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Monday, April 28, 2014

Morale, discipline at Poe Middle School plummet since principal's arrest



Poe Middle School

Since former Poe Middle School Principal Sonya Swansbrough was arrested for embezzlement in November, school staff and parents report morale at the school has plummeted, student behavior has gotten worse, and there’s been a lack of effective communication from Fairfax County Public Schools officials.  

“My son’s teachers have felt pummeled, demoralized, beaten, and then spit out, first, by the actions of its principal, and second by the lack of action of the administration,” said one parent. “As for the parents, I feel we have been lied to, abandoned, and forsaken by the administration. And nothing has been done to remedy the situation.”

More than half the teachers at the Annandale school are trying to transfer to other schools or retire from teaching, people in the Poe community say, and parents are concerned that students are missing out on field trips because of the embezzled funds.

Swansbrough, her son Brent Rusnak, and former Poe financial officer Bethany Speed were charged with money laundering after an investigation by police revealed at least $100,000 was reportedly taken from the school’s funds, starting about four years ago.

Swansbrough’s trial is slated to start May 19. She’s been on administrative leave without pay since the arrest. If she is found innocent, she is guaranteed a job in the FCPS central office.

Principal selection delay

People in the Poe community question why it’s taking so long for the FCPS administration to begin the process of selecting a new principal. There was only one email sent to parents after the arrest, and students were never given an official explanation. One parent didn’t know how to respond when her child asked, “why is my principal on the news?”

Another parent noted that Douglas Tyson, the FCPS assistant superintendent for Cluster 3, didn’t meet with parents until March, four months after Swansbrough was arrested. Meanwhile, another parent said, there’s a climate of “pettiness, in-house fighting, and lots of rumors going around.”

Tyson told the Annandale Blog a letter outlining the timeline for the principal selection process will be distributed no later than April 29 and that he and members of the FCPS human resources staff will be at meetings for staff and parents at Poe May 5 to explain the selection process.

“Parents and staff members will be enthusiastically encouraged to volunteer to participate in the interviewing process of the selected candidates,” Tyson said. The interviews will be conducted on May 29. “Our goal continues to be for the new principal to be in place prior to the conclusion of this academic year.”

Parents praised Mason school board member Sandy Evans for being a good listener but expressed doubts about how much she can do with regard to what is essentially an administrative matter. “Obviously we could have communicated better,” Evans acknowledged.

Another parent complained that principal vacancies at other schools that happened more recently are getting a higher priority. For example, the principal at Frost Middle School retired in April, that the selection process to find a new principal is already under way.

Tyson told the Annandale Blog he has “no knowledge of anyone being put ahead of anyone else.” In an email to a parent, he wrote, “the delay has been centered around a tangible desire to implement a process to attract the best candidates for a school that is extraordinarily deserving.” He dismissed the parent’s concern that the demographics of Poeit serves a large population of lower-income, immigrant studentshad anything to do with the delay.

“We’re in a situation where people are considered innocent until proven guilty,” and that has added some complexity to the matter, Evans said. Now that a court date has been set, the selection process can move forward, she said.

Evans denied rumors that Colleen Noone, who served briefly as acting principal, is a shoe-in for the job, noting, “the process hasn’t even started yet.” The current interim principal is Glynn Bates.

Noone, the seventh-grade administrator, reportedly resigned as acting principal because she plans to apply for the position of permanent principal. If she gets the job, more teachers will head for the door, Poe employees said. They characterize Noone as “highly confrontational,” a “micromanager,” and “extremely difficult to work with.”

The recent turmoil and drama at Poe has taken a toll on students in the form of more discipline problems, including sexual harassment and sexting, according to staff members, who added that Poe students involved with the MS-13 gang have been caught trying to recruit young kids at Braddock Elementary School. 

There have also been an increasing number of “California knockout” incidents where a student comes from behind and chokes another student while holding their feet off the floor.

Missing field trip money

Regarding the $16,000 in field trip funds that was reportedly embezzled by Swansbrough and Speed, one parent said, “I feel like my son has been cheated out of many opportunities at Poe because the school’s money was stolen.” A Poe staff member told her school accounts have been frozen and can’t be accessed.

Tyson acknowledged that one sixth-grade trip was affected due to lack of funds. He worked with Bates “to eliminate that gap,” he said, “and I am confident that the planning for that trip is underway. I have no knowledge that any previously scheduled field trips have been cancelled because of funding gaps.”

The confusion apparently stems from an email from a Poe administrator stating that the field trip money was gone. But Bates later denied that the money was missing and indicated it had been found. That prompted students to circulate photos of dislodged ceiling tiles showing the possible hiding place.

Although Swansbrough was well-liked and had a good reputation among parents, she had a “completely different persona” among people who worked with her. One employee called her “very manipulative” and said she inspired “instant distrust” among subordinates.

The details of the alleged embezzlement—and why the defendants thought they could get away with it—aren’t clear, but it appears investigators discovered falsified time sheets.

