Education

Charter principal has long discipline file. There was no time to find someone else, district says

Interim principal shares his favorite thing about Lincoln Memorial Academy

The school district has named Ronnie King as the interim principal of Lincoln Memorial Academy.
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The school district has named Ronnie King as the interim principal of Lincoln Memorial Academy.

Ronnie King, the interim principal at Lincoln Memorial Academy charter school, failed to report an allegation of child abuse in 2017, and he recently made derogatory statements to a teacher at his previous school, according to records from his personnel file.

Citing issues with the finances and leadership at Lincoln Memorial, the school board voted 4-1 to terminate Lincoln’s contract and assume its operations as a charter school on July 23. The six-part motion also included the need for an “appropriate person” to act as the school’s interim principal.

King, the school board’s No. 2 candidate, could not be reached for comment on Monday. King previously worked as the principal of an elementary school, and he recently held a position in the district’s transportation department, helping with recruitment and other duties before his transfer to Lincoln.

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders was aware of King’s disciplinary record, but she weighed several factors before presenting candidates to the school board, said district spokesman Mike Barber, who answered questions on behalf of the superintendent.

Speaking on Monday afternoon, he said the district was forced to make swift decisions before the start of school in August, leaving no time for a traditional search.

“The most important factor in regards to Mr. King, and what the school board and the superintendent were both looking for, was somebody who had served at Lincoln Middle School before,” Barber said.

King was the principal at Lincoln Memorial Middle from 2012 to 2014, before its conversion to a charter school. Its grade increased from an F to a C during King’s tenure at the school.

At the July 23 meeting, board member Scott Hopes drew from the superintendent’s list and nominated the candidates in order of preference: Xavier Omar Edwards, Ronnie King and Darlene Proue.

Board member James Golden seconded his motion, and the district announced King’s appointment two days later. Golden and Hopes reviewed the disciplinary records, provided by the Bradenton Herald, and they responded on Monday afternoon.

“From the activities that were described in the documentation that I reviewed, that would not have changed my mind about accepting him as an interim principal,” Golden said.

“Although he had a discipline history, it was dealt with, and he’s still employed by the district,” Hopes said.

Hopes said he approved the candidates knowing that Willie Clark, the director of secondary education, would supervise Lincoln’s interim leader. While the principal was expected to serve less than a month, he said, no further action can take place during the appeal process.

Lincoln’s former governing board will contest the charter termination in front of an administrative law judge from Aug. 26-28. If the appeal fails, Manatee will appoint a new governing board, and Lincoln’s board can then hire a long-term principal, Hopes said.

“We needed someone who knew Lincoln, who knew the community, who was currently working in the district, was qualified to be a principal and could get the school open,” he continued.

The Education Practices Commission disciplined Lincoln’s former principal, Eddie Hundley, after he gave two job recommendations to a former teacher who was under criminal investigation, though Hundley said he was largely uninformed.

The former teacher was accused of inappropriate relations with a teenage girl, and he’s scheduled to stand trial on a related charge — possession of child pornography — in September.

State officials revoked Hundley’s educator certificate for five years, upholding the recommendation of an administrative law judge, and the action became a major talking point during Lincoln’s charter termination.

‘Derogatory statements’

King has been disciplined five times since 2016.

On March 12, less than five months before his appointment at Lincoln, he was suspended for one day without pay, and he was asked to complete a cultural sensitivity course.

A teacher filed the most recent complaint in February, when King worked as the principal of Oneco Elementary School in Bradenton. Standing with a fellow employee at Oneco’s car loop, the teacher had a conversation about her husband, who recently immigrated to the United States and was unable to work for six months.

She said her husband was playing basketball and would pick her up later than usual. As the colleague walked away, King approached the teacher and made comments about her husband — a Muslim, according to the school district’s report.

“When people move to the country they should be able to work or not watch the news, because that’s when people think they should blow things up,” the report stated, quoting King.

