Lack of evaluations at root of principal firing

By CLAIRE MOORMAN
Herald Staff Writer

Many of the offenses that led to the Tuesday firing of Otwell School Principal Rick Fears relate to a neglect of his duties to evaluate all teachers. Local administrators say that such an oversight on the part of principals would be a serious problem in their districts.

“There is nothing more important that takes place in a school than what happens in the classroom,” Northeast Dubois School Corp. Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said. “In our situation, since we collaboratively developed our own system for teacher evaluation, if an administrator failed to conduct teacher evaluations as we designed them, it would indeed be very serious.”

Fears was hired as principal at Otwell Elementary in 2005 after being the principal at Pike Central High School for seven years and then taking teaching positions at the school. A “findings of fact” document detailing his offenses was released by the school board late Wednesday morning, and The Herald also obtained his personnel file through a public records request.

According to the findings of fact document, Superintendent Suzanne Blake met with Fears in mid-December because he had not yet begun teacher evaluations. In compliance with state law, the corporation adopted a teacher evaluation program that required each building principal to conduct several walk-throughs and conferences with each certified staff member employed there. Fears informed Blake that he would conduct all of his observations with paper and pencil and that all of his teachers would be rated “highly effective,” the highest rank on the state’s evaluation rubric.

Blake again met with Fears in late April to discuss his unfinished evaluations. Several of the evaluations he began entering into the school’s computer system were still from the first semester, and Fears informed Blake that he had thrown his notes from other observations away, the document says. Blake then met with six teachers from the school who confirmed that no observations had been made by Fears in their classroom during the school year.

According to the document, Fears said at an Aug. 27 executive session that many of the evaluations he made in the first semester of the 2012-13 school year were conducted without writing material of any kind and consisted of a brief stop into a given classroom. The document states that those evaluations that were entered into the computer program contained “unsubstantiated and often incorrect data in the evaluation reports that provided the school with at best questionable teacher evaluations and at worst no meaningful way to accurately evaluate and compare teachers.”

Fears’ personnel file also shows consistent problems with evaluation of employees throughout his time as the elementary principal and as the high school principal beginning in 1992. Several comments from former superintendent Mark Ransford stating that Fears’ employees had noticed his “vindictiveness” also were documented.

Fears himself received a “needs improvement” rating in both the effectiveness and leadership categories on his evaluation, which was conducted by Blake, last school year.

Southeast Dubois Superintendent Rick Allen said that because so many elements are now determined by evaluation scores, completing them is a priority for administrators.

“In my school corporation, that would be a huge problem,” Allen said about a lack of observation completion. “Teachers’ pay is now determined by the evaluation. Principals had training over a six-month period. They were given technology to assist them in completing the evaluations, so not completing it accurately and timely is a big deal.”

The fact-finding document also says that Fears asked his secretary to falsify attendance records in 2010. When she refused to change the record for 15 students from absent to present, Fears made the alterations himself to make the school’s attendance rate appear higher, according to the document. School secretary Nelda Garland provided testimony at the executive session, according to the findings of fact document.

Additionally, Fears publicly released the school’s 2013 Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determination exam results to the local media while they were still under embargo by the Indiana Department of Education. He also publicized the names and a photo of the third-grade students celebrating their I-READ success, which the board found violated Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act guidelines.

Fears was issued a reprimand for the release of information, which was placed in his personnel file. He responded with a letter stating, “I have a difficult time understanding why this minor issue was taken to this degree of severity. ... I find it very puzzling (that) the principal of the corporation’s only National Blue Ribbon School and Indiana Four Star School, suddenly, after all these years is being threatened with further disciplinary action including dismissal for this unintentional accident.”

The document also states that Fears showed an unwillingness to accept final decisions made by the administration and “aggressive and persistent” behavior. Although Blake preliminarily listed insubordination as a reason for considering the cancellation of Fears’ contract, the board concluded that his demeanor did not constitute insubordination.

Interim Principal Jim Isaacs will serve as the lead administrator at the school until a permanent solution can be found.

Both Fears and his attorney Mark Phillips were unavailable to talk with The Herald this morning.

Contact Claire Moorman at cmoorman@dcherald.com.




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