Swansbrough’s son, Brent Rusnak, was on the Poe payroll, but few employees saw him doing much work there. At the time, he was a student at Radford University and was supposed to be working remotely on scheduling for Poe staff.

During the investigation, police found computers, iPads, and other school property at Speed’s house that had been reported as stolen, as well as school files.

People close to the school question why FCPS allowed Speed to work as a financial officer when she was reportedly $250,000 in debt and had filed for bankruptcy in 2012. At the time of the arrest, Speed had transferred to an administrative position at JEB Stuart High School.

People who worked at Poe said, when they asked questions about what appeared to be financial irregularities, they were told to trust Speed and let staff do their jobs.

37 comments:

  1. Such a sad situation. But, there sure seems to be a lot of gossiping going on as well, which can't be helping matters at all!

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  2. Wow, if all that is stated in this article is even half true
    there is something very very wrong going on with the leadership of Fairfax county schools. Under no circumstances should students ever have to be even remotely caught up or involved with anything like this.
    Unbelievable.

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  3. Note to readers: Due to legitimate concerns expressed by a reader, a couple of minor editorial changes have been made to this piece.

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  4. Ellie, could you please identify what "editorial changes" you made? I noticed you removed the characterization of Noone being a "...bully." What a shame, because she IS a bully. Do a FOIA to FCPS HR and discover the number of complaints, etc. that have been received as a result of Noone's poor judgement and bullyinig behavior.

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  5. I am confused by this line...

    "Parents praised Mason school board member Sandy Evans for being a good listener but expressed doubts about how much she can do with regard to what is essentially an administrative matter."

    If Sandy as an elected school board member is only a good listener then why have a school board? Why even bother talking to her it sounds as she does as much as your friend next door? If the school board has no influence over the fairfax county public schools then what is their job?

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  6. Ellie, I am dismayed by this article. It puts the entirety of Poe Middle School, including teachers and administrators, in a very negative light. I'd like to counter it from a personal perspective, since I teach at Poe. In the months since Sonya's arrest, we have pulled together as a school to rise above the disarray. As a community, we have worked to remind ourselves and each other that we come to work every day for the students, plain and simple. And boy, have we done that. I walk through the doors of Poe every day thankful to be a part of such an incredible team. The administration... ALL of it, including Dr. Noone... has done an amazing job at keeping us together, focused on what is important, and helping us muscle our way through an incredibly difficult period while continuing to provide the best education we can. The accusations leveled against Dr. Noone's character are categorically untrue. I know her to be a professional, dedicated, and caring educator. Your original content, before your edit, included libelous accusations regarding her alleged behavior towards special education students, and I found those accusations to be ridiculous... as I'm sure you did after reflection, which is no doubt why you removed them. My colleagues at Poe are among the best I have ever worked with, and I count myself fortunate to know them. As for the allegation that "more than half the teachers" at Poe are seeking to leave or retire... I cannot help but laugh. That is such a ridiculous notion, that I don't even know how to respond to it.

    There was also a factual error and inconsistency in your original content that you have since removed; namely, you mention that a result of Sonya's arrest and the following tumult is a decline in SOL scores. I found this particular interesting, since we have not yet administered the SOLs this year. How can scores decline if the students haven't even taken the test? That was such a glaring error, that it calls into your question your method of fact-checking and due diligence.

    In addition, while I acknowledge that in the past we have had a gang issue at Poe, there has never been any connection with MS-13 here. A simple contact attempt with FCPD's Gang Task Force, with whom we work closely, would have confirmed this. I hope you understand that by creating that connection without verifying it, you may have placed our students in direct jeopardy. This was very irresponsible of you.

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  7. Colleen Noone. Is a bully as well as an ignorant clown. Three yers ago half of the 7th grade staff under her transferred due to her behavior. She has overstepped her bounds on many an occasion and was very disliked by many. She "earned" an Ed.D. that was widely believed to be a joke of a degree. She made people call her Doctor. She was mocked and truely disliked by those unfortunate to have her as a manager and co-worker.

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    1. Your mileage may vary. I'm sorry you have had such a negative experience in relation to Dr. Noone. My own experience with her has been professional and positive. And for the record, as far as I am aware, she has never once insisted on the honorific. I use it strictly voluntarily, out of respect for her work and achievements.

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    2. Your assessment of Dr. Noone is so far biased and inflammatory is obvious you have something personal against her. Your assessment is also way off of her as a person and professional.

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    3. Mary: your personal opinion of Dr. Noone does not need to be shared here. It is not her fault for Sonya's actions and she is doing an outstanding job of leading Poe during this time.

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    4. If I had gone through the process of getting a Ph.D, Ed.D, or M.D., I would ask to be called "Doctor" as well. There's nothing unusual about that at all. Next time you visit your physician, call them Mr. or Ms. and see how they respond to it.

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    5. I was a student at Poe when Noone was an assistant principle. I was a good student and always stayed out of trouble and I was still terrified of her. Frankly, Noone has always been manipulative, even before Swansbrough had gone down hill. Noone seemed like she hated students and teachers alike.

