk of not graduating, trying to figure out new ways to help them cross the finish line. But Portwood had rubbed some guidance counselors the wrong way, particularly by changing students' schedules and allowing some to take online classes.

On Sept. 30, Assistant Principal Debbie King and guidance counselor Ericka Black emailed complaints about Portwood to Culberson. Culberson, in turn forwarded the messages to Superintendent Damon Raines. Except Culberson tacked on several paragraphs of his own, inside the emails supposedly written by his employees.

Culberson accused Portwood of leaving school too early, creating a "hostile work environment" and going on vacations with Raines and his wife. He also added praises for himself - "I only hope you realize how much support you have earned from your staff," Culberson wrote in one message, obtained by the Times Free Press through a records request of his personnel file.

Heather Holloway, director of the school system's personnel department, realized Culberson altered the emails after seeing the original messages. In November, Raines gave Culberson the lowest possible scores on his performance review in the categories of instructional leadership and human resources management.

On March 20, the Walker County Board of Education voted not to renew Culberson's contract for next year without explanation. The board still has not provided an official answer. This week, board Chairman Dale Wilson said he couldn't discuss the issue. Raines said he is supposed to speak on behalf of the board - but as superintendent he is legally barred from discussing a personnel decision.

But Culberson's personnel file reveals friction between the principal and Raines. Confronted with the accusation last fall, according to school records, Culberson admitted to fabricating parts of the emails.

"The actions exhibited regarding the above noted incident was caused by a series of events that were out of my control," Culberson wrote, in response to his negative performance review. "[I] was feeling unsupported and after continued efforts to obtain information I followed up with a 'cry for help,' which was not indicative of my moral character."

On Wednesday, Culberson told the Times Free Press that while he added to the emails, the information itself actually did come from the guidance counselors. He said they met with him to complain about Portwood's actions, in particular those in which he said she changed students' schedules without their approval.

In particular, he said Portwood has allowed about 60 students to take online-only classes, even though the guidance counselors don't think some of those students have valid reasons to leave the in-person classrooms.

Culberson asked the guidance counselors to put their thoughts in emails, which he would forward along to Raines. When he received their messages, though, they were less detailed than what they told him in person, he said. He said he edited the emails and ran them by the guidance counselors before forwarding them to Raines.

Asked why he didn't just send the messages in his own words, Culberson said the counselors' testimonies would be more effective. He said he and Raines and other school employees discussed this problem last year.

"We've tried," he said. "We've met. I've talked. We've had meetings. And nothing's been changed. And as a matter of fact, it's gotten worse."

Asked Wednesday if she felt Culberson's description of her job, as well as the conflict it has created among guidance counselors, was unfair, Portwood said, "I'm not sure how to answer that." In an email, she added that her role is important in the school system's goal of pushing the high school graduation rate from 86 percent to 90 percent by 2020.

As part of the goal, based on research from the National Dropout Prevention Center, Portwood provides some students with alternatives to traditional in-class learning. She also helps create more personalized learning plans for those students.

"While some of these strategies are non-traditional, our team at LaFayette High School developed a protocol of how to implement our strategies," she wrote. "These protocols were developed in meetings with Mr. Raines, Mr. Culberson, other administrators, guidance counselors, and me."

A school employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear he could lose his job, backed up Culberson's account, saying Portwood's work has been a point of contention among some on staff. Making matters more complicated is the fact that Portwood reports directly to Raines, while the guidance counselors report to Culberson.

"This puts Mike in a horrible position," the employee said.

But Raines said Portwood is qualified for her position. She taught Spanish at LaFayette High School for five years. And, in fact, Culberson was part of the team that interviewed potential mission support specialists when they picked her.

"She also had experience working with mentors and with at-risk students," Raines wrote in an email. "Mr. Culberson confirmed Ms. Portwood as the best candidate to represent LHS in this new process."

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