Eight new principals take over in Manatee

MANATEE — Although the school administrator turnover rate fluctuates each year, this is the first time in half a decade the Manatee County School District has seen so many management changes.

As of today, the district has eight new principals and 11 new assistant principals. Only one position remained unfilled as the 2009-10 school year approaches — the principal of Johnson Middle School.

Candidates are lined up for interviews on Friday at the school, which recently obtained International Baccalaureate status, said district spokeswoman Margi Nanney.

“The last time we had this many was about five years ago,” said school Superintendent Tim McGonegal.

School officials chalk up the high turnover rate to retiring principals at Bashaw, McNeal and Freedom elementary schools. In that order, their new heads are: Ron Hirst, Norma Scott and James Mennes. And Lakewood Ranch principal Mike Wilder took a district position as leadership development director to be replaced by Linda Nesselhauf, who moves east from her previous job as assistant principal at Manatee High School.

Another explanation: Buffalo Creek Middle School and Palmetto High principals being let go in April because McGonegal said they weren’t meeting expectations. New Palmetto head Willie Clark slid into former Debbie Valcarcel’s position as principal, while Matt Gruhl took over Scott Cooper’s position as principal at Buffalo Creek.

All are handpicked by their individual school faculty during a public forum for all job candidates. McGonegal then makes a recommendation and the school board gives a final approval.

Although students don’t return until Aug. 24, principals started work on July 17.

McGonegal understands it takes time for principals to adjust to their new schools.

“There is a difference from school to school, so the right fit is key,” McGonegal said. “That‘s why we had parents and teachers have a voice.”

Most of the new principals moved into their positions from assistant principal, including Sharon Scarbrough, who came from Buffalo Middle Creek and now oversees W.D. Sugg Middle School at 3801 59th St. W, Bradenton.

The biggest challenge facing her at the school of 750 students?

As an assistant principal, she had specific duties — that of disciplinarian, for example. But now she does it all.

“It’s more responsibility,” she said. “As principal you do everything.”

Another hurdle was having to say goodbye to her students and faculty at Buffalo Creek. On the flip side, she can’t wait to form new relationships with her Sugg family.

And it’s already begun.

Sporting a dress with her schools colors, blue and white, she sat in her new office — which she requested be painted blue — and chatted with language arts teacher Bruce Dietch on Tuesday. Although teachers aren’t due back at school until next week, the veteran instructor said he wanted to get a head start on the new year and bond a bit with Scarbrough.

Since he started at the school in 1974 when it opened, Dietch has been through five principals at the school.

His recommendation on his boss getting acclimated?

“Keeping traditions and learning the staff’s strengths and weaknesses,” Dietch said.

Not only does she have a head start on that, Scarbrough already has a motto for the upcoming year.

“Go for the 3-peat,” said Scarbrough, as Paul Hockenberry, one of two new assistant principals there, whizzed by her office with paperwork in hand.

For the last two years, the school scored an “A” on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT.

Her goal: to have it happen again.

Scarbrough replaces Willie Clark, who the school board named principal of Palmetto High School.

Taking over Palmetto, a school of about 1,600 students, shouldn’t be too difficult for him. He already knows what it’s like to be principal, and this won’t be the first time he’s worked at Palmetto.

From 2002 to 2004, he was an assistant principal there. His family is also from that area, he said.

The move shouldn’t be too hard for Gruhl, either.

He’s been an administrator at both middle and high school levels in Manatee and Pasco counties. He was an assistant principal at Bayshore High School last school year. Prior to that, he was interim assistant principal at Lee Middle in 2004.

One challenge: “To build positive relationships with your community, teacher, parents, student and business partners. You have to be accessible,” Gruhl said.

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