Fired Narcoossee principal questions report
By Ken Jackson
While an investigative summary into the firing of Narcoossee Elementary School principal Holly Willis was released late last week alleging that she created a teaching environment that was “toxic and hostile,” the veteran of the Osceola County School District is still in shock and wonders what she did to make nearly two dozen of her now former employees say that.
The report said Willis’ recent tenure at the school was marked by “fear, disrespect and manipulation” as the report detailed instances during the 2013-14 school year. It also made reference to similar allegations logged during the 2011-12 year, but Willis said she had no knowledge of any of it until meeting with Superintendent Melba Luciano to discuss her annual evaluation on May 27.
“Needless to say I was in shock,” she said.
In compiling the report, the School District’s investigator concluded the primary concern of those staffers was her movement of staff between grade levels and classroom assignments, but some also expressed examples of being harassed, humiliated or intimidated, or witnessed such behavior by Willis toward staff.
Reached Monday at her Orlando home, Willis said she was astonished at the report. She said neither she nor Assistant Principal Hillary DeLuca was interviewed.
“I still want to know what I said or did that was considered hostile,” she said. “And people have called and told me they were interviewed and said I didn’t create a hostile environment, but they were not mentioned in the investigation.
“I had a discussion with Terry Andrews (the district superintendent during the 2011-12 school year) about two other items, but he never told me of any allegations then. I believe, at some point, I became a target or focus.”
Willis, along with parents and teachers who supported her, made a plea at the June 17 School Board meeting to have the removal reversed. Narcoossee has been an A-rated school the last four years.
“And we want it to stay an A-school,” one parent said. “Remove the head and the body will fall. One of her strengths has been doing the right thing for the kids.”
According to district documents, Willis was notified of her removal as principal by Superintendent Melba Luciano on June 10, and she will be offered an instructional position for next school year rather than being terminated. Willis will reach 30 years with the district on Aug. 22.
“But I’m a principal, I love what I do, and I love Florida,” said Willis, 51, who would choose to remain an administrator here despite her husband and daughters working out of state.
Most of the report’s negative comments centered on her re-assigning teachers to new class levels against their wishes, and the stern responses they got from Willis when they questioned her about them. One called Willis’ treatment of teachers “inconsistent” and based on social relationships.
The investigation also uncovered that Willis submitted a list of 20 proposed instructional changes for the 2014-15 school year, and she changed classroom assignments during the last week of school (June 2-6) that just ended. Many of the changes caused grade level disruptions, the report said.
Willis said Monday her movement of teachers among grades and classrooms was based on long-standing criteria based on student need and teacher strengths.
“I did it the same way every year,” she said. “I had to watch the numbers, especially the first six weeks of school, because the movements were bases on enrollment numbers. Losing one unit would create a domino effect that could result in three to five changes. And I would never move anyone kicking and screaming.”
Ultimately, Investigator Sheila Williams concluded Willis created an atmosphere “wherein personnel were not treated with integrity, high ideals and human understanding,” a violation of School Board Rule 6.27 which deals with professional ethics.
“Her response to a number of employees who did not agree with her administration style was if anyone is unhappy, they should leave,” the report read.
Willis called her management style “direct but not abrasive.”
“I tell people things they need to know. If they don’t know, they can’t fix it,” she said. “I would never just take someone’s dignity.”
Willis acknowledged that about three teachers had a problem with her, based on tough conversations she had with them. Since she has retained a lawyer over the matter, she would not answer why she thought more than 20 teachers would suddenly have a big enough problem to approach the school district.
The investigation summary concludes with a narrative of the June 10 meeting between Willis Human Resources Manager Tammy Cope-Otterson and Luciano, who shared with Willis the results of the investigation and told her she could not allow Willis to treat staff in the manner it described.
The following week, she and others appealed to the School Board. Willis spoke of excellent evaluations from five different superintendents. “I’m not sure anyone else can say that in this room,” Willis said.
Ann Weeks, a third-grade teacher at NES, opposed the investigative summary’s content.
“She is one who sees when changes need to be made. Sometimes you don’t agree with your principal, but she’s the boss. As an employee, you’ll be told to do something you don’t want to do,” Weeks said. “As a teacher, I’m intimidated by my principal because they have the power, but with Holly it’s different. She has an open-door policy. It saddens me that her voice was never heard. She is an asset to our community.”
School Board Chairman Tim Weisheyer thanked those who spoke, but he said the decision was not that of the School Board’s. All administrators are on annual contracts that the superintendent can elect to renew or not each year.
The District has replaced Willis with Scott Knoebel, who comes from Hickory Tree Elementary, effective Tuesday.