The principal at a Hanover County high school has been removed a month before the new school year begins, and some residents are criticizing what they see as a lack of transparency in her ouster.
Beth Smith is no longer the principal at Patrick Henry High School, according to an announcement sent Thursday evening by Hanover’s school district. The announcement, which gives no details about the reason for the decision, was signed by School Board Chairman Robert L. Hundley and Superintendent Michael Gill.
The school district plans to find an interim replacement for Smith before classes start Sept. 4. Then, Hanover plans to do a search for a permanent principal.
The school district has yet to explain Smith’s removal because of what it says is policy prohibiting such disclosures.
Hundley, the School Board’s chairman, demurred when asked what influenced the decision.
“This is a personnel matter that came from the superintendent. We really can’t talk about anything other than what was in our announcement,” Hundley said. “Any personnel matter is something the School Board is not going to be able to talk about based on our county policy and state law. Everything we have done to this point is in the best interest of Patrick Henry High School.”
State public records law allows local officials to decide whether to release information that could be deemed a personnel record.
“Generally speaking the personnel exemption is discretionary. They can release records or have discussions publicly if they choose,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I think sometimes governments think they can’t say anything. There are things you can say that inform the public without divulging sensitive or private information.”
The announcement of Smith’s firing acknowledged that the lack of details has spurred rumors about what’s behind it.
“Regrettably, this has caused a lot of speculation, misinformation, and frustration in the community,” the announcement reads. “Nevertheless, we want to assure you that we make decisions based upon facts, policy, and, most importantly, what we believe is in the best interest of students.”
Some school families in recent weeks became concerned by rumors circulating about the school district potentially dismissing Smith after she had been placed on administrative leave.
At a School Board meeting last month, several students pleaded for the school district to retain Smith, lauding the relationship she has developed with the school community.
Luke Gallagher, a 2017 graduate of Patrick Henry High School, recently made an online petition defending Smith and demanding answers from Hanover leaders, including the School Board and the Board of Supervisors, which appoints the School Board. The petition had more than 260 signatures Friday night.
“To disregard the magnitude of influence that Principal Smith has had on the Patrick Henry High School community and Richmond community at large, by failing to involve citizens directly impacted by her efforts and contributions, is both careless and inexcusable,” the petition reads. “We want to understand the rationale behind the actions that are being taken by APPOINTED School Board members, and the people who put them into power.”
In an interview Friday, Gallagher called the dismissal “just ridiculous.”
“We felt it was unjustified and not for any particular reason,” he said.
Melissa Goodman, the mother of two Patrick Henry High School students, said Friday that she was perturbed by the announcement and lack of explanation.
“I volunteer a lot, and I see her all the time interacting with the kids, teachers and parents,” Goodman said. “As a parent, that makes me feel good, that my kids have someone like Ms. Smith.”
“We aren’t 100 percent sure about what is going on,” she said. “There are a lot of rumors going around and we’ve heard multiple stories.”
A Patrick Henry High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor and a science teacher were arrested in the last school year for allegedly engaging in sexual misconduct with a minor. It’s unclear whether the dismissal is related to either case.
“Smith ended employment with Hanover County Public Schools as a result of action taken by the School Board,” said school district spokesman Chris Whitley. “School Board policy prohibits the disclosure of personnel-related matters.”
Other Hanover County and school officials who were reached for comment Friday declined to elaborate on why Smith is no longer employed by the schools.
“Bless your heart, you’re probably not going to get anybody to talk to you,” said Faye Prichard, the county’s supervisor for the Ashland District. “Our county attorney says we should not be talking about personnel matters. I have to respect that decision.”
Although the high school is not in her district, she said there are families there who are part of the school community. She said several of her constituents have reached out to her asking about the School Board’s decision, but that she is not aware of why it was made.
Prichard said she thinks county supervisors need to respect the appointed School Board’s relative independence.
However, she added: “We’re watching this very carefully.”