Dozens of parents, several students and at least one teacher spoke before the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on Monday, May 21 and Wednesday, May 23, asking that the Board allow Damion Frye to continue as Principal of Seth Boyden School.
However, the fate of Frye may rest in his own hands at this point and not with the Board of Education, as Frye must request a Donaldson hearing in order to have his contract renewed.
Meanwhile, many spoke effusively of their admiration for Frye across the two evenings, with one parent saying, “We thought we’d won the lottery when we met Mr. Frye.” She added, “He’s the kind of principal they make movies about!”
And indeed, the praises for Frye were downright cinematic. Frye was credited with making improvements to curriculum, lowering suspension rates, improving the outdoor garden, bringing the Outdoor Learning Center to completion, creating elective courses and more. Parents talked of the special connection Frye had made with their children or of finding him in the halls fixing benches or in classrooms teaching students. And many expressed their enthusiasm for a major and extremely popular initiative implemented by Frye: his in-home visits with the families of every incoming kindergartner.
Another parent noted that Seth Boyden has long been under-resourced and has had to fight for resources. Efforts to obtain funding and support have “been easier with Mr. Frye,” she said.
“I’m so concerned about what’s going to happen to Seth Boyden if he’s not there,” said Seth Boyden parent Laura Campos.
Referencing the alleged denial of breast pumping breaks to a teacher that many believe was the cause of Frye’s suspension, one Seth Boyden mother said, “Frye should not take the fall for lack of space for nursing mothers at Seth Boyden.” Seth Boyden parent Allyson Murphy, who is a lactation specialist, said she had a face-to-face meeting with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra about breast feeding and the place and timing for pumping in schools. Concerning Mr. Frye, she said, “I am a huge advocate of protecting the rights of pumping parents; I’m also a huge advocate of this principal … none of us are perfect. We believe in second chances.”
One young student elicited laughs when he advocated on behalf of Frye by saying, “If you think he is bossy he’s just trying to help and tell you what to do.” The student added, “He’s very nice.”
Parent Mitch Center’s comments were a little less soaring than some others. Speaking at the May 23 meeting, Center said of Frye, “He’s human and he’s not perfect.” Center recounted talking to teachers outside of the May 21 Board of Ed meeting. While the teachers did not want to take to the microphone, they told Center, “When you make an omelet, you have to crack some eggs.” Center said this was a metaphor for Frye. “Yes, it’s gotten messy and it hasn’t been perfect but he is the right person at the right time in that building.” (Besides the breast pumping incident, Frye also had caused some outcry when he instituted a school dismissal ID program and cafeteria rules that took away recess time as punishment for not following rules — a move counter to district recess policy.)
Center noted that a petition to retain Frye was up to 389 signatures.
Abby Sher expressed a concern voiced by a number of parents about the what they felt was a lack of transparency. Sher said she was unhappy with the lack of explanation from the district for Frye’s suspension this past winter, his return shortly thereafter, and, finally, his non-renewal this May.
But the many public pleas may be mute if Frye himself does not take action.
Frye, who is a non-tenured employee of the district, was not offered a contract for the 2018-19 school year. Under state statute, the Superintendent presents a list of staff to renew for the following year to the Board of Education which then must act by May 15 on the renewal list. The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Ed has already acted on the list.
In order to be reinstated as principal at this point, Frye would now need to request a Donaldson hearing before the Board of Education. (More on Donaldson hearings here.)
Village Green reached out to the district to ask if such a hearing had been requested. The district said it could not comment.
Village Green also asked Frye if he had requested a Donaldson hearing, if he had comments on the breast pumping situation, if he and the teacher had been able to mend their professional relationship, or if he had watched Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
Frye did not respond directly to the question about the Donaldson hearing, but wrote, “Unfortunately I cannot provide any answers to your questions involving personnel.” He said he had not watched the meeting and that he did “not have any comment as to a petition or what the speakers stated.” He did, however, ask if the editors had had the opportunity to see the Seth Boyden Lion King Jr. production, calling it “absolutely amazing.”
Early in the public comment period on May 23, two speakers ceded time so that a third could read the following letter from Seth Boyden parent Ken Feinleib:
Dr. Ficarra and board members:
Following up on the board meeting last night, I think that it’s important to call out the connectedness of the two major issues that were presented. Those who spoke movingly of Ms. Lawson-Muhammed’s situation — and Ms. Lawson-Muhammed herself — were asking that the community forgive her for her well-publicized comments that many found offensive, and the district has chosen to stand behind her.
I will admit that I was among those who questioned whether she could continue to represent this community, but I listened to the discussion with an open mind and found, to my surprise, that it had changed my position. We at Seth Boyden are asking the same for Principal Frye. Although the motivation behind nontendering Principal Frye may have been to install Bonita Samuels and save the district one principal’s salary, the pretext was and remains the breast-feeding incident. Although I firmly believe that his actions can be explained by lack of resources and lack of district support, his comments to that teacher — assuming they were correctly reported in the local press — were very troubling. But just as Ms. Lawson-Muhammed argued that what she said did not represent who she truly is, I would hope that you will consider the totality of who Principal Frye is and what he brings to our school.
Of course I can’t speak for everyone, but the Seth Boyden community has overwhelmingly forgiven Principal Frye, and that includes working mothers, nursing mothers, and at least one lactation expert, as we affirmed to you yesterday and even more so at the meeting with Dr. Ficarra at the time. We have considered that matter well resolved and do not accept it as justification for his dismissal.
Board members, we have elected you to represent us and to be our voice in educational matters. We expect you to represent us fairly and accurately, and we have made and continue to make it abundantly, unambiguously clear: We want Principal Frye to remain our principal. Because you pledged during your campaigns to act on our behalf — and will repeat that pledge if you seek re-election — and because Dr. Ficarra and the board profess to act in the best interests of Seth Boyden, we, who are in the best position to know what has worked for Seth Boyden, urge you to bring back Principal Frye.
Sincerely, Ken Feinleib
Photos from the May 21, 2018 South Orange Maplewood Board of Education meeting courtesy of Seth Boyden parents via Facebook: