An open letter to Milton High’s incoming principal

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Well, it happened, just not exactly the way I anticipated. I think. One of the emails that flashed across my screen about an hour ago said that Cliff Jones – Milton High School’s principal – would be leaving at the end of this year. It was from Cliff saying that he had applied for and accepted the position of Executive Director of Accountability for the Fulton County Board of Education.

I told my wife a while ago that I was worried about Cliff and that I would not be too surprised if we lost him as principal at Milton. I wish that I had been wrong on this one.

This is a hard column for me to write. I will just come out and say it. The reason I was worried is because he has been one of those you-only-encounter-maybe-once individuals who was, as a principal, too good to be true. I did not think “the system” would tolerate an individual so far outside of the mean – even though in a wonderfully good and positive way – for long.

Milton's new principal will be Dr. Nathan Buhl who is currently the principal of Crabapple Middle School. So I thought that maybe I would write a letter to Dr. Buhl – sort of a welcome note.

Dear Dr. Buhl,

Congratulations on being named the new principal at Milton. I have had all three of my children go to the school and am very fond of this institution. So many things that I have seen at this school have amazed me. Some of what I have encountered there falls just this side of magic.

You are stepping into very large shoes and are entering a school that is used to being led by a leader – as opposed to being ruled by the authority of the position. Leadership by authority alone is not leading and breeds contempt and destroys trust. Running a school by mandate alone is a fool’s gambit. Your predecessor was a wise leader who led the school by engaging his teachers and his students and having the strength, confidence and courage to allow them to achieve. So often they set their own bar far higher than if it had been set for them.

Your predecessor engaged the entire school – from the teachers to the coaches to the students. Because of this “policy” and I am sure also because of the example he set, this school rallied around each other and supported each other across the general school population. I have never seen an organization that more supported each other and reached out to each other in good times and bad. This did not happen by accident nor will it continue without support.

This school has gone through several extremely painful years of tragedy. That has taken a toll on everyone from the teachers to the students to the administration. Your predecessor bore the brunt of managing this and did so with amazing strength and focus.

Dr. Buhl, Milton has created a drama and theater department that is a crown jewel in all the system. But please understand Dr. Buhl that the “jewel” that has been created is not really the theater department as much as it is an example of what can happen when students and teachers are empowered – when they are given the latitude and authority to create and make decisions. Milton students beam with pride for their theater department. They do the same for so many of the sports teams. And the support crosses all borders, ages, ethnic composition and interests. This is a high school that is “successful” and one that is making the world a better place.

Dr. Buhl, you are following in the footsteps of a principal who guided this school with dignity, wisdom, common sense and unimaginable empathy for all his flock. I know you will be a great principal because you will be working with a wonderful organization that responds to wonderful leaders.

MH 05-21-14