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    6. Ms Amanda sperling is now the afterschool program coordinator. The afterschool program a place where students can do homework and have fun is now a prison where you are required to do homework and remain silent for a majority of the time. If you are caught breaking any of her oppressive rules she or any of the other guards I mean teachers will get up in your face and yell at you. Sometimes through the PA system

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    7. Dr. Noone didn't even get an interview for the Principal position, I think that is extremely telling about the situation at Poe.

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  8. After reading this article written by an adult, I am only grateful that Poe children learn about bias, fact and opinion, citing sources, asking good questions, and, in general, how to recognize total BS. Anytime you want to join an English class here, let us know. Your writing will improve dramatically.

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    1. maybe it was Annandale high school kid

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    2. Isn't free speech an essential to all of the things you stated?!?! Are we not allowed to have opinions anymore?

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    3. You may have all the opinions you want. You may even print your opinions all you want. But when you attempt to represent your opinions as fact, you run into issues. There are laws governing what you can and cannot print without consequences, based on how you represent them and how likely they are to infringe upon the rights of others. Libel is a very real and serious matter, and before the author's edits, this article included very libelous material that had the potential to damage reputations and careers. If you print "I think Joe Smith is an awful human being who shouldn't be allowed near children", you can say that. But when you remove the "I think" part and declare as fact that Joe Smith shouldn't be allowed near children, you have committed slander (if verbalized) or libel (if in print) and you have violated Joe Smith's rights by damaging his reputation without cause.

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  9. Sonya got the SOL scores up by having every student with an IEP take the VGLA.

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    1. That was a prominent practice in all places around the county until the rules changed. She was not acting unethically by doing this.

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    2. So, just because it is a prominent practice in the county that makes it ok to have most special education kids take an alternate assessment?

      The special education leadership at Poe gets away with it because most of the parents do not speak English, a lot are illegal aliens afraid to question when being railroaded to agree with decisions that make life easy for the special education leadership.

      Are you asking yourself why FCPS leadership is not removing those who Sonya "trained" to be dishonest and unethical?

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    3. I totally agreed.The person who is appointed to be the " Chair Department Of the Special Education Program" Its under qualified to run the Position. She was trained for Sonya, and Sonya was blinded. Let's do something....

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  10. I'll give anyone 5 to 1 that not more 15% leave Poe next year. I'll go as high as $1,000. PM me.

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    1. It's already more than 15% I guess you loose.

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  11. I'm currently a student at Poe middle school the rumors of fights and behavioral issue are all false. Behavior hasn't gotten worse but some of the teachers have. I recall seeing student being yelled at screamed at like a drill Sargent. They yell at us for no good reason at times through an intercom this is very common at the after school program

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  12. I worked at Poe with the Special Education Program. My job there was Instructional Assistant.I resigned because i encountered a lot of stress and one of the assistant there she gave me a lot of a hard time i believe her name is Ms. Rosemary she made my entire time while i worked there impossible to work, she yelled at me for no reason, she is a hated human being.

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    1. Rosemary is a wonderful human being full of compassion and respect for the kids she works with. I know because she works with mine. She is a true asset to the special ed team. Thank God for Rosemary!!!!!

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  13. I once got spanked by the intercom at Poe MS. I think Dr. Noone told it to do it.

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  14. I wonder since FCPS is being quiet as a mouse about the whole thing if this indicates that having one's hand in the till is normal behaviour? We need to read between the lines. I used to work at a major university and almost every single manager was stealing. It was appalling. It was more like a criminal enterprise.

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    Replies
    1. FCPS is being quiet because they don't want to deal with a school that has minorities. If this was a school with loud parents, it would be a completely different situation.

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  15. Swansbrough's trial date has been postponed to July 28.

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  16. Morale at Poe seems to be pretty good: http://www.fcpswcs.org/results/report/97/53777#FX14_Time

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    1. Come spend a day at Poe and tell us if you agree with that survey. People are not honest on those.

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    2. The working conditions survey was given in January. Had the survey been taken a month later, the results would more accurately reflect reality at Poe. Colleen Noone "advocated" for herself and convinced Tyson to allow her to remain as "acting principal."
      Heads began turning when not a week into her "acting principalship," the newly acquired power turned her into MORE of a monster.
      A week or so later, Noone was removed from "acting" principal and a retired principal was brought in.

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    3. Dr. Noone was removed from the "acting" principal position because she intended to apply for the position full time, and internal policy prevents someone from applying for such a position when fulfilling an interim role. And please, don't read too far into the fact that someone else got the job in the end.

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  17. Hi Ellie,
    I don't know if the article is biased or not, but thank you so much for writing it, because I have been trying for months to find updates about the situation, and there was nothing (not even on the reviled Fairfax Underground). Please post an update after the July 28 trial...thanks.

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  18. Man were is ms Sonya she was my everything my name is Neville Lee Ellis Jr and ppl make things hard on there self I kno but I love Sonya she was the best no mader wt she loved the kids

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