When Kenneth Simington announced earlier this summer his retirement from the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, he did so in a graceful and understated way.
After having served as the interim superintendent for six months and having just learned that his interest in the full-time gig wasn’t mutual, Simington could have grumbled and made the transition difficult for the new super.
But he didn’t.
“It has been my great pleasure, and distinct honor, to serve the students, schools, families, this community and my fellow colleagues,” he said in July. “In the meantime, as we move toward a new school year, we will continue to make preparations so that the 2019-20 school year will be the best yet in WS/FC.”
Of course, that’s what any decent, gracious professional is supposed to say. Still, his career should have been celebrated, and Simington allowed to slide quietly into retirement.
But thanks to a text message sent by now ex-school board member Lori Goins Clark that was at best insensitive and at worst racist, Simington wasn’t even afforded that small dignity.
He deserved better.
At the moment, there are several moving parts to an unnecessarily slow moving story.
There’s the way a good man was treated by some members of the school board.
That includes the original text sent by Clark and the silence of those who received it.
Not speaking up forcefully and immediately is tacit approval.
And then there’s the “We-know-nothing” Sgt. Schultz posture adopted by school officialdom.
Clark’s resignation was announced Thursday. It was both strange and abrupt. Chatter boxes and social media mavens — same thing, different mediums — had that Clark’s text was racially insensitive and that Simington had been inadvertently looped into the thread.
Clark so far has only copped to sending a message that she says may have been “misunderstood” but otherwise refused to clarify.
As to what the text said, only the sender and recipients — and at this point, their lawyers— know with certainty. And they’re not saying.
“I made a personal, relational mistake that has been misrepresented by some,” she said. “I have apologized for that.”
In a city and time where racial intolerance and distrust bubbles just below the surface, that answer is just not good enough — especially coming from an elected official.
Nor is the response of board member Dana Caudill Jones, who acknowledged that she had seen the text.
“In any situation, I don’t condone any racism or any insensitive behavior,” she said. “It’s her actions, her story that she needs to share.”
That’s a convenient response only given after word of Clark’s resignation — and underlying cause — started to spread. Sounds like ducking and dodging, but that’s just me.
The better response, as is always the case with elected officials, is transparency and honesty. In the case of a screw-up, be it deliberate, mean, insensitive, racist, just plain stupid or some combination, own it.
All of it.
That goes for the current administration as well. Neither timeliness nor transparency seems to be a priority.
Clark submitted her resignation Aug. 29. It sat on somebody’s desk or in a drawer for nearly a week before anyone at HQ thought to mention it.
“The resignation was sent to the chair and legal counsel on Thursday of last week,” wrote Brent Campbell, the chief marketing and communications officer in an email. “We worked to make every effort to make sure all the board members were notified first. With a holiday weekend and the installation of a new superintendent, the decision was made to announce the resignation ahead of the next regularly scheduled board meeting.”
Campbell is just the messenger, but that’s just not good enough.
The school board — the entire administration, actually — answers to the voters and the taxpayers who bankroll public education. They work for us, not the other way around.
Then there’s the matter of the handling of the text itself. It was sent by a school board member to at least one other board member and likely others. They’ve all seen it.
By any reasonable interpretation of public-records law, that would seem to be an official communication and subject to disclosure.
We’ve asked for it, and the response was basically that texts were sent on personal phones, a lot of other people have asked for it and our lawyers have to review it. We’ll get to it when we get to it.
“The departments responsible do them in the order received and above and beyond their regular duties,” Campbell wrote. “We try to get them within 30 days, but sometimes that is not possible.”
The guess here is that the lawyers will drag their feet and hide behind some variation of the same sad, old but legal dodge: “It’s a personnel matter. Buzz off.”
The flaw in that, of course, is that public confidence in an elected body trumps all. Voters deserve to know if they’ve elected racists or those whose silence implies support.
Perhaps the worst part is the treatment afforded Kenneth Simington on his way to the golf course.
He attended Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. He played basketball at East Forsyth and went on to earn undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. from UNC-Greensboro.
He worked as a guidance counselor at Hanes-Lowrance Middle — that’s tough, emotionally draining work — and progressed to administrative jobs until being named interim superintendent in the spring.
Here’s what his colleagues have said about him. And they should know.
“He’s soft-spoken. He asks the right questions,” then-superintendent Don Martin said in 2009. “And he listens to the answers.”
“He is probably one of the most thoughtful and insightful people I have worked with,” said Paul Puryear, then the assistant superintendent for high schools, a few years ago. “I think the world of him.”
Former school board member Buddy Collins called him “one of those behind the scenes people in our schools that make things work well.”
In other words, Simington worked hard and was well-regarded. He deserved better.