`It's not over,' says demoted high school administrator

August 12, 2007|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun reporter

A dispute that began in May involving the demotion of a popular former assistant principal at C. Milton Wright High School remains unresolved.

Christopher Battaglia, the former assistant principal at the high school who is appealing his demotion from assistant principal to teacher, met with the superintendent and the school district's lawyers Friday. After a seven-hour meeting, he told a group of supporters rallying outside, "It's not over."

Battaglia's hearing was recessed and scheduled to continue at a date that has not been set, said Harford County Public Schools spokesman Don Morrison.

About 50 students and parents from the Bel Air high school protested Battaglia's demotion in front of the A.A. Roberty Building, where the meeting was held. Battaglia was demoted from an assistant principal to a social studies teacher in May.

In an interview last week, Battaglia said that as a teacher, he wouldn't get his own classroom and would have to shuttle his belongings on a cart from class to class.

"It's embarrassing to teach without a room," said Kate Jones, a former Wright student. "It's demeaning to him. He's the spirit of the school, and he's the one person that students care about."

Outside the building, former and current students assembled under the scorching August sun about 8:40 a.m., chanting, cheering and blowing whistles for Battaglia. Lined up on Courtland Street, they urged passing cars to honk their horns.

Their signs read: "We want our principal back," "The wrong person is being demoted," and "Don't be a Haas" -- a reference to the county's superintendent, Jacqueline C. Haas.

About 5 o'clock, Battaglia emerged from the building as students and parents cheered. He said he couldn't comment on what had happened at the hearing.

He thanked the students and urged them to be positive. He declined their offers of peanut butter crackers, pointed to his braces and said jokingly, "They'll get stuck in my braces."

Battaglia has said the demotion comes with a significant pay cut that affects his family, which includes his wife and four children. He recently traded in a sport utility vehicle for a Toyota Corolla to pay the mortgage, he said.

"The school is not being fair," said John King, a Wright senior. "We ask them why they're doing this to Mr. Battaglia, and they say, `Because we can.' It's ridiculous that they're using arbitrary power for no reason."

Harford County public schools officials would not answer questions regarding the situation.

"We can't comment because it is a personnel matter and one that the laws and regulations don't allow us to do so," said Morrison.

Battaglia's hearing was closed to the public, although he had requested an open one. The school administration pointed to a school policy that prohibited the public from attending.

When Wright students and parents gathered outside the building in the morning, school officials told them that they could not stand on the sidewalk directly in front of the building and that they would have to go across the street.

But after students and parents consulted with the Harford County Sheriff's Office, they stayed in front of the building, chanting "B-tag, B-tag," a nickname for Battaglia.

"They're just trying to intimidate us," said Kathy King, a Wright parent.

In May, Battaglia, who was then the acting principal at Wright, was to be transferred to Edgewood High School for the 2007-2008 school year. Nearly 100 Wright students and parents crammed into a Board of Education meeting asking that Battaglia remain at their school.

After listening to them, Haas finalized the transfer and told The Sun in May that, "Their voices were heard, and in some cases, you can't honor their request."

The decision riled students, who circulated petitions, wrote letters to politicians and created a Facebook group called "Bring Back Battaglia," which has 273 members.

Although Battaglia was not transferred to another high school, he was demoted to a social sciences teacher at Wright later that month.

In Battaglia's six years as a Wright assistant principal, he won numerous supporters who wrote to politicians and school officials throughout the summer.

"He knows more names than any of the administrators put together," said Brittany Stewart, a former Wright student.

Janet Holbrook, a Wright parent from Forest Hill, said Battaglia took an interest in her son, who was in a class with extra supervision. Battaglia worked with her and her son to find the most appropriate class and academic environment for him, Holbrook said.

"My son was on a destructive path," Holbrook said. "Chris Battaglia, by showing him respect and taking interest in him, changed the course of his school career and possibly his life. It shows the impact of how much one person can have."

Battaglia had engineered an award-winning mentorship program to help freshmen transition into high school. But Battaglia said he was told he could not be involved in the program anymore.

"I don't understand how they can take it away from him after he's done all that work," said Drew Blais, a Wright sophomore who was in the mentorship program last year. "That program was his baby, and they're taking it away from him."

State Del. Susan K. McComas, a Republican who represents Bel Air and Abingdon, went to the school building Friday after receiving impassioned e-mails from the Wright community.

"It's such a tragedy for the school system," McComas said. "I was hoping it'd be mediated without it coming to this. Things could've been worked out. Instead, both parties are going to lose. There are no winners."

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