This is the Life: Erickson principal’s reassignment raises more questions than answers

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In the decade since I’ve returned to the newspaper business there have been few reporting assignments that I have enjoyed more than the ones that have taken me into our elementary schools. The hum of energy that accompanies the opening of a main door is palpable and the passion exuded by most teachers is both inspiring and reassuring. Visit an elementary school and it’s difficult not to feel optimistic about the future.

I have visited Erickson Elementary School to photograph Christmas concerts and witness programs at assemblies, to write about the installation of a new playground, to report on a visiting mask-making instructor and to talk to volunteers from the Creston Valley Rotary Club about the morning breakfast program. Those are only a few instances that come to mind. It’s a great school with a dynamic staff and committed parents.

It was with a sense of dread that I learned in January that principal Nancy DeVuono was not at her school, having been removed from her position only hours before the Christmas break. Consummate professional is the term that I have used often in describing DeVuono, who is energetic, vibrant, positive and completely dedicated to our public school system. She was, I learned, working on school district assignments until she is returned to her regular school duties.

Last year, DeVuono had a fall on the ice when she was skating with students. She suffered a concussion, then had a relapse, generally described as post-concussion syndrome, in June and finished out the school year on medical leave. Over the summer, some of the symptoms remained and she returned with doctor’s orders to work only at the administrative portion of her duties. Her job as principal is divided into 40 per cent classroom time and 60 per cent admin and office time. The doctor also recommended she get some additional clerical support, as the school office only has a secretary until 11:30 a.m. each day.

DeVuono returned to something of a hornet’s nest. A rushed and poorly executed plan to begin charging parents for busing students to schools out of their catchment area resulted in a drop in enrolment and a cut in staffing. Reorganizing class sizes and configurations and making do with fewer staff put added pressure on DeVuono, her staff, students and parents.

The school district never did fully comply with the doctor’s orders. Instead, DeVuono’s workload was set at 0.83 of a full workweek and no additional clerical help was offered.

I attended a parent advisory council meeting last week to which School District No. 8 (Kootenay Lake) Supt. Jeff Jones was invited. The PAC president started the meeting by saying it would not address the busing issue, but instead would focus on the DeVuono question. Also at the meeting was Dan Miles, the second temporary principal in the school this year. School board trustee Annette Hambler-Pruden also attended.

The anger that has built up among parents and DeVuono’s colleagues since she was removed from her position was clearly not eased by Jones’ responses. To be fair, he is hamstrung by provincial regulation and school board policy — discussing personnel issues in public is verboten. But he didn’t do himself any favours by being frustratingly vague about why DeVuono got the news of her temporary removal just as the Christmas break was starting, or why he didn’t deliver the message in person, rather than by telephone and, later, by letter. Instead, he referred to a breakdown of “district communications protocol”, which makes it sound like there was an unexpected wind on the day the smoke signal was sent up. Neither has Jones explained why DeVuono’s doctor’s orders weren’t respected.

I left the meeting saddened that no one was leaving in a better frame of mind than the one they had walked in with. Jones’ assurances that DeVuono would be returned to her position at some point didn’t have the effect he wanted. Trust, once broken, isn’t easy to rebuild.

Since that meeting I have had an email correspondence with Jones, a man whom I respect and whose co-operation with this newspaper has always been forthright and cordial. As expected, I have been given no clearer information than those who attended the PAC meeting.

Erickson elementary is a wonderful school, in large part because of DeVuono and her predecessor, David Falconer. Good principals attract and inspire great teachers and support staff. And that team, in turn, draws out the best in parents, who feel involved and important to the education of their children. But schools don’t work in isolation. In this case, the handling of the DeVuono situation seems to have been clumsy at best. And it has resulted in a lessening of the respect and admiration that the school has enjoyed in our community.

There is no way to go back and undo the damage that has been done, either in rushing through busing fees without reassessing catchment areas or in removing an admired principal from her duties and not adequately communicating with students and parents. In the coming months we can only hope that we will see DeVuono back on the job and that the committee currently looking at the school catchment map will have given our community a sense of reassurance that the issues have been addressed. In the longer term we will have to hope that the school district will be more sensitive to the communities that it exists to serve.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.