Candid about culture: The Tower investigates a change in environment at South
March 11, 2019
Based on the 2017-2018 Employee Engagement Survey, which The Tower obtained through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), over half of the staff at South say they are not satisfied with the culture of their workplace. Over the past several months, The Tower has conducted over 35 interviews and obtained multiple documents investigating the current climate at South.
Playing favorites, micromanaging and holding grudges are all examples of behavior of some administrators, according to current and former South students, parents, alumni and former South employees.
In fact, one former South administrator, who now works at Parcells Middle School, went so far as to file a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the district as a result.
However, administrators say they are not to blame. They say new state requirements for teacher evaluations, and South’s previously lax attitude toward student discipline and employee oversight has made it necessary for them to tighten the reins.
Staff Culture, Disrespect and Trust
Out of the 78 South staff members who anonymously answered the question “How much support does the administration at the school give to the staff?” on the Employee Engagement Survey, 51 percent answered “a little” or “none at all.”
The GPPSS Employee Engagement Survey is a completely anonymous survey given to all district employees yearly. The survey reports a number of staff members are not satisfied with the culture of their workplace. The Tower also submitted a FOIA for the results of the 2016-2017 survey, but the request was denied by the district.
Out of the 57 South staff members who answered the question “If you could make one change at your school, what would that one change be?”, 42 percent directly mentioned administration in their answer.
In response to the survey results, Principal Moussa Hamka said administration has work to do, but he believes this year has been better than the past.
“At the end of last school year, staff provided specific feedback on ways to improve support for teachers in such areas as attendance and discipline,” Hamka said. “We have been intentional and transparent about our efforts and have discussed them at several staff meetings.”
In the Employee Engagement Survey, only 15 percent said they “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement “Senior management and employees trust each other.”
A strategic plan is developed by the superintendent, emphasizes what the main goals and values of the district are and lead it in the right direction, according to Superintendent Dr. Gary Niehaus.
Hamka said part of his role as South’s principal is to follow the strategic plan.
“Trust is something we need to work on across our organization and between all employees– administration to staff, staff to staff, within departments and across buildings,” Hamka said.
Maria Mitzel, South student activities director, said the turnover in administrators over the years has made it hard to adapt.
“We’ve had three different principals; I’ve personally worked for seven different assistant principals,” Mitzel said. “They each come with their own expectations, their own vision. It makes it hard to be consistent.”
Hamka said he has worked with six different assistant principals during his five years at South. He is one of three principals South has had in the past nine years.
DeEtte Reynolds taught at South for 24 years. She said in her last four to five years at South, she noticed a shift in the way teachers were treated, specifically feeling berated and belittled, creating a culture of fear.
“I felt an overall lack of respect for the contributions teachers made,” Reynolds said. “Just a real harsh style of treatment of teachers by Principal Hamka and by Jon Dean (deputy superintendent of educational services), really rude and disrespectful.”
In response to Reynolds’ claim, Hamka stated via email, “Dr. Dean and I have dealt with many situations and have consistently displayed kindness, understanding and empathy where appropriate.”
An example of disrespect Reynolds cites is when, during professional development (PD) on half days, Hamka asked teachers to sit in a room together to make sure they weren’t doing something they weren’t supposed to do, like lesson-planning or grading papers.
“He would make educated people with master’s degrees who had taught in this building for 20 years sit in a room together, so he could walk around and check to make sure everyone was doing what he was supposed to be doing,” Reynolds said. “To me, (it was) utterly disrespectful.”
Hamka said keeping all the teachers in the library was not because he didn’t trust them, but because it was successful the year before.
“The point was to keep everyone into kind of like a family,” Hamka said. “I received feedback, so this year, we did adjust. We had some free time during the PD day in December, and we didn’t tell them they needed to stay in the media center (library).”
Dean said he treats employees in the district with dignity and respect. He said he is not aware of a culture of fear, and encourages anyone who feels that way to bring it to him, Dr. Niehaus or the Board of Education.
“Everyone should feel comfortable at school, whether they’re students or they’re adults,” Dean said. “I am not aware of a culture of fear, and Lord knows that’s not something I’m trying to perpetuate.”
However, when former South assistant principal Debra Redlin had a complaint with the way Hamka treated her, she eventually filed a lawsuit against the district.
Redlin claimed Hamka gave her unequal duties compared to the other assistant principal then, Terry Flint, and that he treated male and female employees differently, according to public court documents. The court decided to dismiss the case and Redlin filed an appeal on June 1, 2018. The Tower will continue to cover the appeal process.
Reynolds, who retired after the first semester last year, said the way students and teachers were being treated by administration was part of the reason she left.
“I love South High School. I was there for 24 years, my kids all went there, it’s such a significant part of my life and it just breaks my heart what’s happening,” Reynolds said tearfully. “That’s part of the reason I left; I just couldn’t stand to see it anymore.”
In response, Hamka said Reynolds was in a position of leadership and influence when he arrived at South and stated Reynolds had the opportunity to be part of the positive efforts helping to improve staff culture.
“Frankly, there are some teachers here (who) said (they) left or will leave because of administration,” Hamka said. “(Who) are probably some of those same teachers we’re trying to help transition into the next phase of their life: next job, next career, whatever that might be.”
One significant cause of friction is the evaluation process. In 2011, a law was enacted in Michigan stating that layoff and recall of teachers would be determined by evaluations, rather than seniority.
Hamka said the law has affected teachers and administrators across the state, with many who feel this change created a competitive atmosphere among teachers.
“If you’re coming in, and you’re living (up to) the expectations, if you’re putting students first and you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about,” Hamka said.
Current physics teacher Todd Hecker said there were pros and cons to having everything in schools determined by seniority prior to the law changing.
“The pro is being able to trust teachers to do the right thing, the con is there were, to be honest, some teachers who were just sort of resting on their laurels, and… maybe weren’t working as hard as they should have been,” Hecker said.
Hecker said the old evaluation system didn’t put the principal in a position where he was evaluating the other teachers, so it created an open dynamic where teachers felt like they could tell him anything.
“As much as the administrators are great about saying, ‘We’re here to support you’– and I believe them– any time you walk into a room you as a teacher go, ‘Someone’s watching me!’” Hecker said. “They’re in charge of my evaluation, and that’s just naturally intimidating. So that results in a lot of baggage that is unfortunately unavoidable.”
Reynolds shared how the evaluation system pits people against each other and makes teachers afraid to lose their job to someone else who was rated “highly effective.”
“It’s like people are worried about losing their positions, they’re worried about doing something that might jeopardize their jobs,” Reynolds said. “So when you’re a senior teacher and you have only a certain number of years to retire, and you lose your job, you lose your ability to collect your pension that you have worked your whole life towards.”
Mike Rennell, South teacher and union board president, said evaluations usually aren’t too bad of an experience, but he feels the hoops teachers must jump through for a highly effective rating are outrageous and demoralizing.
“Very few of our teachers are actually rated highly effective,” Rennell said. “But if you look at our teachers compared to teachers in other districts that rank half their teachers as highly effective or more, you go, ‘Why does our district do that?’”
Reynolds said she heard from some teachers that on the day before Thanksgiving break, administration walked around the building to make sure they were teaching lessons and not just sitting around with their students. This visit was confirmed by Rennell.
In response, Hamka said the administrators at South try to build trust and relationships by being visible, so they try to be in classrooms every day.
“Before the holidays, we walk the building wishing students and staff a happy and safe holiday,” Hamka said. “As we do with all classroom visits, feedback is provided to teachers.”
A student who was in a classroom when administrators visited said they could tell their teacher was very nervous, and that they felt bad for the teacher.
Rod Satterthwaite, former Tower adviser from 2014 to 2016, acknowledges how the evaluation process in Michigan was changed, which is the “fault of the legislature, not the principal.”
