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Grievances filed against Shining Rock interim head

Shining Rock is currently seeking its third head of school in four school years. Cory Vaillancourt photo Shining Rock is currently seeking its third head of school in four school years. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on Haywood County’s public charter school, Shining Rock Classical Academy, which has been beset by a host of academic and organizational problems since opening in 2015.

As Shining Rock Classical Academy now searches for its third head of school in just four years, Interim Head of School Joshua Morgan has emerged as a leading candidate for the job.

A group of concerned parents don’t think Morgan should be the next head of school, or even working in education at all. They say he’s a bully with anger management issues who physically intimidates students and recently placed one in a martial arts hold.

“I’m opposed to Joshua Morgan being any part of any school system whatsoever,” said Kelley Messer, who works in Buncombe County Child Protective Services and is also mom of two Shining Rock students. “If Joshua Morgan is in the school, my children will not be.”

Some at Shining Rock, including Board Chair Anna Eason, have lauded Morgan for what they say are his successes in academics and his rapport with kids of all ages at the K-8 school. Morgan, for his part, thinks he’s the right person for the job. 

Eason said a hire is expected at a May 15 board meeting, but to some families who think the unelected board is incapable of selecting the right candidate, it really doesn’t matter — they’re probably not bringing their kids back next year, and definitely not bringing them back if Morgan gets the job. 

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When SRCA became Haywood County’s first public charter school in 2015, it was supposed to complement and augment the county’s already healthy, high-performing public school system. 

And that’s exactly what it did. That first year, Shining Rock scored a 70 on state performance testing, edging out Haywood County Schools’ 66.8, but even before that year commenced a pattern of board inexperience started to become apparent.

In July, the board violated state open meeting laws when it held a closed session to discuss property acquisition and then-chair Tara Keilberg refused to identify publicly the parcel in question.

The next year, the 2016-17 school year, Keilberg stepped down from the board to assume a paid position as the school’s business manager just as Shining Rock’s state performance scores dropped from 70 to 65, while Haywood County’s scores rose to 68, maintaining its place in the top 10 percent of North Carolina’s 115 school districts. 

Early in the 2017-18 school year, a hastily-called Sunday evening meeting that violated state public meeting notice requirements resulted in the surprise resignation of founding Head of School Ben Butler.

Four months later, Shining Rock again violated public meeting notice requirements when a Jan. 17 meeting was improperly rescheduled. 

The next week, Shining Rock announced the hiring of the second head of school in three school years, Nathan Duncan.

By the end of that school year, Shining Rock’s state test scores had dropped from 65 to 56 — below both Haywood County’s score of 67.1 and the state’s average score, 58. 

Just over a year after he was hired, Duncan, too, would be gone; like Butler, his mid-year separation was conducted in a special called meeting, but unlike Butler, he didn’t resign — Duncan was terminated by the board of directors in February of this year. Since then, Morgan has served as interim head of school. 

Under N.C. law, personnel issues are rarely a matter of public record, so no explanations were given why Duncan or Butler left. 

A Haywood County native and Pisgah High School graduate, Morgan earned his bachelor’s degree in middle school education from Appalachian State University in 1999, a master’s degree in elementary and middle school administration from Western Carolina University in 2005 and a second advanced degree in secondary school administration, an Ed.S., also from WCU.

He began his career in education in January 2000 by spending almost six years as a math and science teacher and later assistant principal at T.C. Roberson High School in Buncombe County Schools, prior to joining Haywood County Schools as an assistant principal at Hazelwood and Clyde elementary schools. 

Morgan became principal at North Canton Elementary in 2006, but left in 2012 to serve as principal of Slater-Marietta Elementary School, near Greenville, South Carolina. 

In 2015, he left education altogether and joined Waynesville’s Haywood Vocational Opportunities as director of human resources. He was then hired as an assistant principal at Shining Rock at the start of this school year, August 2018, and earned praise from Eason for his efforts to reverse the declining test scores. 

“Just as interim so far, Josh has really taken that to heart,” said Eason. “The plan, even before being interim head of school, his job was to align our curriculum better in order to make sure that our kids didn’t have gaps. While core knowledge is our main focus at the school, we are not handed a core knowledge test at the end of the year. We are handed a state test at the end of the year.”

