The controversy surrounding the firing late last month of Michael Johnson, principal at Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, continues to raise eyebrows among individuals at odds over the ouster.
Johnson, 61, whose no-nonsense yet caring administrative style mirrors that of the principal, portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the classic 1989 movie, Lean on Me, learned of his termination on May 29. However, he proudly presided over the school's very first graduation on June 8, although the circumstances aligned with his departure still lack transparency.
"It sounds suspicious to me, because all the kids are saying he was the best [principal] ever," said Felecia Simpson, 42 of Northeast, whose niece attends Phelps, a state-of-the art facility that reopened in 2008.
"My niece will be a senior next year, and she told [the family] that everyone was stunned because they thought [Johnson] had been doing a good job and students really liked him," Simpson said. "Whatever happened must be something outside of his job, because that school is a good one. From what I understand, they had [a huge] graduation number," she said alluding to this year's 95 percent rate, and the fact that students furthering their education this fall, collectively acquired $3.7 million in scholarships. "You don't kick good educators like that to the curb for no reason."
At least two years prior to its highly – anticipated reopening, Phelps – located on 26th Street in Northeast – sat vacant and in a state of disrepair. But with the unwavering support of former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who co-introduced the School Modernization Financing Act of 2005, funding was provided for renovations at the school.
Johnson, a well-respected and accomplished educator, had been in retirement at the time of his appointment.
Ward 5 School Board member Mark Jones, who admitted initial doubts about Johnson, said he trusts that with the ouster, Henderson's office has taken the right course of action and that it "has the data" to support its decision.
"When I first met Mr. Johnson, a while ago at community meetings, I was not comfortable with him as principal," said Jones, 53. "I didn't think he was the best choice for that school. However, after spending more time with him and visiting the school countless times, I became a fan of his."
Jones said he's personally and professionally disappointed over Johnson's departure.
"It's hard to say when you're making decisions not to trust and then have to say 'OK, I was wrong,'" Jones said. "I've been in many schools in this city, and I've got to say that without exception, Phelps was the most orderly."
Jones said however, that while Johnson may have fallen short on recommendations for the school, he'd achieved success with math scores and Adequate Yearly Performance (AYP).
"He had met AYP from the numbers that I looked through, and I think he was just short on English," said Jones. "But I believe he would have gotten there in another year or two. Perhaps the expectations were higher, but people have to remember that it is a brand new school."
Ward 5 activist Kathy Henderson, 58, concurred. She said when leaders like Johnson are appointed, that's "supposed to be" an indication all is well and the city is moving in the right direction.
Echoing Jones' sentiments, she said Phelps' students were reaching AYP. They appeared engaged, eager to learn and well-behaved. Henderson said parents have been involved and that Johnson was "shepherding" an environment that was conducive to learning.
"I'm very concerned about his ouster. I tried to call to ask Chancellor Henderson about what was going on, and why we are getting rid of people who are obviously doing their job," said Henderson. "I can't find any sense in Michael Johnson's ouster. The parents are upset, students are upset. We had a school that was working, and we need to replicate that, not punish the principal."
But Nathan Saunders, Washington Teachers' Union president, said Johnson should have been aware that he could be terminated at the chancellor's will.
"The chancellor can exercise her right within [their] agreement," said Saunders, 47. "Johnson [counted among] one of 17 school administrators who [were let go]."
Saunders went on to say that the concerns he has are the same as his 4,000-member organization. "They are from both sides of the spectrum with some being for or against the termination," he said.
"However, the reality is that the process allows the parents, teachers and community to be involved in the selection of the principal and that process is ongoing," said Saunders, who added that interviews to replace Johnson will begin soon.
While on the council, Brown's Committee of the Whole had oversight of education. Now, with his departure from the governing body, newly-elected D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson will be handling matters until the general election is held in November.
Nevertheless, Melissa Salmanowitz the chancellor's spokesperson, remains closed-mouth.
"This is a personnel matter," said Salmanowitz, "and because of that, we're not able to comment on the specifics of personnel decisions. We are not responding."