"Insubordination, neglect" cited as reasons for termination of Birmingham Falls ES principal

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MILTON - The end came swiftly, with a series of small accusations and charges, as opposed to one smoking gun.

Just days after Tracy Trussell sat down with Fulton Schools Superintendent Cindy Loe and Area Superintendent Sam Taylor, the Birmingham Falls Elementary principal was handed his walking papers.

The Aug. 2 meeting between Trussell and the school system administrators was called to discuss eight accusations leveled at the principal, ranging from inappropriate jokes in e-mails, to the use of an expletive to describe a staff member, to comments about the age and gender of a staff member in a conversation with a parent.

There was nothing criminal, but certainly some charges were embarrassing and perhaps unethical for Trussell when the charges were made public. And apparently it was enough to terminate the once-popular principal just four days later under a host of reasons including “insubordination, incompetency and neglect of duties.”

Although Taylor announced to Birmingham Falls staff and parents that Trussell had been terminated Aug. 12, it was modified to a “resignation” just days later.

A resignation allows Trussell to maintain his salary and benefits through the end of the school year and removes the termination reference from his personnel files for future employment. The charges, however, will still be reviewed by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which certifies educators.

In reviewing correspondence between Trussell and school administration over the past four months, and obtained through an Open Records request, it appears nothing was publicly amiss until late July when Trussell was summoned to a meeting with Loe and Taylor. Prior to that, correspondence was mundane, related to repairs at the school, vacation issues, personnel moves and other routine matters.

But it is now apparent that tensions had long been strained with Trussell and several staff members, particularly Lynn Johnston, the former assistant principal at the school, who has since transferred to another school, and bookkeeper Donna Gunter.

Trussell apparently made no secret of his inability to work with either woman, or his preference to name his own leadership team. His reliance on his “confidential secretary,” Robin Cunningham, also was called into question, with the accusation that his long-time assistant was given duties “inappropriate for her position and seniority,” elevating her to that of an unofficial assistant principal.

In the termination letter, the school system said it could call upon nearly a dozen staff members and several parents who would testify in support of the termination. The letter also stated Trussell admitted to many of the allegations.

Trussell’s termination was announced to parents Aug. 12, after what appears to have been some effort to simply transfer Trussell from his principal position to one in school administration.

In a letter to Fulton School Board member Katie Reeves dated Aug. 7, Trussell wrote he was “still in shock and disbelief that I am apparently not going to be the principal of Birmingham Falls Elementary School when the children arrive in a few days.”

He also noted the he was aware the school board had voted 7-0 against his termination, and that a position “was to be created … to act as a child advocate and report directly to” a senior staff member.

Trussell said he was given 36 hours to respond, but that he was not given details on the reassignment at the time and could therefore not accept an unknown position.

In the letter, Trussell accused Taylor and Deputy Superintendent Linda Anderson of withholding the details of the reassignment purposefully, which led directly to the termination. He said he was the victim of a “witch hunt,” orchestrated by Human Resources.

Trussell becomes the 22nd principal change among the 101 schools heading into the 2010-2011 school year, the majority of which were due to principal retirements.

It was the plum assignment for the “out of the box” principal to leave a high performing school and open a new school in a high performing area. Trussell had a successful tenure at Creek View Elementary in Alpharetta for eight years, but was eager for the challenge of opening Birmingham Falls Elementary.

He worked overtime for months, still shepherding Creek View while staying intimately involved with the design, construction and opening of Birmingham Falls.

Open House last August was akin to Willy Wonka welcoming the kids into the Chocolate Factory, as Trussell pulled out the stops to create a magical memory for his new students. The bands, the speakers, the “ooh and aah” factor was all in place, as the doors opened to the community for the first time.

But reality set in nearly the moment the school opened. According to parents who asked not to be identified, the “over the top” treatment for every event was a bit off-putting. Every publication was a full-color design, every activity was red carpet.

“We just all wondered where the money was coming from, and how this added to education,” one parent said.

It was not uncommon for parents to answer the door at dinner time to find their child’s principal on the porch for an impromptu visit.

While these activities may have been the norm at Creek View, parents at Birmingham Falls apparently weren’t quite ready for the Tracy Trussell Experience.

“It was always ‘This is what we did at Creek View.’ But this was Birmingham Falls,” said the parent. “And we weren’t used to it.”

She also said communication with Trussell was limited and difficult, with everyone, including parents and apparently staff, having to go through Cunningham before meeting with the principal.

But there were many Trussell supporters as well. Some attended the parent meeting in tears after learning the person who had reached out to their child was out.

“This is not a happy day for the Fulton County School System,” said Reeves when the news was released. “Tracy Trussell dedicated many years to the Fulton County School System and the students, and none of us is happy to see him leave in this manner.”

For his part, Trussell, who has stayed out of the public eye over the past few weeks, wrote Reeves that “This matter has broken my heart and tarnished my reputation possibly beyond repair. Worst of all, however, is that the needs of the children have yet to be considered.”