The Payson school board on May 29 voted 3-2 to delay hiring a high school vice principal to instead hire an athletic director (AD)/dean of students.
One week ago, incoming Payson High School (PHS) Principal Anna Van Zile had suggested putting off hiring a vice principal for a year and instead hire a full-time AD/dean for the upcoming year.
The current half-time athletic director, Gary Fishel, has a contract to return to the classroom, although he says he will apply for the full-time administrative position.
Next year, Van Zile’s plan calls for adding a full-time vice principal, bringing the high school back to three full-time administrators for the first time since layoffs started three years ago.
During the previous board meeting on Van Zile’s proposal, the school board expressed skepticism of her plan to go without a vice principal to create a full-time athletic director position.
However, at Tuesday’s meeting, community and administration comments persuaded a bare majority of board members to approve Van Zile’s idea.
Incoming superintendent Ron Hitchcock told the board that if they overrode Van Zile’s suggestion, the board would become responsible for the result. If they supported Van Zile’s proposal and it failed, Van Zile would be responsible.
“If you involved another entity, they have to own the accountability for their decision,” said Hitchcock.
Board chair Barbara Underwood said Hitchcock’s comments prompted her to decide that the principal knew more about the school’s needs than she did.
“The thing that caught my ear the most was Mr. Hitchcock’s position that if we approve this and it fails, it’s her responsibility. If we say we know better, it’s our responsibility.”
Underwood also appreciated Superintendent Casey O’Brien’s reminder that the board could change its mind if the plan doesn’t work out.
Besides, finding a vice principal now would offer a challenge, said O’Brien.
“It’s not easy to find a good assistant principal at this time of year,” said O’Brien. “People not in a position at this time don’t have a position for a reason.”
Dissenting members Barbara Shepherd and Kim Pound stood fast with their original concerns, ultimately voting against Van Zile’s suggestion.
“My issue is this is a big risk and a liability as well,” said Pound. He expressed concern that Van Zile has never served as a principal before, but would be operating without an additional certified administrator, which could expose the district to legal consequences.
Pound also worried that accepting her plan would empower the “good old boy network” to put someone in place they like rather than a qualified candidate.
“What makes me irritated is that this good old boy network needs to stop,” he said. “We should not select according to who we like or don’t like. This is different — accountability stops with you (Van Zile).”
Underwood suggested the district set up an interview team to help fill the slot.
“I feel these positions need to be open with an interview team to get the best and brightest,” she said.
Shepherd questioned waiting a year before hiring a vice principal if the district would need to fill the slot by next year anyway. She also worried Van Zile would overburden herself.
“I will not support you doing both jobs by yourself,” she said. “You’ll burn yourself out.”
Several community members also stepped forward to weigh in on the issue.
John Lemmon, while encouraging the board to also keep an assistant principal, suggested empowering the athletic staff to help with discipline because athletes respect their coaches.
“Give coaches a written form so they know they are valuable,” Lemmon said.
Former PHS teacher and wrestling coach Dennis Pirch said an athletic director served a vital role.
“Community support and morale dovetails in the athletic director,” said Pirch. “When you have a successful athletic program, that breeds a music program and a great academic program.”
Pirch agreed with Lemmon that coaches could play a significant role with discipline.
“If I have a bone-head wrestler in a class and the teacher tells me what’s going on, I can do something,” said Pirch. “I believe the head coach has the clout to make a difference.”
Board member Matt Van Camp said he had never experienced such community concern over an issue.
“It’s rare people call me (on school board issues),” said Van Camp. “I’ve had 30 calls from the sports supporters. I don’t play sports, but sports keep kids engaged.”
Van Camp said he would support Van Zile’s proposal.
Rory Huff admitted he came to the meeting not intending to support Van Zile’s position, but once he understood it gave a classroom another full-time teacher, he decided to change his vote.
“Doing this puts another teacher in the classroom,” he said. “Teachers are the most important cog in the system.”
The precise impact on classroom teaching assignments in the shuffle remains hard to assess until Van Zile actually fills the position.
Besides Fishel, several other district staff have expressed interest in the position. Fishel has an administrative certificate as do other potential candidates. It’s unclear whether the district would hire a new, full-time teacher if an existing teacher took the position.
Fishel last year served as part-time athletic director for the high school as well as the lead teacher for Payson Center for Success (PCS), the alternative high school. For the coming school year, the district did away with the lead teacher position at PCS and offered Fishel a contract for an unspecified position.
In an interview after the meeting, Fishel said he has taught high school social studies, English and art. He has also taught third and fifth grade.
“I’ll go where they need me,” he said.