Charter Trustees Suspend 13-Year Superintendent Jackson
Dozens Oppose Transfer of Hillcrest Elementary Principal
Last updated 1/27/2021 at 6:14pm
The Lake Wales Charter Schools Board of Trustees suspended Superintendent Jesse Jackson with pay Monday, Jan. 25 pending a special meeting in a week to discuss whether to accept his resignation or terminate his employment. Jackson already had submitted his resignation, effective Feb. 26, but a controversy surrounding his replacement of Hillcrest Elementary Principal Jennifer Barrow might move his departure up a few weeks.
More than 300 people attended the online trustee meeting, with about two dozen praising Barrow and questioning Jackson's decision to replace her with Rebecca Thomas, who has been serving as assistant principal of Dale R. Fair Babson Park Elementary School. Another dozen or so Barrow supporters held up signs at the entrance to Lake Wales High School, where the trustee meeting was being held.
Trustee Vice Chairman Danny Gill and Trustee Becky Gaston, along with former Trustees Jimmy Nelson and Pat Cain, called for Jackson's immediate termination, and Trustees David Fisher and Paul Gerrard indicated it may be time for Jackson to leave.
But the charter system's attorney Robin Gibson advised the seven-member board against taking action since the issue was not on their agenda. The suspension with pay was a compromise so trustees would have information about all their options, including the potential financial cost of Jackson's departure after 13 years in the position. The trustees appointed Chief Financial Officer Alricky Smith to serve as interim superintendent.
Since all but one of the public comments about Barrow were glowing – praising her leadership, commitment, enthusiasm and the school's accomplishments - Trustee Howard Kay urged Jackson to disclose the details of why he decided to transfer Barrow to a central office position. Most of Barrow's supporters questioned the timing of the decision and abrupt move – with no advance notice to staff or parents – during an already trying time when the school was dealing with the impact of COVID-19.
Jackson said Barrow's decision to hire an attorney prompted him to move forward more quickly with her transfer. Jackson said for two years he had discussed concerns with Barrow about issues raised by teachers, results of the school's climate survey and significant staff turnover during the last three years. He said some teachers were fearful of speaking out as they felt intimidated by Barrow and have privately complained about Barrow showing favoritism to some of their colleagues.
Allegations that Barrow had made comments about the minority makeup of the central office and that she disciplined a teacher for showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement added to Jackson's concerns. A human resources investigation couldn't substantiate that Barrow had made remarks about the central office having too many black employees, but Jackson said there were enough other concerns to move forward with the transfer.
Some of the people who spoke up for Barrow tearfully urged the trustees to reinstate her. But Gibson told the trustees they have no authority to reverse a personnel decision by the superintendent. Jackson had the authority to appoint Thomas as interim principal, but a permanent appointment will require trustee approval. Several speakers suggested the trustees need to change their bylaws and policies to obtain more authority over personnel decisions.
First grade teacher Tianna Hershberger said Barrow truly cares for her staff members: "She was my biggest cheerleader and I feel like all of us need to be her cheerleader now. She has made teaching during such a hard time safe for our students and staff."
"You have taken the heart of the (Hillcrest) Hawks and we need her back," said cafeteria worker Ashley Green.
Support staff member Carolann Cernell said Barrow inspired her to become a teacher: "Mrs. Barrow is the glue to our school. I've always felt safe; I knew she would have my back."
Parent Kimberly McCloud, who has five children in the charter system including two at Hillcrest, said her 5th grader was in tears when she heard Barrow was gone: "This was a horrible judgment call on the part of Dr. Jackson."
Parent Janeen D'Agostino said Barrow "is such a warm, friendly and amazing woman – all the students light up when she comes into their classroom."
Barrow did not speak at the meeting and could not be reached for comment.