Concerned USF faculty and student parents showed up for a meeting at USF’s Preschool for Creative Learning Monday night looking for answers about a decision by administrators not to renew the contract of a long-serving and well-loved teacher.
They didn’t get many.
On Nov. 1, administrators decided not to renew the contract of Assistant Director Donita Franklin, an educator at the preschool for 13 years.
Preschool Director Magda Santos said Franklin’s termination was not based on disciplinary or performance-related issues.
She declined further comment at the meeting except to say the decision was part of the preschool’s plan to move in a new direction.
“This decision was not made lightly,” said Santos, who was joined by other school administrators at the meeting. “But management felt that in moving forward, they needed to make a change.”
The decision and the lack of reasons justifying it left most of the 50 or so parents in attendance angry and confused.
“We feel that the ‘new direction’ is really just a smokescreen for politics,” said Mary Curry, who has a 5-year-old attending the preschool. “If (Santos) can’t articulate (the new direction), then how can she give it as a reason? That’s just what people say when they don’t want to tell you the truth.”
Franklin, who did not attend the meeting, also declined to comment about the specifics of her termination for legal reasons.
However, Franklin did say it was wrongful and completely surprised her. She also said she truly appreciated the groundswell of support from parents.
“My heart is basically melting because I’m so touched and humbled by this outpouring of support,” Franklin said.
Parents repeatedly asked Santos about the specifics of the new direction and an explanation for Franklin’s termination.
“We just want to know why,” one frustrated parent said during the meeting.
Answers were not forthcoming from Santos, who said that once administrators more fully fleshed out the specifics of the new direction for the preschool, they would give parents more information.
However, Santos said the new direction included an increased emphasis on research and the presentation of the preschool and its alternative education methods as a model for other area schools to follow.
“That’s all that I can tell you right now,” Santos said.
Reaction to Santos’ lack of concrete reasons for Franklin’s termination was not entirely negative.
“I understand that you can’t give us answers, but you have to understand the strong emotions and frustrations of the people in this room,” another parent said.
Parents and teachers were initially informed of Franklin’s termination with a letter congratulating another teacher on her promotion to Franklin’s former teaching position.
The letter made no mention of Franklin’s termination.
Santos said she wanted to include more information on why Franklin was being let go in the letter, but said she was told by other administrators that the specifics and people involved in the decision needed to be kept confidential.
“That’s all we got,” said Curry. “There’s no mention of Ms. Donita not being a teacher anymore. There’s no mention about what’s going to happen with our children.”
Following the letter, Felice Lee, secretary of the Parent’s Association, sent an e-mail to parents lamenting the loss of Franklin, criticizing her termination and encouraging parents with concerns to attend Monday night’s meeting. Nearly all of those who attended left unsatisfied.
“Bottom line is that all of the kids know Ms. Donita, and she has done a fantastic job,” said Johnny El-Rady, a USF professor of biology and the father of a 6-year-old graduate of the preschool, as well as a 3-year-old set to attend the school next year. “All we were given was that the school is moving in a new direction. We want to know what was wrong with the old direction. We liked the old direction. And we want to know what the new direction is and how Ms. Donita interfered with it.”
The preschool’s childcare services are available to USF students, faculty and the larger community, but getting children into the school can be difficult and there is a long waiting list for admission. The personnel at the preschool, particularly Franklin, played a major part in parents’ decisions to send their children to the school, said Scott Ickes, the parent of a 5-year-old newly enrolled at the preschool this semester.
“What I wanted for my kid was what Ms. Donita could offer,” Ickes said. “They took my money. They took my faith. They told me that the core personnel would not change. And then a month later, this happens.”
Parents, along with Franklin, were also worried about the effect Franklin’s sudden termination during the middle of the semester would have on their children.
“That’s probably the thing that’s hardest about this,” Franklin said. “It’s the middle of the year and children already have a lot of transitions. It’s bound to affect them.”
The children participated in making a goodbye card for Franklin, but didn’t say goodbye to her in person.
Parents were also concerned about the effect Franklin’s abrupt termination would have on the morale of teachers and their willingness to freely voice their opinions to administrators in the future.
A group of parents hopes to meet with College of Education Dean Colleen Kennedy later in the week. Kennedy had agreed to speak with parents still unsatisfied following Monday night’s meeting, said Lovelynn Jensen, head of the parents’ association. Jensen said they want nothing less than Franklin’s full reinstatement.
“This is really about our children,” Jensen said. “We love them, we’re obsessed with them and we want what’s best for them.”