Satterthwaite said in California, where he is currently employed, and even at Dexter High School, where he taught before coming to South, if the administrators saw something the teachers were doing that they didn’t like, they would pull teachers aside and collaborate with them more to improve it. He feels things are done differently at South.
“There was always a lot of pressure to make sure you proved yourself, and it is a burden; it became hours and hours of the teacher’s time trying to prove they were a good teacher, as opposed to (administration) working with the teacher one on one to try to make them a better teacher,” Satterthwaite said.
Satterthwaite said some of the things that ended up in his evaluation seemed random or punitive, and thinks some of that involved Grosse Pointe administration, while the Michigan legislation played a part too.
Hamka said there is a formal process through the district and the union to review anything teachers don’t agree with being included.
“At times, there are pieces put into evaluations teachers feel shouldn’t be there, but we have reflected on it, we have discussed it with central office and it’s remained in the evaluation,” Hamka said.
According to Hamka, a large component of evaluating teachers is developing trust, which starts with one-on-one meetings with staff members.
“As a building team, we visit classrooms and debrief our observations to enhance inter-rater reliability,” Hamka said. “Administration meets monthly with our teacher union representative to collaboratively work on improvement. This school year, the district has been working to continue training for administrators and teacher leaders.”
A staff member can file an informal complaint, which is usually an undocumented conversation, about an issue they may be experiencing in the workplace. A formal complaint is a documented complaint and certain measures are taken once the complaint is filed, according to Niehaus.
When staff members have a complaint, it is typically between an administrator and teacher, and usually a union representative is involved and possibly, the principal will have a representative as well, Niehaus said. If there is no resolve, there are more steps that are taken, the final being a formal grievance process.
“If they can’t resolve it or make it better, then it goes to more of a formal, kind of a step two, step three, step four kind of thing, but if you can’t resolve it after those steps, then it goes into a more formal grievance process,” Niehaus said. “But, there’s not a lot of stuff that gets over to my office.”
Dean said the person who handles complaints depends on the type of complaint it is, with procedures to follow based on what the complaint about.
“(The union’s) job is to represent their members but not to navigate through complaints,” Dean said. “If you’re not happy with how your job’s going, that’s an employee-employer issue. We will always partner with the union about that, but the union can’t fix it.”
According to math teacher and union representative Jacqueline Shelson, there have been informal complaints made through the union at South.
“Usually an informal complaint is a conversation with me, I meet with administration, and if we can fix it, we do,” Shelson said. “It’s like little fires we put out when needed.”
According to Nicole Pilgrim, Director of Human Resources, all complaints from staff have been looked into, whether or not the results are what the person who complained was looking for.
Pilgrim said exit interviews are always offered, whether that be a face-to-face meeting or through a survey sent by mail.
“I don’t think I’ve ever received necessarily one that said anything bad about the community, the schools,” Pilgrim said. “If there was any complaint, it was about school funding, things that are outside the realm of our control.”
Dean said a personal situation is something negative that could come up in an exit interview but he feels the majority of the staff are very happy.
“I look at the percentage of staff members that come back here and choose to be here every year, the percentage of staff members that choose to have their kids in live in this community,” Dean said.
However, Reynolds thinks district level administration and the school board allow the problems she sees between administrators and staff at South to happen and said they are “complacent.”
“I spoke with Dr. Niehaus as an exit interview when I left, and I told him point-blank about all the things that were happening at South,” Reynolds said. “I know that other teachers who have left for other opportunities have been equally as clear with him, so they’re aware of it. I don’t know why they don’t choose to do anything about it.”
The Role of the School Board
Brian Summerfield, GPPSS board president, said the school board’s role is to work with building administration to help develop their vision.
“I think you have to have a staff and administration that sets the tone for the culture, and encourages students to adapt to their culture, which I think is set out in our strategic plan,” Summerfield said. “We’re working on that.”
According to Margaret Weertz, board vice president, the role of the board is to respond to community needs about the school district.
“We do not get involved with the minutiae of the district,” Weertz said.
Weertz said all of the school board’s information comes from the superintendent and they do not communicate about issues with school principals, lower level administrators or staff.
