Secrecy decried in dismissal of headmaster

Friends School parents seeking information

February 05, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

Some Friends School parents want to know why the school's popular headmaster is leaving, and worry about how his departure will affect the school and its students.

Angered by a letter dated Jan. 18 from the board of trustees announcing that Jon M. Harris would leave June 30, the parents say the board should explain why it dismissed Harris.

Board chairman J. Kevin Carnell said that he and other trustees are not at liberty to discuss the details, but they have told parents that Harris' departure is a personnel matter and confidential.

"We have tried to explain how the decision was made," Carnell said. "The board reached a consensus, and it speaks to the thoroughness of the board."

Some parents say the announcement was sudden and unexpected.

It has been "cloaked in a veil of confidentiality," said Bradley Alger, the father of one Friends student. "It has been nerve-wracking trying to find out what happened. Jon Harris was involved and committed to the school. He ... had a good relationship with [all the students].

"It's a terrific school, but I want some responsiveness from the board," Alger said. "We have no idea what the basis of the decision was. We were told to trust in the board."

Harris, 48, would not comment.

Katharine Patterson, the mother of two Friends students, said that Harris told upper school students at an assembly Jan. 28 that it was not his choice to leave and that he had enjoyed being part of Friends. She said the students gave him a standing ovation.

Patterson said she felt very much in the dark about the board's decision. "I was thrilled with Jon, and I saw things liven up at the school when he took over. He had the love and respect of the student body and was very responsive to the parents. Jon was a man of integrity."

Friends, a private, coeducational Quaker day school on North Charles Street, enrolls 1,003 students from age 4 through grade 12. Tuition is $12,000 to $15,000 a year.

Tonette Runde, president of the Friends School Parents Association and the mother of two students, said she has heard from parents who are surprised and angry about the Harris departure and from others who support the board's decision.

One supporter is Stephen Gottlieb, the father of three students, who said it would be worse to discuss personnel issues in public: "People not directly involved never know the factors leading to a dispute. ... It is not surprising that some parents ... don't understand the basis for the board's decision." However, he said, the board has not been hasty "and most parents anticipate that the result of this action will be a stronger school, with effective leadership."

In the letter announcing Harris' departure, Carnell said that an interim head of school would be found for the 2002-2003 academic year while Friends conducts a national search for a permanent head.

Some parents wonder whether the board's dismissal of Harris will hurt the school's quest for a new head of school.

"I'm concerned about the ability of the school to attract qualified candidates now," Alger said.

Robert and Eileen Loeb, parents of two students, said they are concerned about the leadership and direction of Friends with the departures of Harris and upper-school principal Janice S. Morrison, who announced in the fall that she will leave June 30.

Some parents said they had talked with board members, but were not satisfied with the answers they were given.

The Loebs said they were told that the board couldn't discuss why Harris was leaving because it was "not appropriate."

"This is not what we expected to hear at Friends School," Robert Loeb said. "The parents are due an explanation, even if [board members] aren't required to."

Carnell said he had received several dozen letters, e-mail messages and phone calls from parents asking about the board's decision. "I believe that most of the parents are accepting the decision, after the situation is explained."

In a letter to parents dated Jan. 24, Runde said several trustees had met with the parents' association to talk about the decision and plans for the transition.

"The association's leaders support the board's plan ... [and] we look forward to working with the board ... and the administration to ensure a smooth transition," the letter stated.

The 21 members of the Friends board are nominated by a joint committee of the Stony Run Friends Meeting and the trustees. Half of the board members are Quakers.

The approach of the board seems contrary to the principles of the Quakers, Alger said. Quaker values include equality, community, truth, simplicity and peaceful resolution of conflict.

"I don't agree with the decision and I'm disappointed that the board made it," said Beverly Wright, mother of two Friends students. "Jon Harris did a superb job as headmaster and was just what the school needed. I am sorry to lose him."

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