Dissatisfaction with Oglethorpe Ave. Elementary leadership runs deeper

Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School (Photo/Emily G. Garcia, emilygracegarcia.com)

Pajama day at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School was supposed to be fun. Attitudes about the event, which took place the day before winter break, quickly shifted after the school received a bomb threat and students and teachers were evacuated to a nearby church parking lot for two hours.

The threat turned out to be a false alarm, but teachers and parents say the decisions OAES Principal Bipul Singh made during the evacuation resulted in chaos and panicked children waiting outside for so long that some resorted to urinating in the woods.

A physical education class, confused by the school’s emergency notification system, sheltered inside a storage closet in the gymnasium for about 15 minutes after the school evacuated, as confirmed by The Red & Black.

On the same day, Dec. 17, 2021, Jami Mays, the parent of a kindergartner at OAES, sent a letter of concern about Singh’s behavior and professional conduct to Kena Worthy, Clarke County School District’s director of leadership development, and Meridyth Padgett, the district’s director of employee relations.

Mays is part of a group of parents, teachers and community members advocating for transparency and accountability at OAES. According to Mays, the group works together to file open records requests with the district. Their Facebook group has 112 members.

The letter was signed by 47 parents, teachers, staff and community members.

“Dr. Singh has continued to create a culture of deceit, divisiveness, retribution, intimidation, and unprofessionalism that has permeated the staff and families that attend OAES,” the letter said.

About one month later, OAES administration made national news for removing a student’s artwork featuring a rainbow and the words “Gay is OK” from a classroom wall.

Following national attention, a community member sent rainbow balloons to Singh and Assistant Principal Sandra Scott, with a card that read “Dr. Singh & Ms. Scott, Gay is OK! From, Your Entire Community.” Camera footage from the school showed Singh popping the balloons and discarding the remnants and card into a trash can.

While parents, teachers and community members expressed dissatisfaction with the way OAES leadership handled the situation, those who spoke with The Red & Black said their unhappiness with Singh is not limited to one incident.

Singh did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Confusion, chaos and a ‘communications gap’

On the ill-fated pajama day, children were only given access to bathrooms after a member of the church across the street allowed the students, clad in their sleep clothes, into the building. The Dec. 17 bomb threat was documented in an Athens-Clarke County police report.

Church Deacon Daniel Reeves said Forest Heights Baptist Church was not open at the time of the evacuation because it is not a part of the school’s safety plan. Reeves called Singh to offer use of the facilities after a Parent Teacher Organization member told him the children needed bathrooms.

Forest Heights Baptist Church on Oglethorpe Avenue in Athens, Georgia, on Sunday, May 1, 2022. (Photo/Emily G. Garcia, emilygracegarcia.com)

According to Georgia law, all public schools are required to maintain a safety plan that will “address preparedness for natural disasters, hazardous materials or radiological accidents, acts of violence, and acts of terrorism.”

Singh later said at a Feb. 10 meeting with the Local School Governance Team that he expected the resolution of the bomb threat to take less than 30 minutes and was not aware that bomb-sniffing dogs worked in intervals and required breaks.

“When that news became a reality for us that’s when we started to see what else we can do and then we started to look [into] opening the church,” Singh said in a recording of the Feb. 10 meeting posted on the school’s LSGT webpage.

The LSGT is comprised of the principal, teachers, staff, parents and community members. The group provides input on critical decisions including the school growth plan and budget, according to the school’s LSGT webpage.

A teacher at the school, who spoke to The Red & Black under the condition of anonymity due to concerns about their employment security, said they had to supervise children using the bathroom in the woods next to the church parking lot.

During the meeting, Singh also addressed concerns that a class had been left behind during the evacuation. He said it took “less than a minute” for them to move outside after a final sweep of the building.

When asked for more details about the incident, CCSD spokesperson Scott Thompson said in an email to The Red & Black that all students and staff, including the physical education class, were out “within a few minutes.”

The Red & Black confirmed with multiple sources, including parents, that the physical education class remained inside the building for approximately 15 minutes before they learned that they were supposed to evacuate.

The anonymous teacher attributed some of the confusion to the school’s emergency notification system, Centegix.

On the morning the bomb threat was called in, teachers were notified by blue flashing lights through the fire alarm system and a lockdown notification was sent to their interactive whiteboards. The notification did not further specify that the emergency required evacuation.

Singh announced over the intercom that the school needed to evacuate, but the physical education class had already taken shelter in a storage closet and was unable to hear the announcement.