Eason was speaking just after a two-hour closed session meeting at Shining Rock on May 8 during which she said the board had interviewed Morgan for the head of school position. 

This search has been conducted far less publicly than last time, after Shining Rock held a so-called public meet-and-greet of job candidates while refusing to release their names. 

“We had a committee that reviewed all the resumes and then from there moved forward, four candidates, but one dropped out and so we did live phone interviews with three and then have narrowed it down to see if he’s going to be the right fit or not, or if we need to go back to the drawing board,” Eason said. 

From the beginning, the job qualifications included more stringent experience requirements than during the search that ultimately found Nathan Duncan. 

“In the job description, it was minimum seven years leadership and that means either assistant principal or preferably principal or head of school,” Eason said. “We definitely upped it this time. We wanted a little more experience.”

Morgan has more than double that amount of experience, but Eason says they’ve also learned some lessons from the arrivals and departures of Ben Butler and Nathan Duncan. 

“I think sometimes it’s hard to find the right fit and as you grow you start to realize what you need, and as you find your identity, to find the right person,” said Eason. “We definitely need to take our time, be a lot more deliberate, ask better questions, really hone in on what it is that we want. I think one of the biggest things is that this year we actually created a strategic plan and that has really helped in looking for what we want because we have a strategic plan — this is what we want, do you fit this?”

Per that strategic plan, as well as the school improvement plan, the next head of school at Shining Rock will have some lofty goals — primarily, to improve the school’s sub-state average score by seven points a year, over five years, according to Eason. 

“[Morgan] took core knowledge and the state standards and actually matched it up to make sure that we didn’t have any gaps and that we were able to use this robust core knowledge curriculum and still be able to pass the test,” Eason said. “So we’re pretty well on track to hit that seven point growth this year.”

Such growth, if achieved over half a decade as she hopes, would put Shining Rock in the top 5 percent of all charter schools statewide and far above any Haywood County public schools. 

The board, said Eason, would take several days to think and to discuss its hiring decision, but expects a new head of school before this school year winds up on May 23. 

“We would hope to have a decision made at the [May 15] meeting, but if we need more then we will take time to get more because again, we want to get this right,” she said. 

 

Three women, all parents of Shining Rock students, showed up to that May 8 closed session meeting hoping to present letters to the board against Morgan, but didn’t sign up for public comment and didn’t speak before the board went into closed session. 

They did, however, speak to The Smoky Mountain News outside while waiting for the closed session to end, reiterating the concerns expressed in their letters and saying that not only should Morgan not have a job at the school — or any school — but that Shining Rock’s current board of directors isn’t capable of making the right hire.

“I don’t know if anybody can turn this place around. I hope they can, because it started out as a great thing and I couldn’t wait to get my kids here, but it’s not what it should be,” said Melissa Taylor, a hospice nurse whose two children came to Shining Rock in its second year. “If the board stays how it is, it doesn’t matter who they hire.”

Taylor said that there are members of the board who should not be in their position, namely board chair Anna Eason. 

“She, I think, is very power-hungry,” Taylor said. “She pulls all the strings. Her and Mr. Morgan are very close, and I don’t have the facts to this, but I believe she’s the reason he’s in power right now.”

Stay-at-home mom Laura Arrington, whose oldest child has been at Shining Rock since the beginning and youngest just started this year, said Morgan is the heir apparent. 

“I think right now the board that is here is grooming Joshua Morgan, and if Joshua Morgan is here I’m not confident,” she said of the board’s chances of hiring a director who can reverse the school’s decline. “Apparently they’re not doing very good. We can’t keep a director for a full year. We can’t even keep the lights on.”

Like Taylor, Arrington is skeptical that any head of school hire can return Shining Rock to the days of above-average performance scores. 

“I don’t know at this point,” she said. “I wish, because what Shining Rock started out as, it was good. We’ve not had a school year that’s not been interrupted by change, and that’s not healthy for any of these kids.”