The Board Policy Manual (Policy 3112) states all communication from staff members to the Board must be submitted to the superintendent, and any communication from the Board to the staff must be communicated through the superintendent.
“There’s danger in us getting involved in a school by school issue, or climate or culture or any of that,” Weertz said. “That would really not be our role; we shouldn’t be calling up principals and saying, ‘Hey, what’s happening over there’…That would be maybe even a breach if we were on the phone with principals all the time.”
Hamka said when students tell him they are upset with a school policy, they should go talk to the school board about it.
“What the board wants us to do, what the superintendent wants us to do is to enforce the policy,” Hamka said. “I really recognize some students are unhappy with the enforcement of policy. I don’t create policy. My role as a principal in this building is to follow the policy.”
Judy Gafa, board member since 2008 and current school board treasurer, said a healthy culture is defined by hearing everyone’s voice.
“I don’t know that (the voices) always heard, but I feel the teachers have a voice and can go to hopefully their principal or come to the board or go to Central Office if they feel they’re not being heard,” Gafa said.
Gafa said she was unaware passing time was changing at South and North this year.
“It might be that we get told in an email, and maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I didn’t know passing time was changing,” Gafa said. “(Changing passing time) is not really a board decision, that’s an administrative decision.”
According to Weertz, Gafa and Ismail, all board members are given highlights from the Employee Engagement Surveys given each year, which are summarized to them at a board meeting, and may receive the full documents if they ask for them.
Board Bylaw 0143 states that requests for additional information shall be directed to Niehaus or Summerfield. And, according to former board member Ahmed Ismail, information can be denied to board members, and because of this, he has had to FOIA certain information.
Weertz said she ordered the information from the Employee Engagement Surveys this year so she can read the individual responses.
“I did that about four years ago, when I first got on the board, I read all the individual responses. And now I’m going to do it again, I don’t do it every year,” Weertz said.
Ismail left the board in 2018, at the end of his term.
“I chose not to seek re-election to the school board because I felt the direction the majority of the school board members were taking the school system was not the direction we should be taking,” Ismail said.
Ismail thinks there should be a bigger emphasis on curriculum and education in the district, and that board members should be able and encouraged to talk to the community more and get their input.
For example, Ismail said in 2008 he went to the high schools for the day and made himself available to talk to staff, students and administrators about their perspectives and opinions, and thought it was extremely beneficial, but today such practice is against policy.
“Visiting the high schools was the best thing I ever did as a board member– that’s when you get the real, unfiltered story,” Ismail said. “That would be unheard of today.”
Ismail believes there should be more open communication between board members and everyone in the community so everyone’s voices are heard.
“I was not on the board to serve the other board members or to serve the superintendent. I was there to serve the residents of our community,” Ismail said. “That was my job. When board members forget who they work for, that’s when the problems begin.”
Summerfield said he is interested in hearing the student voice more than he and the board currently do, and encourages students to voice their opinions to the board.
“What I really like is that everyone feel like they’ve been heard,” Summerfield said. “So to the extent that students, staff and the administration and people in that community do not feel like they’re being heard, I hope my always looking for ways to improve that.”
A Student Perspective
A number of students, parents and alumni think the current administration treats them disrespectfully. Jennifer Maiorana ’16 said she got the experience of having to deal with a difficult boss early on.
Maiorana, previous Editor in Chief of The Tower, said she experienced several issues with administration, specifically Hamka. Maiorana said the day after The Tower came out with a sensitive editorial about administrative dishonesty and lack of cooperation with The Tower, Hamka cornered her in the hallway.
“(He) threatened to go to all of my classes and call me out for being a poor leader and poor communicator,” Maiorana said.
The above information is all confirmed by Jennifer Maiorana, Lisa Maiorana– Jennifer’s mother– and Satterthwaite.
“I think it’s completely unacceptable for a principal to bully a student and don’t feel as if principals should have the role of a boss over a student,” Jennifer Maiorana said. “I think administration should be supportive and helpful, I don’t think they should be intimidating and threatening.”
