Rumblings that became protest Thursday, with Superintendent Charles Wilson transferring Langston Chapel Middle School Principal Evelyn “Bonnie” Gamble-Hilton to a high school as an assistant principal and local NAACP leaders calling for Wilson’s ouster, echo both 2015 and 2017.
"There's not too much I'm going to say because it's a personnel matter,” Wilson said Friday in a phone interview. “But I will say, and I mean this in all sincerity, I'm very sensitive and sympathetic of all the frustration and heartfelt grief that members of the community are expressing. I share that; I always do.
“But I'm charged with making personnel decisions in the best interests of our students as well as our staff and community,” he said. “So I deliberate in a very heartfelt way in making those decisions."
Francys Johnson, Gamble-Hilton’s attorney, made the link to earlier events during a 6 p.m. Thursday press conference in front of the Bulloch County Board of Education offices. The Bulloch County Branch of the NAACP publicized the conference, held before the school board convened at 6:30 p.m. for its regular April work session.
“This action is not a new action,” Johnson said of Gamble-Hilton’s demotion and transfer. “It was an action that was tried and failed three years ago. It was discriminatory, it was unjust then, and it’s discriminatory and unjust now, and make no mistake about it, it will not stand. Charles Wilson, as superintendent of this school district, has lost the confidence of the members of this community.”
The board previously voted to renew the contracts of all principals, but Wilson has now acted to transfer Gamble-Hilton to fill an opening for an assistant principal at Southeast Bulloch High School. In past years he has made administrative decisions to reassign principals to different schools. However, as Wilson acknowledged Friday, Gamble-Hilton would be the first principal he has transferred to be an assistant principal.
Johnson and several of Gamble-Hilton’s supporters called the action a demotion. The newspaper is also calling it that, because principals outrank assistant principals, despite confirmation from school officials that Gamble-Hilton’s salary will remain the same.
Echo of 2015
Wilson tried to transfer Gamble-Hilton to an assistant principal slot three years ago, as Johnson noted. That time the transfer would have been from Langston-Chapel Middle School principal, the position she has now held for about eight years, to an assistant principal job at Statesboro High School.
But in May 2015, the Board of Education by a 4-3 vote rejected an entire list of personnel recommendations from Wilson that included Gamble-Hilton as an assistant principal instead of a principal. She remained principal at LCMS.
The other event echoed this week was the Bulloch County NAACP’s June 2017 call for the board not to renew Wilson’s contract as superintendent. This came after the school board, earlier in 2017, did not act on a plan to increase recruitment of minority teachers and administrators, which Wilson had presented, but also after Wilson last May did not offer a contract renewal to then Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mary Felton, now an assistant principal in Evans County and a candidate for Bulloch County Board of Education in District 5, where she is challenging incumbent Glennera Martin.
Not just NAACP
Thursday’s crowd of citizens demanding that the board keep Gamble-Hilton as principal included retired teachers, ministers, parents, former students and other community members. Growing to include about 70 people, it was not exclusively an NAACP group or an all-black crowd. But Johnson, now a 12th District Democratic primary candidate for Congress, was previously Georgia State Conference NAACP president. NAACP Bulloch County Branch President Pearl Brown was another of Thursday’s speakers.
Brown, who retired after 32 years as a teacher in local schools, said Gamble-Hilton has done a good job as a principal, that test scores have risen and that she is a professional. Like several other supporters of Gamble-Hilton, Brown alluded to an alleged reason for Gamble-Hilton’s transfer, having to do with the principal recommending that several teachers’ contracts not be renewed.
“Out of all of those 32 years, the principal at my school always had the duty … to recommend teachers be there at that school or recommend that they not be there if they were not doing their job,” Brown said during the press conference. “Now, I’m not saying all of what happened at Langston Chapel, but that a principal should have the authority to do that.”
But she also returned to the opinion that Wilson should not be superintendent. Wilson, who has now been superintendent for six years, was previously the school system’s finance director and then assistant superintendent. Despite some statements that Johnson and others made about Wilson not having education credentials, he now has a specialist’s degree in educational leadership from Georgia Southern University and an L6 certificate. He already held a Master of Business Administration when he became superintendent.
But Brown called him an accountant, said he is good at math, and said she had thought he would be an interim superintendent.
