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Placer High searches for new principal

School officials face high turnover, unique challenges
By: Jenifer Gee, Journal Staff Writer
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It’s taken 15 years and six principals, but come graduation this June, Placer High School parent and past booster club president Margie Spalding will no longer have a student in the district. Her four daughters have made it through high school just fine, she says, but the turnover in principals is something Spalding said she wishes she could stop. “I do think it’s a problem because I think principals bring stability,” she said. This year former principal Bill Roderick left the high school position without completing the school year. He resigned in March, and less than two weeks after the announcement of his resignation, he was placed on paid administrative leave. Officials have remained tight-lipped on the reasons why, except to say Roderick left for personal reasons. He was placed on leave in the best interest of the school, officials said. Still, questions linger as to the reason, and as to why the high school has gone through six principals within the last 10 years, including interim Principal Jeff Tooker. Not unheard of One of the school’s most tenured principals, Jug Covich remained as head of the school from 1971 to 1988. His successor stayed for three years. Since the end of Tom Johnson’s six-year career as principal in 1997, four principals have come and gone through the doors of Placer High. Mike McCoy led the school for three years before Craig Heimbichner took over for two. Dave Horsey, who is now the assistant superintendent for educational services, completed a five-year tenure, which is about the state average for high school principals, according to Bart O’Brien, Placer Union High School District superintendent. “There’s been a turnover, certainly, but it’s not completely unheard of,” O’Brien said. O’Brien explained that last year it was tough to gather a large recruitment pool. Several surrounding districts were also offering principal positions — and paying more money. So that left just two applicants for the district to choose from. “We did the best we could at the time,” O’Brien said. “We had what we had.” So would the district leaders have preferred a different candidate, if a better one had been available? O’Brien said he wouldn’t speculate. Kathleen Geary, Placer Union High School District board president, said she stands behind the district’s hiring decision last year. “It was tough having only two applicants, but we felt (Roderick) was the right one for the job at the time we chose him,” Geary said. A year of firsts Barely two weeks into the school year, the Placer High School campus was placed on lockdown when a student reported they saw someone with a handgun on campus. Following the incident, the school held a forum for parents to talk about lockdown procedures and answer lingering questions. Prior to the forum, police arrested suspect Francisco Evangelista. Early reports from law enforcement said Evangelista was a suspected gang member because of items on his MySpace page, his choice of clothing and drawings in his portfolio. During the public forum, Roderick told parents and the community the school could finally relax now that the suspect was in custody. “He’s a gang member,” Roderick said in September. In April, Evangelista was sentenced to three years probation and probable deportation for bringing a BB gun to the campus and being an illegal alien. However, charges that he was a gang member were dropped because of insufficient evidence. When asked what he thought of Roderick’s comment regarding Evangelista at the forum, O’Brien said it was “unfortunate.” “It was unfortunate that assessment was made if it turned out to be inaccurate,” O’Brien said. Roderick said recently by phone from his home in Sutter County that he would not change how he handled the situation. “I handled the situation as best I could with the information I had at the time,” Roderick said. How Roderick handled other public events was something O’Brien would not comment further on. “I’m not going to evaluate Bill in public,” O’Brien said. ‘A monster of its own’ Being a high school principal is tough, Geary said. “Personally, I think being a high school principal is one of the most difficult jobs in education,” she said. Roderick said he found the principal position at Placer High School to be unique in its challenges. “It’s a monster of its own,” Roderick said. He said balancing a student body with half the students college-bound and a large portion receiving Title I funding is one of the challenging aspects to balance. “It’s a totally different demographic, it’s a different culture. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” he said. “All schools have their big issues and I think Placer’s are just different from what the other schools’ are.” Roderick said he feels the job is for someone who doesn’t have young kids at home. He has a 6-year-old and an 11-year-old daughter. Roderick said home commitments “weighed heavily” in his decision to leave. “It’s not one you can balance against young kids in my perspective,” he said. “Someone else maybe can do that but I can’t.” Roderick credited a supportive site staff that he said “appreciated leadership” with making his experience at Placer a positive one. Geary acknowledged that Placer had some differences from other schools. It’s the only open-campus school in the district and it’s truly entrenched in the community with its location close to Downtown Auburn. “It’s different than other schools of course — it has its own culture like they all do — but I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult,” Geary said. ‘Not the same job’ When it comes to hiring a principal for next year, former Placer High principal Horsey is coordinating the effort. Horsey said a several-person interview committee would be formed. The committee, which includes a parent and student member, meets with candidates and then makes a recommendation. From there, candidates meet with the superintendent and two trustees. The superintendent makes his recommendation and then the board votes their approval or disapproval. Spalding, who sat on last year’s interview committee, said she couldn’t comment in detail about the interview process because of a confidentiality agreement. She did say she hopes this year the district finds a candidate with prior experience as a principal and spends more time recruiting. Horsey said the district is optimistic about this year’s prospects. As of last week, they received two applications with a request for two more. The office set a May 9 deadline for candidates to apply for a position that has a more competitive salary range this year, O’Brien said. The district is offering a range of $93,644 to $113,825 based on experience. Last year the offer didn’t reach the $100,000 range, O’Brien explained. “The idea is to have a large pool of applicants and that’s the challenge,” O’Brien said. “There’s not a huge number of people who want to be high school principals in 2008. It’s not the same job it was.” He said test scores are becoming increasingly more important as schools are losing funding, which makes it hard to lead a school. Tooker said one of the common challenges at high schools in a semi-rural district, such as those in Placer Union High School District, is that the school becomes a focal point in the community. “The thing is, your time is everyone else’s time. You’re always on call to other people’s needs,” Tooker said. Students speak While O’Brien said he was not shocked or surprised by the news of Roderick’s resignation, students said they were. Jon Schmidt, Placer student site council representative, said he was surprised because he remembered Roderick saying he had plans to see his children graduate from the school. Schmidt was one of the student members on the committee that interviewed Roderick and the other principal candidate last year. “He talked about how much he liked the school so I was really surprised to hear he was leaving,” Schmidt said. Since Roderick’s departure, Schmidt said he thinks remaining school officials have done well in keeping the school in order. Other Placer High School students agree. Freshman Danielle Kenoyer and Sophomore Megan Peek said they think things have been running smoothly at the school since Roderick’s departure. Megan said she hopes the new principal will be someone who “interacts with kids a lot.” Danielle agreed. “They should understand what students are going through,” she said. Moving forward Last month, Roderick’s final day on campus was a quiet affair, O’Brien said. “I wished him well,” O’Brien said. Since then O’Brien and Roderick have exchanged a few e-mails. “We have a perfectly cordial relationship. There’s no animosity between us,” O’Brien said. Since then students and staff have been working alongside interim principal Tooker. Tooker said he doesn’t want to make the job a full-time position because of his strong ties to Del Oro High School, where he has been vice principal for the past five years. “It’s a tough gig to walk into at this point,” he said of being interim principal. “I’m just trying to get the seniors safely to the finish line and get a good start to the 08-09 school year.” Tooker said he has a special affection for the school where he spent his first year as an administrator. “I think Placer is an awesome high school and I have a great affection for this school. A lot of people are very passionate about it. Every school has their fit administration- and teacher-wise and Placer will find theirs,” Tooker said. The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at or post a comment at www.auburnjournal.com.