- Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When investigators learned that Lake Worth High School’s principal had asked teachers to do math assignments for his son and pressured teachers to change students’ grades, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa decided at first to fire the longtime principal.
Less than a month later, though, Avossa relented, writing to then-Principal George Lockhart to inform him that he had changed his mind, even though he told Lockhart he had “misused (his) position and authority and compromised the integrity of the district as a whole.”
“This letter serves to notify you that I am rescinding my recommendation to non-reappoint you,” Avossa wrote in May. He later said that he changed his mind after weighing Lockhart’s “bad decisions against a 27-year run where he was contributing in a very positive way.”
But while Avossa framed it as a merciful act, Lockhart’s second chance was seized on by teachers as evidence of a double standard.
“It escapes me how minor infractions, or a ‘personality conflict’ or the conveniently non-descript ‘not a good fit’ justify firing a teacher,” Justin Katz, president of the county’s teachers union, wrote on Facebook when Lockhart’s case was revealed last month.
“However,” he added, “an administrator can abuse their power, intimidate their subordinates into literally breaking the law, and out of fear of retribution force them to violate their own personal ethical and moral codes.”
Although his pay has been cut, Lockhart continues earning a six-figure salary at the school district. Removed from his principal position, he is working as a manager in the school district’s charter school office. Records show he is now earning $102,000, down from $123,000 last school year.
Lockhart is replacing the retiring Mark Stenner, another former principal who was removed from office in 2015 after he had plagiarized two commencement speeches that he gave at West Boca High School.
Teachers have long complained that while troubled principals tend to find their way into administrative jobs after being removed from their schools, too many teachers are fired by principals without any explanation for why their jobs are being terminated.
Just this summer, a teacher complained to county school board members that despite earning a highly effective rating, her principal declined to renew her contract this summer with no explanation.
Her account sparked a discussion among board members about whether the school district should bar principals from getting rid of highly rated teachers without offering some explanation, although no such policy was ever adopted. (Union officials say the teacher eventually found a teaching job at another county school.)
In an interview, Katz said that he didn’t know Lockhart or the specifics of his case but said that his second chance seemed to fit a general pattern in which “administrators tend to get a lot more leeway.”
“You see it year after year – people get shuffled around,” he said. “Maybe they get a demotion, but they’re still getting pretty comfortable pay.”
Avossa said in an interview that he often hears the same complaint from teachers about a perceived double standard. While not denying that the standards sometimes differ for teachers and administrators, he pointed out that in some cases he has demoted principals and cut their pay, including in Lockhart’s case.
Still, he said, “I understand the frustration.”
He added that while principals do have discretion to get rid of teachers without explanation (the annual contracts that most teachers have mean they can be “non-renewed” at the end of the school year for any reason) the school district often works to find new positions for teachers who lost their jobs at their previous school.
This summer, about 50 teachers who were let go by their principals this summer were rehired at other schools, Avossa said.
Since Avossa took office in 2015, he has removed at least eight principals from their schools, either after questions arose about their performance or after protracted conflicts between them and their teaching staffs.
Three were given jobs in the school district’s central office and five were assigned to other schools. Two of the reassigned principals were demoted to assistant principals.
None was terminated, although Avossa said that a ninth principal — West Riviera Elementary’s Tonja Lindsey-Latson — would likely have faced termination had she not resigned after being arrested in January on charges of pawning a school computer multiple times at a local pawn shop.
Still, some teachers argued that Lockhart’s actions were ones that wouldn’t have been tolerated if a teacher had done them.
Karen Walter, a Dwyer High School science teacher, said that the allegations “sound like they come particularly from abuse of power.”
“That requires intent,” he said. “I know principals that made it to retirement without these types of blatant abuse of power.”
One aspect of principals keeping their jobs that rankles teachers: They continue to earn salaries higher than even the most respected teachers.
Sharon Moorhouse, a teacher at Park Vista High School, said she was bothered that even with his pay cut Lockhart would still make more than any teacher.
“The fact that he is currently making $75,000 – a number I as a teacher will never see – upsets me,” she said. Lockhart is actually earning $102,000.
Some teachers said they agreed that Lockhart deserved a second chance but felt that teachers too often failed to get the same consideration.
Bak Middle School teacher Jennifer Gardner worked for Lockhart years ago and praised him as someone who “always had the best interests of the students at heart.”
“I agree with Avossa that the good far outweighs the bad,” she said. “I also agree that teachers should be afforded the same system of second chances and redemption that is given administrators.”