“So I’m just hoping and praying that this Board of Education that we have will wake up and see that Superintendent Charles Wilson should not be superintendent anymore,” Brown said, outside before protestors filed into the boardroom.
With board Chair Mike Sparks absent, Vice Chair Heather Mims conducted the meeting. She gave members of the group 15 minutes total for comments.
Johnson, Brown, Concerned Clergy of Bulloch County President Ronnie S. Tremble and several other ministers spoke.
Langston Chapel Middle School’s current Teacher of the Year, Christine Stripling, delivered a letter, signed by 59 faculty members, in support of keeping Gamble-Hilton as principal. This was out of about 70 school personnel “and more would have signed it but they just weren’t there,” said Stripling, who read the letter to the board.
“Our teachers are challenged daily to teach rigorous curriculum while building lifelong relationships with parents, students colleagues and community stakeholders,” the letter stated. “This regimen has led our school to test scores and overall academics which have shown growth in the past five years or longer. Why? Because Dr. G expects nothing less. …
“Therefore, we implore you to work with us to keep our Family intact with Dr. G at the helm,” the letter concluded.
District 8 board member Maurice Hill then made a motion “to reconsider the evidence that seems at hand to try to resolve this issue at Langston Chapel” and eventually rephrased it as “to intervene in the administrative decision” regarding Gamble-Hilton.
District 5 member Glennera Martin, who is recovering after a fall and has been in the hospital, attended the meeting by a telephone link. She seconded Hill’s motion.
“How do you make a motion to overturn something that did not occur?” District 4 board member Steve Hein asked, noting the board had not voted on Wilson’s action.
Hein also asserted that the board would be violating its own policy if it discussed a personnel action in open session instead of “executive,” or closed, session. A motion of Hein’s, seconded by District 1 member Cheri Wagner, to table the motion to intervene passed 5-2 with Hill and Martin, the only African-American board members, voting “no.”
The board stayed behind closed doors for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, testimonials in support of Gamble-Hilton, along with some singing and a prayer, were voiced by citizens who remained in the boardroom and broadcast through social media.
When the board came out of closed session, a vote to accept the list of personnel actions that had been presented also split along the same line, 5-2, with Hill and Martin voting “no.” A vote on contract renewals was 5-1, with Hill voting “no.”
The next day, when the newspaper received the personnel lists, the list of transfers carried a footnote: “The Board of Education does not approve Internal Transfers. Internal transfers are at the Superintendent’s discretion.”
Mims also presented a statement Thursday night, supposedly on behalf of the board, but with no indication of a vote having been taken on it:
“In the matter of Dr. Bonnie Gamble-Hilton, although it was not a matter to be voted on by the Board, the Board supports the superintendent’s roles and responsibilities to make administrative decisions, including internal transfers.”
As previously reported, a statement that Sparks issued April 17 expressing the board’s supposed “unanimous vote of confidence to the superintendent” and willingness to negotiate a longer term contract with Wilson had also been made without any actual vote. Hill was absent from the meeting where it was issued.
“No I don’t agree with it, and you can let the record show that I don’t agree with the removal of Bonnie Gamble-Hilton from Langston-Chapel,” Hill said when asked after Thursday’s meeting. “I just beg for the superintendent as well as my fellow board members to be fair across the board, as they have removed other principals and gave them principalship jobs, not a demotion in title as well.”
Why this, now?
Asked Friday whether the move followed Gamble-Hilton acting to remove some teachers as some of her supporters said, Wilson did not confirm it but said that misinformation was circulating.
"This is actually very concerning to me,” Wilson said. “It seems that both Dr. Gamble-Hilton and her attorney are speaking about issues related to personnel matters within that building that I'm not sure as to what they're speaking or why. ... But really, my decision is based on discussions with the board. They're fully aware of the decision that I'm making and actually have been very supportive of that."
Johnson posted on social media an email Wilson sent board members Wednesday telling them that he was staying with his “intent to administratively transfer unless the board desires to be involved in a formal decision (Thursday) night.”
“Make no mistake about it, if the school board moves forward and allows Charles Wilson to take this action tonight or if the school board moves forward and takes action themselves, they will have a day in court, and it won’t be just about Dr. Gamble-Hilton, but about so many other things that have been reported,” Johnson said at the press conference.