Controversy plagues Somerset schools Federal verdict latest in series of troubles

June 29, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The half-million-dollar verdict handed down against Somerset County's school board in federal court Thursday was only the latest in a series of difficulties involving the Eastern Shore county's education system.

Since the beginning of the year, when Crisfield's Woodson Middle School turned up on a list of schools with below-passing scores on a statewide pupil assessment test, the rural county has been simmering with controversy about its schools.

"There's a gut feeling that something is wrong here," said Casey Todd, owner of the Metompkin Bay Oyster Co. in Crisfield.

In the federal case, a jury awarded black former Superintendent H. DeWayne Whittington almost $500,000 because he had been the victim of racism. But some county residents say the federal case has had a negative effect even before Thursday's verdict because it has led to reassignments based on politics, not merit.

Those changes and the verdict have angered many Somerset County residents. The debate also has been fueled by the reluctance of the school board and the current superintendent to discuss specific details -- a reluctance they say is necessary under the law.

Todd and others interviewed say the verdict has intensified the anger following Superintendent Jimmy Horn's decision to demote one of the county's most popular principals. Ann F. Lewis had been named principal of Woodson Middle School 2 1/2 years ago, and had drawn praise from parents, school administrators and state education officials for her stewardship of the troubled school.

But on May 31 -- three weeks after she had given a deposition in the Whittington case -- Lewis was told by Horn that she was being demoted. Instead of leading Woodson Middle School, she would be teaching at another school next year, she was told.

Lewis, who notified the superintendent yesterday that she has accepted an assistant principalship in nearby Wicomico County effective July 1, declined to comment on the matter. Horn will say only that "we don't discuss the whys of personnel -- I just didn't feel she was right for that school."

He denies that his decision had anything to do with Lewis' deposition in the federal case, in which she criticized his leadership. Instead, he says, it's part of a reorganization that also moved three other people, two of whom did not give depositions in the Whittington case.

But many in the county believe the two issues are related. What the county will ultimately have to pay isn't clear, pending the appeal. What is clear is that the verdict has not brought closure.

"This whole thing is going to get messy now," said Jay Tawes, vice president of the Crisfield Area Chamber of Commerce. Like Todd, he has a child attending Woodson and is outraged by the demotion of Lewis.

The verdict raises questions about the board and the superintendent that are not going to go away, Tawes said. "What is the validity now? It looks as if everything was tainted," he said yesterday.

School board chairman Ted Abbott said that the board will appeal the federal decision, and that Horn has the right to make personnel changes.

School board members John L. Ent Jr. and Anna M. Taylor were ordered to pay $40,000 each to Whittington. Abbott was dropped from the suit by the verdict.

"My feeling is that the other two members did nothing wrong," Abbott said yesterday.

Of the decision to move Lewis, he said that in a small, rural county like Somerset, changes can cause talk.

"People don't adapt well to change," he said. "I've had some people contact me about it."

Like Horn and Lewis, he declined to discuss specifics, saying that the board's policy was not to discuss personnel changes in detail.

The chamber of commerce has protested Lewis' demotion in writing, and Tawes and others say they plan to attend the board's next meeting on July 9 to discuss the matter.

"What I would like to see is the governor or [state schools superintendent] Nancy Grasmick investigate the educational system here," said Jack Paul, head of the Woodson Parent-Teacher Association. "I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Pub Date: 6/29/96

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