Though the teacher said King knew about her husband’s religion, King told a district investigator he was unaware the man was Muslim, and the principal felt his comments were misunderstood.

“He said the context of his conversation was not directed specifically at her husband or at a religion, just that ‘idle hands’ can lead people to do bad things that you see in the news all the time,” district investigator Troy Nelson wrote in his report.

In her complaint, the teacher also referenced a second comment made on the same day, which she felt was “inappropriate and unprofessional.” She spoke with King about a recent parent-teacher conference, when a father requested that his son be taught by a male teacher, according the report.

“She jokingly responded to the parent that she is the male teacher in second grade because she is strict and structured,” the report states.

“When she told Mr. King about this he said, ‘You can’t say that anymore because you really could be a male since people pick their genders now,’” the report continues, quoting King.

Speaking with the district investigator, King said the comment was “more of a non-response” to the teacher’s meeting.

“He felt his actions were in no way discriminatory and was apologetic that Ms. (redacted) perceived them that way,” the report concludes.

But in her letter of reprimand, Superintendent Saunders cited the principal for conversations “of a discriminatory nature that involved derogatory statements of religion and stereotyping based upon ethnicity.”

A history of discipline

Last year, the district reprimanded King for his failure to contact an applicant’s most recent employer before offering the person a teaching job.

“It is in Florida state statute that you must make this contact prior to extending an offer,” the district said in a reprimand letter, urging King to do reference checks in the future.

The letter was dated Nov. 16, 2018, and signed by the executive director of elementary schools, Annette Codelia.

In October 2017, former Superintendent Diana Greene reprimanded King for “misuse of school resources for promotion of your book on school grounds.” King also works as a pastor, and he published a book entitled “Culture Shift: Evolution or Breakdown.”

The same reprimand letter also cited King for “social media messages that could be deemed offensive to certain members of the community.”

In October 2017, a concerned resident pointed district officials to a series of videos uploaded to YouTube between 2013 and 2014, each featuring King’s sermons at Christ Way Church in Tampa, according to a report by the district investigator.

“The complaint alleges that Mr. King is espousing negativity towards groups of individuals,” including single mothers, children not raised by their biological parents and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community, the report said.

“In the clip segments, King does reference a stance on gay marriage and different groups that are worthy of being witnessed to and talked to about God,” the investigator wrote. “The videos depict the religious view and opinion of Mr. King and are conducted in a church environment.”

In his interview with Nelson, the district investigator, King said he maintained a separation between his roles at the church and the school. He also offered to remove the videos.

The investigator concluded that King’s videos were protected by the First Amendment and the right to both freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

“It should also be noted that these videos were created prior to the court ruling in the Brenner v. Scott case that lead to the legal recognition of same sex marriage in the State of Florida, on January 6, 2015,” Nelson wrote.

Greene, the former superintendent, offered her own perspective in the letter of reprimand, dated Oct. 19, 2017.

“Those messages directly conflict with your role as a principal and leader in the community,” Greene wrote. “Although in these past five years, I have only seen you treat individuals with upmost respect, the messages on social media portray you from a different perspective.”

Codelia, the director of elementary schools, issued King another letter of reprimand on March 9, 2017. He was cited for a “failure to report the suspicion of child abuse to the appropriate authority after reading a school Facebook message from a person claiming to be the stepmother of a student.”

“She alleged that the child was being abused by his mother, and she gave specific details,” the letter states. “Your initial judgment to not call Child Protective Services is unacceptable, as all educators are mandated to report any suspicion of child abuse directly to the abuse hotline.”

“Fortunately, another administrator from your school with knowledge of the Facebook post did later make the call, avoiding any possibility of a felony charge,” the letter continues.

Finally, in a reprimand letter dated Dec. 1, 2016, King was told he “exhibited lack of oversight by not doing the required number of official walks on a teacher.”

“The lack of action and lack of attention to detail is not acceptable,” wrote Jim Pauley, then the executive director of secondary education.

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