In a letter to the board dated May 7, Arrington said that “certain members of the board should be removed from their positions immediately, as their history of decision-making and secrecy has led to a loss of trust for parents, and made it evident that they are self-serving in their intentions.”

The current board, she said, along with the lack of appropriate leadership, is a recipe for disaster.

“Shining Rock has met resistance from the county from the very beginning, and we as parents have defended and praised Shining Rock up to this point,” said Arrington. “I cannot in good conscience continue to back a school that I feel has let my child and all others down, for their own selfish desires, while knowingly putting the safety of our children at risk.”

Arrington’s letter goes on to state that even in Morgan’s short tenure at Shining Rock, he’s shown an inability to control his temper.

“Almost daily, I hear kids telling me instances of Mr. Morgan yelling at someone, or putting his hands on someone, in an attempt to provide disciplinary action,” she said. “In one of my first meetings with Mr. Morgan, he stated that while we may ‘butt heads’ concerning my son, ‘in the end, I will win.’ The intent of these meetings is not to see who will win, but to ensure the learning environment is adequate to meet my son’s needs.”

Another letter, sent to The Smoky Mountain News by retired public school teacher and former Shining Rock after-school program coordinator Kitty Eaker, corroborates Arrington’s claim.

“This man has severe anger issues and does not need to be around children. I have seen kids scared of him. If you want SRCA to succeed you need to find new leadership that has the kids at heart and that is ethical,” Eaker wrote in a May 8 letter. “Hopefully, this school will survive but you need some major changes and soon. Please do what is right.”

Melissa Taylor said her two children have experienced both intimidation and unwarranted physical contact by Morgan. 

“Mr. Morgan does not need to be in this school in any capacity. He has a history of his temper getting the best of him. I came up one day and when I walked up, I saw Mr. Morgan standing there. I could hear him talking, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He had his finger in somebody’s face, but then I came around, and it was my son,” she said. 

A few weeks later, Taylor’s daughter, who was suffering from a foot injury, went to Morgan’s office with another girl, hoping to call her mom.

“She walked in and there was one of the lady staff members in there, and she said ‘I need to call my mom, my foot hurts,’” Taylor said. “And [the staffer] told her, ‘OK, hang on a minute, and she went in to Mr. Morgan’s office, came back out and went into the bathroom and shut the door, leaving him alone with two fourth-grade girls. He came out and he put his hand on the back of both of their necks and pushed them out the door and said, ‘You’re not calling your mom, go back to class.’”

When she found out about the incident, Taylor said she emailed Morgan, telling him that it wasn’t his job to decide if her daughter was in pain. 

“I basically was told he had no recollection of telling someone they can’t call their mom, and he has instructed his teachers to maintain the integrity of the school day by not allowing ‘unnecessary phone calls,’” she said. 

Between those two alleged incidents, Taylor’s children related to her another alleged event involving Morgan. 

“He actually took a first-grader, grabbed him by the arm and jerked him so hard that his feet came off the ground and he started crying,” she said. “I don’t know what the incident was, what was going on there, but they saw it and that’s not something your child should come home and tell you — not about the person that’s in charge of their school, and in charge of whether they get to call somebody or what goes on around here.”

Although such claims about Morgan could be dismissed as exaggerated, agenda-driven gripes by oversensitive parents, Kelley Messer — a mother of two Shining Rock students who also happens to be an investigative assessment and treatment social worker for Buncombe County’s child protective services department — says that’s not the case. 

“My son does not feel safe in a closed room with Joshua Morgan,” Messer said. “He does not need to be in any form of authority whatsoever.”

Messer’s letter, dated April 29, says that her fourth-grade son told her that Morgan had “placed his hands” on another fourth-grader. The incident alone was unsettling enough for the boy until, Messer said, it happened to him. 

According to both her letter and an interview, Messer told The Smoky Mountain News that on April 23, she was called from work to Shining Rock and met by Morgan, who explained that her son had gotten into trouble — rightly so — for reading a book during a time designated for outdoor education. 

Per Messer, after that class had ended Morgan attempted to speak with her son as he entered his next class. 

“ … my son, tired of being threatened and not feeling safe alone with Mr. Morgan refused to go with him,” reads Messer’s letter. “Mr. Morgan then placed my child in a juvenile detention hold.”

