Questions mount over popular Swain principal’s sudden departureWritten by Julia Merchant
Parents at West Elementary School in Swain County are questioning the circumstances surrounding the departure of a popular principal.
In the weeks since Rick Abel’s alleged resignation, conflicting accounts have emerged that have left parents with growing suspicions over what really happened.
Parents say school administrators actively recruited Abel from Florida at the beginning of the school year. Then on April 20, less than a year into his two-year contract, the Swain County Board of Education unanimously voted to accept Abel’s resignation, according to school administrators.
The sudden departure of the well-liked principal took parents by surprise.
“I thought he was a great guy,” said PTO President Katie Butler. “He had a lot of great ideas for our school. He looked at problems and wanted to find solutions to get them fixed. He didn’t just go in and sit behind his desk.”
Jerry Shook, a West Elementary parent and PTO member, said members of the PTO heard a different account than the school district’s at a recent PTO meeting.
“We were alerted to the situation that Mr. Abel was being forced into resignation,” Shook said.
PTO Secretary Kristi Jenkins said that at the PTO meeting, Abel denied ever writing a letter of resignation or resigning, but that he told the PTO board he couldn’t comment further on the situation.
The school district continues to maintain that Abel resigned, but refused to elaborate.
“We can’t give out any information on personnel,” said Swain County Community Schools Coordinator Steve Claxton. “All I can say is that he has resigned, and that’s all we’re allowed to give out.”
Apparently, the school district’s attorney is aware that the situation is of a delicate nature. Superintendent Bob Marr told The Smoky Mountain Times that the school’s attorney instructed him not to speak about the resignation.
The North Carolina Association of Educators, a teacher’s union, has also gotten involved.
“I have been involved in Rick’s case and actually relatively managed his case as we moved through the process,” said Anne Franklin, a NCAE representative out of Asheville. “The particulars of this case I’m not at liberty to speak about. It’s confidential.”
Parents say the school system has been evasive in answering questions about Abel’s alleged resignation.
“I have not heard anything other than it was personnel, and they could not talk about that because it’s confidential,” said parent and substitute teacher Ali Shuler. “That doesn’t get it for me. Not even a year in, he’s being asked to step down. Something’s messed up.”
Butler said school administrators have been “wishy washy” in their answers to questions about Abel’s resignation.
“They’re kind of covering themselves, is what I feel,” Butler said.
Some parents are more specific in their theories about the situation.
“I was really excited when they hired someone from out of the area that had nothing to do with anything that goes on here,” Jenkins said. “I think they don’t like that he doesn’t conform to what they want. He’s there for the school, not the politics.”
As is frequently alleged to be the case in Swain County, some wonder whether political allegiances played a part.
“I feel like it’s political, I really do,” said Shuler.
Parents say Marr and other school administrators actively courted Abel for the position of West Elementary principal, though Abel was living in Florida at the time and wasn’t looking for a job. The school system refused to comment on whether Abel was recruited.
According to parents, Abel moved to the area with his family to take the job. He became immediately popular, especially with students.
“Kids love him,” said Jenkins. “He’s out there every morning when the kids are being dropped off, opening doors and greeting them. He walks around the classrooms, and kids are always running up to him.”
Abel was a familiar presence around the building, and has employed a hands-on approach. Butler says that in one high-ceilinged foyer, lights kept going out, making the hallway dimmer and dimmer because no one had attempted the difficulty of reaching up to change them. So Abel changed the lights himself.
During a recent teacher appreciation week, Abel received a mound of cards from students, Butler said. The children have always been his first priority.
“He’s there for the kids — he’s not there for the adults,” said Jenkins.
Even so, Abel has won favor with parents for his inclusive approach.
“Any time I had concerns this year, he had an open door policy,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said that while previous principals didn’t ask for help or input from the PTO, Abel asked how he could assist the group in the first meeting he attended.
Butler said parents liked the environment Abel fostered at West Elementary.
“I’ve talked to a lot of parents as PTO president, and they like the changes that they’ve seen,” Butler said. “They’ve enjoyed things getting done a lot quicker, and questions getting answers when they make phone calls instead of getting the runaround.”
Parents say they see no reason Abel would have been asked to resign or terminated from his position.
“Working as PTO president, I saw nothing he was doing wrong enough to be terminated,” said Butler.
“I’ve never seen any wrongdoing,” Shuler agreed.
Frustrations over a growing list of questions are mounting.
“Nobody will tell us anything. We deserve an explanation,” Shuler said.
“I would like answers, I really would, because they’re getting rid of a fantastic guy,” Jenkins added.
Butler says she wants answers both as a parent and as the head of the PTO.
“I definitely want answers,” said Butler. “If he was fired, I feel as a parent, why did someone that is supposed to be in charge of my child get fired? As PTO president, I feel like people are wondering why this is becoming such a big thing, and I have no answers for them.”
Legally, the school system is not allowed to disclose personnel information beyond basic things like date of employment and salary.
“The statute ties their hands. They can’t disclose additional personnel information,” said Amanda Martin, a Raleigh attorney with the N.C. Press Association who specializes in what is and isn’t public record.
However, there is one out that would allow the school board to disclose the falling out with Principal Rick Abel.
State law allows for an escape hatch when a school board comes under fire, allowing them to share otherwise confidential personnel files when “essential to maintaining the integrity of the board.” The board would first have to draft a memo outlining the circumstances that deem it necessary to disclose personnel info. If the school board has its reasons, now just might be a good time to exercise that clause.
A group of parents are planning a rally of support for Abel at the next Board of Education meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, June 8, in the board room at the Bright Adventures campus.