Tarrant rift widens

Parents side with principal, shout down guidance counsellor at PTA meeting

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

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THE bitter rift between Tarrant High Principal Garfield Higgins and the school's teachers and board widened yesterday at a Parent/Teachers Association (PTA) meeting during which parents shouted down the guidance counsellor as he launched a verbal assault on the principal.

It took the spiritual intervention of PTA President Reverend Patrick Jordan to calm the parents, whose anger resulted in the guidance counsellor, Stephen Simpson, abandoning his report and leaving the meeting.

But even as he left the room, Simpson accused the principal of lying about what is happening at the St Andrew school.

"Him lie and wicked. The people don't know the truth," Simpson yelled.

Earlier, during his report, Simpson claimed that what Higgins said had nothing to do with the issue the board is having with him. However, he said he was not at liberty to discuss what was at the heart of the matter because of legal restrictions.

"As staff, we have to work long hours, nights and weekends, and this principal call us slackers and lazy teachers," he said.

But the parents objected, responding with a resounding, "ah true the principal ah tell!"

Some parents began walking out of the meeting, while others were overheard insisting that the principal was speaking the truth about teachers being habitually late for class.

"Ah true, because my son tell me seh some ah di teachers dem no come class," one parent hissed.

Higgins and his staff have been at loggerheads for some months now, and last week he insisted that he would not grant their demand for him to resign.

The dispute intensified after the board recommended that Higgins be dismissed. However, he filed an injunction in the Supreme Court to stay the dismissal.

Yesterday, the board chair and the principal used the regularly scheduled PTA meeting to tell their sides of the story, or as much as they could, given the legal restrictions.

The meeting got off to a fairly good start with the board chair, Marston Thomas, addressing the parents on the vexing issue.

Thomas opened his brief remarks by telling the parents that the board's first interest was the students.

Thomas, who has served as board chair for three years, said the board never had a problem with the previous principal.

However, he noted that there has since been a "lot of conflict" between the current principal, teachers and other staff members.

The board, he said, has been receiving letters of complaints from teachers, parents and students about the principal.

This, he said, led to the board's December 18, 2012 recommendation to the Ministry of Education that Higgins' provisional employment not be extended.

According to Thomas, Higgins didn't wait for a decision from the ministry, but instead took the matter to court where the next scheduled hearing will be tomorrow.

At this point, Thomas proceeded to lambast the media, in particular "the newspaper", which he accused of not carrying a release issued by the ministry on the matter.

"The release did not come in the paper because they only interested in juicy story about teachers late and selling," he said in obvious reference to the Observer's report on the matter last week.

He told the parents that there was much he had to say on the matter, but was constrained because of the court action. One of his grouses, however, was that students were being expelled or suspended without the board being informed.

He said that the school has a "good bunch" of teachers, with only "one and two who may be causing problems", but added that this happens everywhere.

Thomas, who had earlier announced that he could not stay for the entire meeting, ended by asking the parents not to take sides, but to "hear the truth" before deciding.

When Thomas started leaving the room, Higgins, whose turn it was to speak, said: "I'm sorry he can't stay, because he mentioned about truths and I'm about to give some truths."

Noting that his objective is to transform Tarrant into a school of choice, Higgins said the teachers at the heart of the problem have been tardy for years, and he intends to put a stop to it.

"Teachers have been doing these things since the previous principal and they have been getting away with it," he said to loud applause.

According to Higgins, the board continuously failed to act when he complained to them about the chronic lateness of some teachers.

"The teacher who was late 89 times has been here for years, and no one has challenged it," he said, again to loud applause.

"They say I'm a dictator and I don't have any respect. But if you don't do your work I have no respect for you," he said.

Higgins told the parents that under his watch the school has been reaping academic success and he pointed to the education ministry's inspection report which gave Tarrant a satisfactory grade and which, he said, was better than some traditional schools.

"Children are passing exams because I'm insisting that teachers go to class and teach your children," he said, again to loud applause.

He pointed to his decision that no child will be allowed to be a part of the graduation ceremony unless they have four subjects as evidence of where he is taking the school.

He, too, promised to speak more on the matter once the court case is settled.

At least three parents got up to commend him on his efforts when he opened the floor for questions.

The Dean of Discipline later noted that the situation had started to affect students.

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