Parents of children at the school during the bomb threat reported that their children were scared by the confusion surrounding the evacuation.

Melissa Tatarski, a parent of a third-grader and former paraprofessional at the school, said her child was on the verge of a panic attack. Tatarski said she was able to calm her child down through a video call on a staff member’s phone, although she herself was uncertain of her child’s safety.

“It was absolutely heartbreaking to have to try to tell my child that she was going to be OK and that everything was fine when I wasn’t sure that everything was fine,” Tatarski said. “When she got home from school that day, she literally sprinted into my arms and just sobbed.”

Christina Opel, a parent of a second and fourth-grader at the school and former school nurse for Alps Road Elementary School, said her oldest child told her she was scared by the evacuation.

“She [said], ‘I didn’t know what was going on … I couldn’t go to the bathroom,’” Opel said.

During the Feb. 10 LSGT meeting, Singh received a question about whether teachers were briefed on the school’s safety plan.

Singh acknowledged a “communications gap” with teachers on the details of the safety plan and said the school was taking steps to rectify the problem.

The teacher who spoke anonymously with The Red & Black said they did not know the safety plan existed at the time of the incident, and still had not been briefed on the safety plan as of April 16.

“If there was another issue tomorrow, we would not be prepared for it,” the teacher said.

The Red & Black could not obtain OAES’ safety plan because plans involving the security and vulnerability of public buildings and facilities are exempt from disclosure under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Dissatisfaction within the school

On Feb. 7, Mays, the OAES parent who sent the Dec. 17 letter, shared a survey with several teachers and staff via text, asking whether they planned to continue their employment into the next school year.

Thirty-one teachers and staff responded. All noted they’ve thought about leaving OAES. Twenty-four responded that their reasons for leaving would be because of issues within the school including leadership and being asked to step into roles outside their job description.

(Graphic/Emily G. Garcia, emilygracegarcia.com) Source: Survey results shared with The Red & Black by Jami Mays

Not all survey responses note whether the respondent is a teacher or staff member. The estimated total number of teachers and staff at OAES is 65-70, Thompson said in an email to The Red & Black.

One respondent to the survey wrote, “School morale is at an all-time low. Leadership … doesn’t seem to be on the same page with community.”

In response to a written question about desired changes within the school, a teacher wrote, “I will not work under Singh another year … If I’m not guaranteed he will be gone next year, I will leave.”

The prospect of losing teachers concerns many parents.

Kathleen Falke, a parent of a first and third-grader at OAES and former PTO vice president, said she felt the school was at risk of losing “long term teachers — who live in our community, who choose to send their kids to the school, who love our students, and some [who] have been there for years — because their work environment is so toxic and their leadership is so inept.”

Opel said the only reason her children enjoy school, aside from their friends, is their teachers.

“What’s going to happen when … teachers leave? I mean, it’s going to be crazy, chaos, no one’s going to be happy,” Opel said.

According to personnel board reports from Jan. 20 to Apr. 14 shared with The Red & Black, eight teachers are resigning effective May 27.

The teacher who spoke anonymously to The Red & Black said they would like to remain at the school but are ultimately unsure.

“I feel like I’m not being given the option to [stay] when the collective unit of teachers has brought these concerns to leadership multiple times and just keeps getting doors slammed in their face,” the teacher said.

Tatarski, who said she left her position with the school in 2020 due to wanting a career change and issues with Singh, said the decline in morale among her friends still employed at the school is palpable.

“My friends still in the building feel like they are in a dictatorship right now,” Tatarski said.

A letter of concern

Toward the end of the Dec. 17 letter of concern, the letter stated, “We, the staff, stakeholders, and parents of Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School are deeply concerned about the liability to CCSD that Dr. Bipul Singh presents and we request that a CCSD investigation into these concerns be opened immediately.”

The letter ends by noting that, “several staff members and parents did not feel safe to sign their name to this document due to a fear of retribution. This again highlights the culture of fear stoked by Dr. Singh at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School.”

Meridyth Padgett, CCSD’s director of employee relations, confirmed via an email to The Red & Black that she received the letter of concern. The Red & Black was unable to confirm the status of a possible human resources investigation into Singh’s conduct.

When asked to give an interview for the story, Padgett responded in an email to The Red & Black that the district “does not comment on personnel issues or investigations.”

As of April 26, Singh is still employed as principal of OAES.

Published by Emily G. Garcia

Enterprise Reporter at The Red & Black

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