God and the Principal
Everman High School teachers are divided over what happened in an April faculty meeting with Principal Nita Page. No one disputes that the principal, as usual, invoked her Christian faith. The question is: Did she use it to intimidate the school’s faculty?
“She questioned everybody’s Christianity,” one teacher said. “She said if we’re against her, we’re against God.”
That teacher and at least two others have accused Page of creating a hostile work environment by intimidating staff and repeatedly injecting her religion into monthly faculty meetings. It’s the same type of alleged behavior that drew two official complaints against Page in 2010 as well as anonymous letters sent to district administrators.
The principal’s “tyrannical” behavior began about three years ago and peaked with her belligerent diatribe at the April faculty meeting, said teachers who contacted the Fort Worth Weekly.
The two teachers, who asked that their names be withheld for fear of retaliation, accused Page of telling the room of about 70 staff members that if they weren’t following her, they weren’t following God. She “questioned the satisfaction of our personal lives,” called staffers “grown 2-year-olds,” and said they should be afraid of losing their jobs, the two teachers said.
Through a public records request, the Weekly obtained two anonymous letters sent to the school district’s administrators in mid-April that also complain of that meeting.
“She told everyone they are bad, and ‘God is watching,’ ”one letter said.
“She referenced God many times while threatening our jobs and contracts,” another letter said. “We were dismissed [from the meeting]. She then proceeded to the back of the library where she started to cry, again very irrational behavior.”
Opinions vary about Page in general and what happened at the April meeting specifically. Two other teachers said they didn’t think the principal’s behavior was unusual that day and praised her as an effective leader.
Jeri Pfeifer, the district’s superintendent, said in May that administrators were “looking into” what happened at the faculty meeting but that they had received no prior complaints about the principal. Pfeifer couldn’t be reached again this week to determine if the district had decided whether to take any disciplinary action.
“It’s been recent. This has not been ongoing,” Pfeifer said. “You try to do the best you can and treat people with dignity and respect at all times, but it’s in the nature of any business that you’re going to have conflicts over something.”
Page declined to comment for this story, and school board members didn’t respond to attempts to contact them.
Rodrick Brown, an economics teacher who attended the April faculty meeting, doesn’t recall the adversarial tone suggested by others. Page didn’t call teachers 2-year-olds, Brown said, but just told the teachers they were acting like 2-year-olds.
“It’s like any meeting and you’re not doing your job and the boss is doing her job,” he said. “It wasn’t a meeting to threaten anybody.”
Jennifer Harris, the school’s dean of instruction, said the principal isn’t shy about her Christian devotion. Page makes it clear she believes God has called her to be a school principal but hasn’t used her faith or her perceived calling to intimidate teachers, Harris said. The majority of the school’s teachers find Page a strong, capable leader, she said.
In Everman, a small town on the southeast edge of Fort Worth, religion isn’t easily avoidable. At a spring banquet for school district employees, there was prayer and gospel music.
“Religion is not something that’s swept under the rug. It’s definitely part of the environment here,” Harris said. “I honestly think that there’s an ulterior motive [for the complaints against Page] and that people are grasping for something.”
The teachers who are upset over Page’s behavior also describe themselves as Christian. Their complaint is about the threats that seem to coincide with Page’s devotion, they said.
“We were preached at,” one teacher said. “I’m not anti-religion, but it was very uncomfortable. I am a firm supporter of the separation of church and state.”
The religious comments are just one of many examples of Page’s behavior that sometimes crosses the line from employee management into over-the-top intimidation, the two teachers said.
“It’s gotten worse over the years,” one of them said.
The United Educators Association has heard similar criticisms before.
“Wow,” said union rep Wanda Scroggins in response to the complaints, “somebody should have said something.”
When Scroggins took over the union’s activities in the Everman district early this year, she was told that Page had previously been hard to work with and sometimes didn’t treat teachers with respect.
But Scroggins thought things had improved this school year. After all, Page had begun calling her to ask for advice about how to handle certain situations with teachers.
“My understanding is that she had never done that before,” Scroggins said. “I know I could have worked with her on this if it was brought to my attention.”
Page was hired in fall 2008 as principal for the high school, which has an enrollment of about 1,200 students. She was previously principal of the North Crowley 9th Grade Campus in the Crowley school district, just west of Everman. Page had positive references, which is why the district sought her out, Pfeifer said.
During Page’s four years at Everman, two teachers filed grievances against her and the school district, both in 2010. In one, teacher Caren Williams said Page berated her for bringing her sick 4-year-old daughter to school, despite having overlooked similar situations involving other teachers. Ultimately Williams dropped the complaint and left the district.
In the other grievance, the district settled with English teacher Kristina Kimberlin, paying her $5,000. Kimberlin said she’d been repeatedly humiliated by Page and a couple of assistant principals in private meetings and in front of other teachers. They told parents she “wasn’t there for the kids,” threatened to fire her, and repeatedly wrote her up for small infractions, she said.
“I was simply removed from classes and once I was crying, I was sent back to class. I find this incredibly humiliating and unprofessional,” Kimberlin wrote in a May 2010 letter to Pfeifer. “I am aware of other teachers being pulled from classes and then sent back after they had been thoroughly upset.”
One incident involved an assembly of the school’s advanced-placement students. First Page chastised the students for their low performance, then she told Kimberlin and two other teachers, in front of the students, to leave because the teachers refused to say the students hadn’t been performing well, Kimberlin wrote.
“She turned to us and said, ‘I thought you were here to support me, but you can just leave,’ and pointed to the door,” Kimberlin wrote. “Later one of the students asked me how I felt when Mrs. Page ‘threw me out of the meeting.’ ”
Pfeifer said the district’s settlement wasn’t an admission that Page had done anything wrong.
“From my experience as a school administrator for 25 years, this is a very low number of grievances,” Pfeifer said.
Leaders of the Texas State Teachers Association, a union with just nine members in Everman, also hadn’t heard of any problems with Page, said spokesman Clay Robison. The details of the complaints “sounded strange,” Robison said.
“If I were a teacher at that school, I would have reservations about working for a principal that had two grievances stacked against her in that short amount of time,” he said. “I could understand the teachers working for her to be upset.”
Many of the teachers at Everman like Page and believe she’s brought accountability to the school, Brown said. He pointed to improved TAKS scores this year as evidence that her methods are working.
“To me, she’s fair, in every aspect,” he said. “If anything’s wrong, she calls you in to talk about it. After that, it’s done.”
Besides, adults have freedom of speech, and that includes principals at faculty meetings, Pfeifer said.
“There’s a respect for that. Comments on religion are legally controlled when students are in attendance,” she said. “In meetings with adults, they have free speech.”
Federal workplace laws, however, do protect teachers from intimidation and harassment, and some Everman teachers said Page is guilty of that behavior.
One of the teachers who talked to the Weekly said several other teachers were upset by the comments at the meeting but were too terrified to speak up.
“She told us to quit bitching,” the teacher said. “She’s a bully. She’s a tyrant. … We have a very strict bully policy in place in our district, and it’s so ironic that it’s the administration inflicting it on the teachers rather than a student inflicting it on a student.”