A juvenile detention hold, explained Messer, is a type of martial arts hold used in juvenile detention facilities as a form of crisis intervention when someone is attempting to harm themselves or others, or damage property; essentially, it restricts the hands behind the back. 

Messer, who has worked in juvenile detention facilities, said that Morgan marched her son, who has Tourrette’s syndrome and is on the autism spectrum, down the hall to the office, in that hold, in full view of other students, teachers and some support staff.

“He’s not harming himself, he’s not harming anybody else, he’s not destructing any personal or private property,” she said. “[Morgan] should have walked away saying, ‘OK, if you don’t want to talk about it right now, take 10 to 15 minutes. I’m going to come back and then we’re going to step out to the hall and talk about it.’”

Messer asked for video footage of the alleged incident from the school May 13, but says she was told it didn’t exist. Messer also said that she’d talked with the District Attorney’s office May 14 and that a Waynesville police detective was going to begin an investigation, but for now, her letter sums up her feelings about Joshua Morgan.

“Our children deserve better than being entrusted to a man who wants to run this school as a detention center… Our children should not go to school in fear,” she wrote. “They should feel safe when they’re there.”

While Messer’s daughter will likely return to Shining Rock next year if Morgan isn’t hired, neither her daughter nor son will if he is. 

“He doesn’t feel safe anywhere in the school,” she said. 

Arrington said her kids wouldn’t be back if Morgan was hired, and probably wouldn’t be back even if someone else gets the job. Taylor’s two kids aren’t coming back regardless of who’s hired. 

“The school year ends May 23, and we will be at Waynesville Middle and Jonathan Valley on May 24 to register. We have already toured both schools. My kids are excited,” Taylor said. “They can’t wait for this year to be over.” 

 

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Anna Eason • Joshua Morgan

 

When asked about the allegations against Joshua Morgan immediately after the closed session meeting on May 8, Eason said it was the first she’d heard of them, since the board hadn’t received a formal grievance from Arrington, Eaker, Messer or Taylor. 

Arrington, Messer and Taylor filed formal grievances the next day, but Eason refused to answer questions about whether the grievances would have an effect on the hiring process for the new head of school — would a candidate against whom grievances had been filed be disqualified from consideration? Would the process be “paused” to allow attorneys to do their work? Or would the process continue as normal during the investigation?

Eason called the procedural question a “personnel matter,” but that didn’t stop some at Shining Rock from mounting a vigorous defense of Morgan in the meantime, as the search for a new head of school continued. 

On May 10, Shining Rock third-grade teacher Sara Jenkins sent a letter to The Smoky Mountain News, saying that earlier in the week a group of 25 staff members — who wanted to remain anonymous — lingered after a teacher appreciation raffle to reflect on how Morgan had made the school a better place. 

“We made a list of all of those things, and to show our appreciation for him, we wanted to make that list public,” Jenkins said. 

That list describes a different Morgan than do the letters of Arrington, Eaker, Messer and Taylor; it says he is great with students of all ages, is supportive of Shining Rock’s teachers, is responsible for improved scores at the school and is a “stern but respectful” disciplinarian who “gets down on their level — fair.”

When asked why a group of teachers was willing to make Morgan’s good deeds public but was not willing to make their own names public, Jenkins said that names weren’t necessary. 

“Our sole position is to teach children, and unfortunately when you sign your individual name to a document, especially one like this, it can be problematic in the future,” she said May 12. “If I was to have a student whose parent did not like [Morgan] but knew I was in support of him, they could then act differently towards me. We are a group, a large group of staff members, we are all Falcons, we stand together, and for that reason, we do not think that individual names are needed.”

Another letter, though, shows that names are indeed needed, and that not all of the staff at Shining Rock “stand together.”

Melissa Taylor sent The Smoky Mountain News a copy of a letter purportedly circulating within the school on May 10 titled “Mr. Morgan Appreciation Letter.” 

Composed in a Google Forms survey, this letter asked for electronic signatures, and was addressed to the editor of The Smoky Mountain News. The letter, however, wasn’t sent to The Smoky Mountain News.

