Timing of principal's leave at failing school questioned

Howard considers stricter process of approval after action questioned

October 08, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The principal of Howard High School took a vacation last month, a week after she learned her facility had been added to a list of struggling schools, prompting officials to consider tightening the leave-approval process.

Howard High School Principal Mary Day took five days off from work, Sept. 22 to Sept. 26 - one week after she had been told her Ellicott City school was being added to the county's School Improvement Unit, which provides extra resources and attention to underperforming facilities.

The timing of Day's vacation, so close to the start of the school year, had some questioning its suitability.

"We would like our principals to be in the building whenever students are," said Roger L. Plunkett, who oversees Howard's administrators. "However, they are entitled to their vacations, and we don't have guidelines" telling them when it's appropriate to take time off.

"Maybe we have to assume responsibility and develop stronger parameters," Plunkett said.

David Bruzga, who retired as Long Reach High School principal in June, said the first month of school is important in setting the climate.

"There are a lot of start-up issues at that time. You're establishing relationships with the students and the teachers," Bruzga said. "I just very strongly feel that we don't expect our staff members to take off then, so therefore I would have a very difficult time justifying my own absence unless it was an extreme emergency."

Day - who is involved in a legal dispute with education critics who questioned her leadership - declined to explain her timing or whereabouts, saying vacations are private.

"I think you're treading on personal ground here," Day said in an interview. "There's no rule that says I can't take my vacation time at any time. You use it when you want to use it as long as you have approval."

Howard High parent Melody Higgins said Day works hard to make sure the students have what they need, but that she couldn't comment on a personnel issue, other than to say, "If your employer allows you to go on vacation, then what's the problem?"

Administrators submit leave notices to Plunkett, who typically approves them as informational items, though he can choose to deny the request. He said Day's early vacation caused him pause but that he didn't ask her any in-depth questions about it, in part because the time off is contractually allowed.

"I take full responsibility," Plunkett said.

Principals, who generally work year-round, receive 20 days of leave annually in Howard County, in addition to the standard breaks and holidays throughout the school year.

Many administrators never get to use their full vacation time because they're caught up in their multiple duties, said Jimmy Gittings, vice president of the American Federation of School Administrators and president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association of Baltimore City.

"They're very dedicated to the position. That's why they've accumulated so much sick and vacation time," Gittings said, estimating the average Baltimore principal has accumulated 300 sick days.

"I doubt very seriously that you would find any principal in the Baltimore City school system taking off during the first month of school opening," Gittings added. "But that's not to say that that is wrong."

Other educators noted that there could be extenuating circumstances.

"Maybe this trip in September was a once-in-a-lifetime family event," suggested school board head Sandra H. French. "It's hard to second-guess."

French also said she didn't consider the timing all that alarming.

"I don't have a problem with the third or fourth week of school," she said. "The critical part is from the middle of August, when the principals come to a first meeting with Roger Plunkett, to the opening of school and the week after. That is an extremely critical part in getting the school ready and open and making sure all the teachers are there and prepared."

Nevertheless, the board's vice chairman, Patricia S. Gordon, said she would like principals to vacation in July and August if possible.

"I'm told they're busy setting up the schools and interviewing teachers and so on, and they find it difficult," Gordon said. "But I really think that we need to at least encourage principals to take some time off during the summer months and work while students are in school. That's something we might have to consider."

In court papers, Day contends she suffered a "long-term campaign of malicious, wrongful and/or illegal acts" stemming from concerns some teachers raised about her in 2001, including that she uses "fear and intimidation" to gain respect.

The lawsuit - filed against the Howard County Education Association and its president, Joseph R. Staub Jr., and the Maryland State Teachers Association and its county liaison, Marius Ambrose - was dismissed in July. Day is appealing the decision.

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