Parent calls meeting in support of ousted JVES principal
Supporters of Jacks Valley Elementary School principal Kirk Cunningham gathered in the school’s multi-purpose room Monday evening to sign petitions of support and discuss what could be done to retain the site administrator after his sudden demotion last week.
Meeting organizer Charlie Ross, who has two children currently enrolled at the north Valley elementary school, said to approximately 30 people in attendance, that his purpose in calling the meeting was merely to show support for a principal he and his children have appreciated over the years.
“My children have had a wonderful experience here because of Mr. Cunningham,” he said. “I would hate to see him go. It upset me when I read in the newspaper Friday that he was leaving the school.”
Cunningham, 47, was issued a letter of reassignment during the last week of school, stating that he was being removed from his position as principal at JVES – a job he has held for 15-1/2 of his 22 years of employment with the district.The stated reason for reassignment was, among other things, excessive absences during the last three years.
The popular principal has a history of high blood pressure and blot clots. Of his his 210-day contracted schedule, he missed approximately 30 days in the 1995-96 school year, 50 days in 1996-97 and 70 days of the current 1997-98 school year.
Cunningham still has more than 100 sick days coming to him – a fact that Ross thinks is important.
“That’s what it’s there for,” Ross said. “If the rules are that he’s got the time coming, then he should be able to use it. He hasn’t done anything illegal or against the rules.”
Ross said many of the programs at the single-track year round school – the Wa-Pa-Shone festival, the balloons from UC Berkeley and most recently the end-of-the-year-camp out are good examples of some of the things that Cunningham’s leadership allowed to take place.
“That camp out was a wonderful thing – it encouraged parents to participate and it was a reward for good kids – and we actually got some sleep,” he said.
Ross had previously distributed fliers in the area zoned for JVES, informing residents of Cunningham’s plight. He said that as he canvassed the Sunridge subdivision, students and parents alike who knew Mr. Cunningham were all in support of keeping him at the school.
“One little kid, who said he’d help pass out the fliers, took a handful of them from me and rode off on his bike, helmet and all, yelling ‘Save Mr. Cunningham!'” Ross said. “After seeing the one hundred percent support for him, I felt blessed to share in that.”
Ross, a soft spoken Carson City physician, said he attempted to call school district administrators prior to Monday’s meeting.
“Pendery Clark wouldn’t talk to me,” he said. “But, I did get to talk to George Mross, (personnel services director), who told me that anyone should be able to clearly see that it was in the best interest of Mr. Cunningham’s health to leave his position at the school. I didn’t think it was their job to make health recommendations, but didn’t say so.”
Many of the people who came to Monday evening’s meeting said they felt that Cunningham had done nothing wrong by using so many sick days.
One attendee – a current teacher at JVES who wished to remain anonymous – said that although Cunningham had missed school, his support of staff was appreciatedby most of the teachers.
“Many of us had the chance to leave when Pinon Hills opened, but we valued the fact that Mr. Cunningham valued us, so that’s why we stayed. It upsets me that in the end it is the kids who are being denied,” the teacher said.
Cunningham, who was paid $71,000 this year, will be kept on salary as a “special assignment principal.”
The teacher wondered how the school district would pay for a new principal when the library hours at the school have been cut because of budget constraints.
“As taxpayers, that’s coming out of our pockets,” the teacher said. “I am opposed to what they are doing to Kirk for financial reasons and also because it’s morally wrong to demote him.”
Superintendent Pendery Clark said Tuesday that district administrators are doing what they feel is the best thing for the district, Jacks Valley and for Kirk Cunningham.
“As I have told many who have called, I care a great deal for Jacks Valley and we feel we are doing what is best for everyone. We are in the middle of an administrative process, and he has requested a hearing before the board,” she said. “I can tell you that whatever results from this will not be at any extra cost to the district.”
Clark said Cunningham’s hearing is scheduled for July 7th and will be closed to the public.
Several times during the evening, the deafening buzz of a fire alarm shattered the school gym, set off by the wind, according to a school custodian who turned the alarm off each time.
Ross was careful to clarify that he had made no attempt to invite teachers to Monday’s meeting, so they wouldn’t jeopardize their own careers by speaking out for Cunningham.
“It seems to me one way or another, the district is going to pay,” said parent Mike Johnson, who has a daughter at the school. “It looks as though Mr. Cunningham has a good case, so they’ll pay it in legal fees or otherwise.”
Johnson was also appreciative of the May campout.
“I’ve never seen a school with this kind of parent participation,” he said. “I think there were more parents than students at the campout – it gave the kids something to work for. I know that Mr. Cunningham didn’t do it all by himself, but he allowed it to happen … he’s innovative and he makes parents feel welcome here.”
Cunningham had been invited to attend Monday’s meeting, but declined at the last minute on the advice of counsel, according to letter issued to Ross. He thanked supporters in the letter and pledged his affection to the school.
Parent Robert Beeler, with three children at the school, said he felt a particular affection for Cunningham for his personal attention to Beeler’s middle child, a son with ADHD, attention deficit and hyperactive disorder.
“There were times when Kirk would call me and say, ‘Robert, can you come and get your son?'” Beeler related. “He would go out of his way to work with my son and when he called, I knew it was time to come get him and when I came in, everyone would say, ‘Hi, Mr. Beeler! I appreciate that personal treatment by Mr. Cunningham.”
“Mr. Cunningham is nice,” chimed Beeler’s oldest daughter, Rhapsody, 11.
Parents of three JVES students, Dale and Valerie Marcum, wondered whether it was time to set up an attorney’s fund for Cunningham.
“We are sad that teachers are afraid to speak out,” Dale said. “What I like about Kirk Cunningham is the fact that he’s got everyone pulling together in the same direction.”
Valerie recalled how the death of a principal at a Kentucky school her family recently attended caused a great chasm.
“We hate to see this happen,” she said. “The principal is the glue that holds a school together – this is like the kids’ home away from home. It’s important.”
As petition signers filed in and out of the school between 6 and 9 p.m., Ross told the 7 p.m. formal meeting group that he is scheduled to present the signed petitions at approximately 6 p.m. during the July 14 school board meeting at Kingsbury Middle School. He invited those present to attend also.
“I am willing to do what needs to be done,” he said. My hope is that Mr. Cunningham will return to the helm of Jacks Valley next year. I’m not his buddy or anything – I just want him to stay at our school for the kids.”
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