Hamka said he cannot comment on the specifics of his conversation with Maiorana, but was told to voice his concerns to her.
“I was told I need to go speak with the editor,” Hamka said. “When I did, the editor didn’t like the feedback they received and became emotional.”
Grayson Kennedy ’19 said he has seen a significant change in the environment at South since his freshman year four years ago. He feels many students are not happy to be at school anymore.
“I vividly remember freshman and sophomore year how inviting (South) was and how I remember walking down the hallways, and saying hi to the assistant principals who would say hi back,” Kennedy said. “But it sort of feels like there’s this rock on top of everybody now. It feels a lot like Big Brother from ‘1984’ by George Orwell, and I think it kind of killed the culture.”
According to Kennedy, he feels most of his teachers are now afraid to have fun with their students due to fear of administration.
“The teachers are the only thing that have really stayed consistent. A lot of teachers I have personally have this old mentality of being invested in the students and try to tweak the rules or something (to) help the student as much as they can,” Kennedy said. “It has built this teacher vs. administration thing that was somewhat present early in my high school career, but it’s just been amplified now.”
Kendall Volpe ’19 describes the current culture at South as rigid and strict.
“Opening one door for everyone to go in and out, that’s synonymous with what they do in prison,” Volpe said. “I think in general, everyone is really tiptoeing around administration. They are trying really hard to be so rigid and strict that it takes away the fun. A lot of our mini-freedoms have been taken away, not to mention just some staples of privacy.”
Volpe cites open bathroom doors and required hall passes as examples of rigidness.
“If I am just walking to my locker to get a book for class, I should not need to be hounded by an adult. I am 18 years old. I think I know how to behave responsibly in a hallway,” Volpe said.
Hamka said not everyone is going to agree with the decisions that are made, including the enforcement of the hall pass policy.
“I don’t know many other high schools that let kids out of class without a pass, so some teachers were upset when that happened,” Hamka said.
Enya Nguyen ’20 said when she started at South, relationships between students, hall monitors and administrators were more positive.
“It was a more friendly atmosphere,” Nguyen said. “Now, instead of them (hall monitors and administrators) wanting to have a relationship with us and helping us, it’s more like they’re just doing their job.”
Niehaus said he understands how the relationship with the hall monitors may have changed when the hall monitors were privatized two years ago, which was decided by the district to minimize costs.
An area many students feel administrators are stepping in too much is in the student section at sporting events.
Mickey Kuchta ’19 has attended many home South sporting events– especially football and boys basketball– this year, and acts as a leader in the student section.
“We try to do a lot, and it’s sometimes successful, but not always,” Kuchta said. “I think part of that (involves) administration moving us up top (at the basketball game) and then getting mad when we do cheers, but not really telling us why they’re mad or letting us know beforehand not to do that.”
Athletic director Christopher Booth said the choice to move students to the top of the stands at a recent basketball game– which many students complained about– was due to safety concerns.
“Students were moved up into the top portion of the stands for the North vs. South game based on a legitimate safety concern and fight at another school a few weeks before the game,” Booth said. “Precautions were taken to ensure the safety of our students.”
Booth said he also made announcements this year regarding what can be cheered at games and what is appropriate.
“I made clear that I want students to cheer loudly, and have fun. However, we ask the student section to not cheer the opposing team’s players names or numbers. Simply, cheer for our team, not the opposing team,” Booth said. “This is not only my recommendation, but an agreement of every athletic director in the Macomb Area Conference regarding sportsmanship of our student sections.”
Colleen Jogan ’91, who has had multiple family members attend South, said she doesn’t feel the current administration respects the tradition of South.
“It seems like South has lost some of what made it an individual, outstanding school,” Jogan said. “Students are losing some of their voice. I feel like the administration is starting to talk over the top of the kids. The kids’ opinions do not seem as relevant now as they have in the past.”
Hamka said some examples of administration taking students’ opinions into consideration is when there is a new class, such as teacher James Adams’ independent study that started this year. Hamka said if students want to go on a particular field trip or if they want to start a new club, administration supports them.