Dear teachers and colleagues, 

A group of us got together Thursday after school to discuss a letter to the editor, voicing our appreciation and support of Mr. Morgan. If you were not there, we would like to offer you the opportunity to review the proposed letter.

Please be clear, no one is obligated to sign the letter. No one will be pressured to do so, and those of us who do will respect, absolutely, anyone who decides not to. Nothing short of professional, ethical behavior is expected, including in this instance.

If you would like to sign-on, please sign below. Please recognize that you are signing this of your own choice.

Similar to Jenkins’ “25 reasons” list, the appreciation letter expresses on behalf of the undersigned “strong support” of Morgan because he “stepped into the [interim head of school] role and brought stability to our school.”

It goes on to praise Morgan in many of the same ways the list did, including his supportive, encouraging leadership as well as his disciplinary style. 

“He has also improved instruction by improving discipline in a caring, ethical, and professional manner. He’s compassionate and yet firm with students who need direction in their actions in the classroom,” it says. “Kids respond well to him because he is viewed as fair. This improves discipline has had a positive impact in the classroom. Teachers and students know that Mr. Morgan is there to help when needed.” 

Taylor said that the Shining Rock employee who showed her the letter felt intimidated by it, wouldn’t sign it and wouldn’t return next year. 

Neither of those demonstrations of support were available to The Smoky Mountain News when Morgan sat down for an interview May 9, but Morgan likewise expressed the thought that he was the most qualified person to lead Shining Rock. 

“If I didn’t think so I wouldn’t put my name in,” he said. “Shining Rock’s a special place. I certainly want to be part of something that continues to grow, and be part of our community.”

Morgan, like three other head of school candidates, wasn’t bothered by the fact that if hired he’d be the third head of school in four school years. 

Nor was Eason, who said that Leaders Building Leaders, a school improvement expertise and leadership development consulting firm with whom Shining Rock has been working, told her that a full 50 percent of North Carolina public charter schools see head of school turnover on average every two years. 

“That certainly didn’t stop me from applying — the reason being, I feel like that I have positive traits to bring, and it’s ultimately the board’s responsibility to find what they need, the person with the strengths to fill those needs,” said Morgan. “If I am that person, I’m very humbled by that. If not, then I’m certainly willing to help make Shining Rock the best school that it can possibly be.”

Making Shining Rock the best it can be — and one of the best in the state, per the plan — involves a multi-pronged approach that includes internal accountability, transparency and effective use of data, said Morgan. 

“One of the things that we’ve really focused on this year has been understanding the academic process of our kids,” Morgan said. “Knowing the academic process of our kids during the course of the year, I do see a change in the trend.”

The trend parents like Arrington, Messer and Taylor are more concerned with is his treatment of students. When asked to respond to the allegations laid out in letters and interviews, Morgan said he hadn’t seen the letters and probably couldn’t address them anyway. 

“I can tell you, issues with students, I can’t really provide any comment on issues with students,” he said. “It’s not appropriate, and I’m not willing to cross that professional line.”

When told that Arrington, Messer and Taylor had filed formal grievances earlier that day with the Shining Rock board of directors, foregoing all privacy, Morgan declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations, but did offer an overview of Shining Rock’s disciplinary policy. 

“In general we use restorative practices. Our goal is to keep students in class as much is possible,” he said. “I think we face the same challenges that you’re going to find at any public school. With that, we work with children to get them back to class.”

As to his personal philosophy on discipline, Morgan spoke generally. 

“The goal of education is to educate children in all facets, be it curricular content, social and emotional,” Morgan said. “When you’re in a position of authority you need to be able to demonstrate things for folks that they may not otherwise have access to. Part of that education is the way that you talk and treat children. You have to have expectations, but they can be attained and brought to, easily.”

Morgan was given copies of the letters from Arrington, Eaker, Messer and Taylor by The Smoky Mountain News on May 9, and was given the opportunity to respond to them before May 13. As of May 14, no response was received. 

Shining Rock Classical Academy’s next regular board of directors meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, at the school, 1023 Dellwood Road, Waynesville.

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