Parents and administrators at a Harrisburg charter school are debating the direction of leadership at the school after some parents say the principal was hired over the summer without enough parental involvement.
About 50 parents showed up at the regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 10 to ask Carolina International School board members and the newly hired principal questions about their leadership and the future of the school. Some parents at the meeting questioned how the principal was hired as well as her work history and credentials.
"There are discrepancies that have been raised, and each of you as board members are responsible for the care and administration of this school," said parent and attorney Sue Schneider at the meeting. "The board minutes from July and August are not clear as to the hiring of (the school's principal). You have to follow the rules. There's an elephant in the room and it's sitting here. Let's deal with it as adults."
Board chair Scott Elliott said the board went through an exhaustive hiring process for the principal, dividing up a stack of resumes the size of a phonebook, providing initial screenings and holding phone interviews with at least 24 candidates before narrowing it down to four. Those four had interviews with a panel that included parents, he said.
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"We did have two board members, two parents and a teacher representative," said Elliot on Feb. 10. "In fact, the reality is, it was actually a much more collaborative process than we had for the administrators that were hired two years previous. A considerable amount."
The school had faced struggles after Sandra Vielbaum, the school's former finance officer, in 2008 was charged and later convicted of embezzling $195,000, leaving the school in financial straits. The school was in danger of closing, as it faced a deficit of $400,000, but school leaders secured $380,000, with help from parents and loans, which allowed the school to remain open. It is Cabarrus' only charter school and draws about 69 percent of its 445 students from Mecklenburg County, with the rest from Cabarrus, Iredell, Rowan, Stanly and Union.
Mystica Nelmes, a 17-year area resident with a master's degree from UNC Charlotte, has been principal since Aug. 4. She was hired along with assistant principal Donna Harkey, who has a master's degree from Georgia State University and has taught at elementary, middle and high-school levels in Georgia and Cabarrus County.
Nelmes said in a Feb. 11 interview that some parents questioned why she left Lake Norman Charter School after seven weeks. She said her departure was a mutual agreement. She also said her work history, which includes time as a substitute, encompasses teaching every grade level from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Despite some parents' concerns, Elliot said the school is in good shape.
"It's hard to communicate to the parents, our main focus is the business of the school, making sure financially we're able to operate, hiring and firing administrators, and let them run the school," said Elliot. "Overall the school is in the best shape it has ever been, top to bottom.
"...This school was founded basically on a shoestring. The parents did everything. It was one big happy family. As the school evolved, just like all charter schools evolve, the original founding director, board members, they kind of transitioned to more managing the school, not just getting it open.
"But we got through that, and that's really been the board's focus, really until this year, making sure the thing stayed open. We were bust. We were broke. And we were lucky to be here two years ago."
Not all parents at the meeting expressed concern about the school's leadership.
Harry McCoy said after the board meeting that he and his sixth-grade son have been with the school for six years, through the good times and the bad.
"We're not here to point fingers at the board or the administration, we're here to get our children educated," he said. "My son Stanton is without a teacher in the sixth grade, and I believe that's largely the result of irrational parents - overly emotional, irrational parents - making knee-jerk reactions to very minor incidences.
"In the grand scheme of things, we're here for a child to get an education, and not to suit all of our little needs."
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer for Cabarrus News. Have a story idea for Lisa? E-mail her at email@example.com.