“I recognize student voice is very important,” Hamka said. “We’re here for the students.”
According to Niehaus, Rebecca Fannon, the district’s community relations specialist sends out weekly updates to help with transparency. They cited an open door policy, and for students and staff to feel comfortable coming to him and talking to him.
“If you want me to be transparent, you want to be honest, you want me to show you these things, then explain to me or help me understand how I can do that,” Niehaus said. “Because if you won’t come to a board meeting, or you won’t read your weekly update, if you won’t read your technology update, or you won’t read an HR update, then I don’t know how to (be transparent).”
Miles Dearing ’19 feels there has been a push from the administration to encourage diversity and being yourself. He also feels that it’s natural for kids to not want to respect authority.
“That’s just the natural instinct of the youth,” Dearing said. “The administration’s priority is to keep us safe at the end of the day.”
Hecker said at North Farmington High, where he previously taught for 19 years prior to his three at South under Principal Eric Jones, the way staff, students and administrators treated each other equally contributed to a positive culture.
For example, Hecker said when the students were trusted to choose the theme of the dances and plan them out independently, with limited interference from staff and administration, the attendance increased greatly.
“I was just there to support and give my input,” Hecker said. “It was cool, because then they got to pick the music. So I think the fact that there was that ownership and the fact that we the staff, and the administration, trusted the students enough to take control of this big event meant a lot, and there was a ton of buy in.”
Elizabeth Bornoty, a South teacher since 1993 and current math department head, said she feels administration really cares about the students at South.
“I think it’s sometimes misunderstood,” Bornoty said. “You have a group of young adults, and there are rules and regulations and all that kind of stuff they follow at school. And so they get very hung up on details of the rules, instead of sometimes looking at a bigger picture of why those exist.”
Bornoty also thinks administration is very transparent with staff, students and parents in the district.
Niehaus said he feels before he arrived, South was being run on “autopilot.”
“I think a lot of people say that (the policies are) because the administration doesn’t trust us or doesn’t like us,” Niehaus said. “It has to do with a security and safety issue.”
Dr. Matthew Outlaw, superintendent of Brandon Public Schools, previous principal of South from 2011 to 2014 and athletic director of South from 2003 to 2006, said when he was with the district South’s culture had a collegiate feel.
“Students have wisdom and maturity beyond their years; our teachers did a great job of challenging students to do their best and the community was incredibly supportive,” Outlaw said. “Those things were constants long before I arrived and will likely be constants for many years to come.”
Helen Srebernak is the Mother’s Club president-elect, and has had seven children go through South. She feels students are treated more like adults now when it comes to discipline.
“If I could change one thing, I would remind everyone they are just kids,” Srebernak said. “They sometimes make bad decisions and their parents are there to help them get through those bad decisions.”
Mitzel said when she deals with students, she always thinks about how she would want her own child to be treated.
“Even when a kid misbehaves or does something wrong, we all have bad days. That doesn’t make them a bad kid,” Mitzel said. “Sometimes I think that has been lost.”
Hamka said he wants to uphold healthy traditions, but has to make sure some of South’s traditions he sees as unhealthy– such as the South tradition which includes the girl buying their date a flask at prom and the substance abuse problem at South– do not interfere with mandated school policy.
“I value tradition and respect them if they’re what is best for the kids, if they’re the right thing to do,” Hamka said.
Ultimately, Niehaus said he feels there is a strong united group of administrators at South.
“(They) have positive energy and positive attitudes willing to work together,” Niehaus said. “I’ve never seen an administrative team support and work together like this administrative team does.”
Hamka thinks South administration has been more successful in hearing staff voices, whether through surveys, department meetings, staff meetings or just listening to them in general. He also strives to have an open, positive relationship with students.
“(I want to create a relationship with students) where (students) know we support them, that we have their back, that we’re here to listen to them,” Hamka said. “But just like parenting, sometimes give them that tough love, and you also hold them accountable.”