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Relay Elementary School parents ask for removal of principal

Relay Elementary School Principal Lisa Dingle addresses a crowd of concerned parents and community members July 8.
Relay Elementary School Principal Lisa Dingle addresses a crowd of concerned parents and community members July 8. (Heather Norris)

More than 100 parents gathered at Relay Elementary school Wednesday night to voice their concerns about school leadership, the departure of more than a dozen teachers last month and ultimately call for the resignation of school principal Lisa Dingle.

"Our goal was to reach the administration," said Heather Mix, a parent of two Relay students, who helped organize the event. "We're just trying to do in our hearts what's right for our kids."

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The meeting in the school cafeteria was led by Mix, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Schools Jane Lichter of Baltimore County Public Schools and Dingle, the third-year principal at the school.

It had been requested by the school's PTA board, said PTA president Jen Andrews.

Lichter said she had received a number letters to her office voicing concerns over staff morale, faculty changes and what was described as a lack of discipline for students caught misbehaving.

Dingle had replaced former Relay principal Heidi Miller in 2012 when Miller transferred to Timber Grove Elementary School in Owings Mills. Miller, who is now a BCPS assistant superintendent for elementary schools, was present at the July 8 meeting.

After the departure of more than a dozen staff members at the end of the school year in June, three to retirement and many more to other schools, Relay is coping with 14 faculty changes. The school is currently on its fourth vice principal in three years, for example.

Dingle and Lichter stressed that not of all the staff that has during Dingle's three-year tenure at Relay have been positions under her control.

"I understand there's been a large staff turnover, and that's concerning," Lichter said.

But parents voiced frustration with such high turnover rates in the school that had repeatedly ranked among the best schools in the area.

"Our school has just completely declined," said Kim Sterling, a parent of two Relay students, during a break in the meeting for the parents to write down the questions they wanted the administration to answer. "Our school used to be a 10. We're not a 10 anymore. We're a two."

Also at issue for many of the parents at the meeting was the results of a 2015 TELL Maryland Survey, which tracks morale among the state's teachers. Between 2013 and 2015, the survey recorded a near 25-percent decrease in the number of faculty who said staff and leadership had a shared vision. Only 4 percent of Relay respondents reported an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the school in 2015, down from 29 percent in 2013.

"We are all working as a team as we try to do what's best for the kids," Dingle said in trying to reassure parents that steps are being taken to ensure that all of the empty staff positions will be filled by the start of school.

In response to concerns parents had about a lack of adequate information from the administration regarding issues at the school such as bullying, Lichter said that the administration will work to make sure that communication improves between the school and parents.

She also reassured parents that she would analyze the way school leadership has been handling discipline, a main point of concern for many of the meeting attendees.

"We will acknowledge that there has been a slight increase in misbehavior," Dingle said as parents insisted the problem was much larger than administration was portraying it to be.

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"I can't go backward," said a frustrated Lichter, adding that she has only been Dingle's supervisor for a year, and therefore cannot address issues that occurred before she was involved.

She said the pair met earlier in the day with teachers to discuss issues of concern for them, and many of the concerns voiced by the teachers were the same as the issues being raised by parents.

While she hears that parents and staff are frustrated, she told the crowd of sometimes angry parents that she would not be making any major decisions in regard to personnel.

"I'm not going to say what you all want me to hear," she said. "I'm not removing Ms. Dingle."

"I will hold Ms. Dingle and [Vice Principal] Ms. [Deidre] Knapp accountable," Lichter continued as many in the crowd shouted that Knapp had nothing to do with their concerns. "We will make changes," she said.

Lichter told the group of parents and other attendees that she would ensure that a mailing would be sent out to students' homes addressing all of the concerns brought forth by the group, and Mix wrapped up the meeting with a final request for the administration that the school system remove Dingle, a request that Lichter said again that she would not meet.

Despite the assurances that Dingle would not be removed, many parents left hopeful that their concerns were heard by people who could effect the change they hope to eventually see.

In addition to BCPS administrative staff, the meeting was also attended by representatives from a host of local offices, the Baltimore County Board of Education and state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, who represents District 12 that includes Arbutus, Catonsville, Lansdowne and Relay.

Tim Viets, whose son and daughter attend Relay, came to the meeting out of curiosity. A music teacher in Howard County, he said he had been hearing concerns from Relay teachers and other parents for some time.

"This just kind of feels like the culmination of what we've been hearing for years," he said after the meeting.

After learning the results of the survey of Relay faculty, he said, the path forward seems clear. If staff doesn't feel comfortable raising their concerns at the school, he said, someone else must carry the torch. "It's kind of up to the parents to do their job," he said.

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