The Franklin County School Board listened last week to several appeals from the public to retain Eric Bidwell as principal.
High school teacher Stephanie Howze-Jones presented petitions May 8 of about 200 names, some broken down by individual districts, to the school board members, who mainly listened without comment to her words, as well as those from a handful of Bidwell backers.
After sophomore Jaylynn Lyston, one of the first to speak, told of how she and two friends gathered signatures on a petition to keep Bidwell, School Board Member Teresa Ann Martin questioned when this had taken place.
“That’s a big concern of mine, signing signatures during classroom time,” said Martin.
“We did it between classes and at breakfasts, not during school,” said Lyston. “Our principal has been a great principal. He has been helpful and supportive to me, and he makes himself approachable and easy to talk to. He is bringing a change to the school.”
When Howze-Jones rose to speak, she was accompanied by her daughter, senior Haleigh Ming, to answer questions about how the petition drive was handled. “I just want to clear the air before we get started,” said Howze-Jones.
Ming said she had offered the petition to classmates just the day before, only to find one teacher tell her she could not do it inside their classroom. “That might have been why you got a report,” said Howze-Jones.
“I received several phone calls today and all week long, all week people calling, students calling and saying they’ve been bombarded,” said Martin.
“I am in support of Mr. Bidwell,” said Howze-Jones. “I know there are varied opinions on the subject. I feel very strongly about mine.
“My purpose is I’ve seen many positive changes at Franklin County School and I attribute those changes to Mr. Bidwell,” she continued. “He’s the most effective principal and leader we’ve had in my eight years.
“It seems like we waste so much valuable time getting used to an administrator. A lot of our time is wasted on repeated training of new principals,” said Howze-Jones. “We have invested a lot of money on Mr. Bidwell. I have a signed list of co-workers who agree.”
Paul Bankston, a paraprofessional and girls basketball coach, likened Bidwell to Marks, who he said had a similar dedication in the past. “Fifteen years ago I saw somebody else in action, that’s our superintendent,” he said. “She offered TLC, she cared about that kid.
“I’ve seen the same thing with Mr. Bidwell,” said Bankston. “I’ve seen him take a kid aside, teaching him the proper technique for basketball.
“I can work with this man, because one reason he’s approachable,” he said. “When I talk to him, he don’t act like he's up here and I’m down here.”
Nikki Millender said she spoke as a concerned parent in support of rehiring Bidwell. “He’s dedicated his time to show support for his kids. He doesn’t let personal gossip get in the way,” she said. “His doors are always open to me and my child. He’s always there to listen.
“How much will it cost in new training of our principal if Mr. Bidwell is let go? Can we afford it?” Millender asked. “If it wasn’t for this man right here, my child wouldn’t be going into the 11th grade. He’s always been there for my child, he does nothing but encourage her. He’s constantly kept up with my child. He is always there and I thank God there’s someone like Mr. Bidwell and I wish there were more of them.
“I’m here speaking for myself and my child,” she said. “He’s a great asset.”
In referring to gossip, the adult speakers were indirectly addressing a relationship that Bidwell is in with former school psychologist Lisa Sweatt, according to both their Facebook postings. Both he and Sweatt, who worked up until last month as a contracted employee under Special Programs Director Dr. Sue Summers, are either in the midst of, or have completed, divorce proceedings from their respective spouses.
“I’m aware that there’s talk in our community,” said Howze-Jones. “Wouldn’t it be a shame to let non work-related issues that have certainly been embellished stand in the way? We don’t even know what progress” has been made.
Standardized test results from the 2013-14 school year, Bidwell’s first as principal, won’t be released until later this year.
Howze-Jones said Bidwell has completed several walk-throughs of her classroom, and that of other teachers, more than his predecessors.
“Now that’s he in a leadership role, he’s acted like a true leader,” she said. “You see him regularly at all events, athletics, band, not just boys, and JV as well. He truly takes a lot of time to let students know him, and he has an open door policy.”
Prior to the start of the meeting, Marks told the board that she had deleted from consideration for board action her recommendation last month to rehire Bidwell. That recommendation was tabled at April’s meeting, and the school board did not address the matter at the May 8 meeting.
On the school district’s website, the kindergarten through 12th grade school principal’s job is now listed in the announcement of available positions, which also include possible teaching jobs in middle and high school math and science, as well as foreign language, bus drivers, food service workers, substitute teachers, aides at The Nest after school program, and bus monitors.