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What's Up at Independence High? 

At a time when schools need good educators, CMS dismisses one of its most highly decorated

Randi Imbriano was an all-star educator. National Board Certified. Teacher of the Year. Assistant Principal of the Month. She'd been called one of the state's best principals in training. But after she complained to her superiors in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools about questionable actions at Independence High, Imbriano found that her sterling resume didn't matter much anymore. Suddenly, she was a troublemaker. She wasn't a team player. Imbriano became, as she claims former Independence principal Rick Hinson called her, a "pain in the ass." And she was fired.

In her suit against the school system, the former Independence High assistant principal enumerates other charges that have dogged some CMS schools for years, including misused equipment, inflated enrollment counts and favoritism. School board member Larry Gauvreau, who had not seen Imbriano's suit and couldn't comment on this particular case, said the questions raised are by no means unique to Independence High.

"Trust me, the manipulation of statistics that goes on within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to spin the public is epic," Gauvreau said, adding that closer examination of the district's data likely would reveal many problems. "I think you'd find a lot of questionable numbers that float around, all the way from testing results to reporting, to finances and student success. That's the culture of a big institution like CMS. It behaves a lot like Orwell's Animal Farm."

A year ago CMS confirmed that enrollment at Independence High was inaccurate, though the state Department of Public Instruction ultimately found nothing alarming. CMS blamed data processing errors and a clerical mix-up; Imbriano told Creative Loafing last week the numbers were deliberately inflated so the school would get more money. Whatever the case, longtime principal Hinson announced he was retiring because of health problems. He is now teaching across the state line at Indian Land High School in Lancaster County.

Hinson claimed last week that he's only "kind of heard" about the suit and hadn't seen it. (Hinson is not named as a defendant, but several allegations involve him.) "I'm no longer part of that system," he said. "I know nothing, and I'm happy not knowing anything, candidly. None of that has anything to do with me."

In interviews with Imbriano -- as well as in her suit, filed in October -- the former assistant principal claims several Independence administrators knew about enrollment inflation and mismanagement at the school before she and other staffers complained to the central office. (In the system's December response to Imbriano's claims, CMS attorneys admit she was not the only employee who "shared information" about activities at Independence.) She claims several of those administrators continue to work within CMS, and some staffers who complained were harassed.

Imbriano's allegations paint a picture of a school administration that felt little accountability. Computers that could have been repaired, sold or donated, she said, were thrown in the trash. Laptops bought with federal money and earmarked for gifted and disabled children instead were used by administrators, she said. Her claim that textbooks weren't accounted for was confirmed by a central office audit. Students were advanced to higher levels in subjects they hadn't passed, she said. "How can you expect a child to pass Spanish II if they can't pass Spanish I?" Imbriano asked.

Imbriano said a few employees worked part-time but were paid full-time. (Current and former Independence staffers, who wouldn't allow their names to be used, agreed that some employees had been paid for time they didn't work.) "They were so above the law," Imbriano said.

At 53, Imbriano does not look like a troublemaker. Eight months after she last stepped inside Independence, she maintains an educator's neat dress and demeanor. Inside her day planner she still keeps the obituary of an Independence graduate whom some people had pegged a likely dropout; the student graduated, only to be killed by a drunk driver the next year.

In 1994-1995, her first year teaching for CMS, Imbriano was Crown Point Elementary School's Teacher of the Year. As a sixth-grade teacher at First Ward Accelerated Learning Academy, she delighted in taking disadvantaged students to places such as Discovery Place and the Afro-American Cultural Center. By 2001, she was assistant principal at Providence High School, and Hinson was recruiting her to be Independence High's assistant principal for instruction. He wrote in an e-mail: "I need a strong API, and in my opinion you are the best!" Imbriano's evaluations in those years were excellent, according to copies she provided CL. In 2002, Hinson described her as "one of the top APIs in the state" and wrote that "the results of her work will be felt for years."

When Hinson's health problems kept him away from Independence, Imbriano took over some of his duties. She began to notice problems at the school, she said, and notified central office administrators, to no avail. "Basically, everyone was waiting for Dr. Hinson to get back," she said. That year, Hinson failed to give Imbriano an evaluation, she said. And when the following school year rolled around, Imbriano was no longer assistant principal for instruction, but just an assistant principal. Her replacement was a man. Imbriano claims Hinson said he wanted to have an all-male administrative team. "It did bother me," she said. The next evaluation struck a tone far different from the previous. Problems with her performance abounded; she was advised to "(w)ork as a team member. Do not do or say anything that would have a negative impact on the entire team."

Hinson denies sex discrimination was a motivating factor. "I don't know what she's saying, but it doesn't have anything to do with me," he said. "In my administrative years, I've had an all-female staff at certain times." As for the negative evaluation, he said, "I think we've all had several of those." When Hinson left Independence, he said, Imbriano "was working and doing well."

Trevor Johnston, who's representing CMS in the suit, said he had no comment and referred queries to the system's public affairs office, which was unable to find someone for comment by press time. Several school board members said they couldn't comment on ongoing litigation; Imbriano said two members are expected to testify on her behalf but she wouldn't say whom.

In court filings, the school system contends Imbriano was fired for "legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons," but it does not elaborate. Imbriano said the board used two incidents to fire her: Her handling of payment for two substitute teachers (including her son) and a dispute over disciplining a student found with marijuana. She showed Creative Loafing documents signed by former Superintendent James Pughsley that show the system was upset that she had paid two substitutes out of her own pocket, a violation of policy. She did so, she said, because the substitutes had complained at length about not getting paid.

The marijuana incident came one day when Imbriano and security staff were searching kids for weapons. According to a document Imbriano provided, the school's security saw a student toss three small bags of marijuana on the floor. She disciplined the student for possession, which meant ten days suspension. Principal Gary Evans, who came out of retirement in January 2005 to succeed Hinson temporarily, asked her to upgrade the charge to possession with intent to sell, which would mean the student could be kicked out of school. Imbriano refused to upgrade the charge, because she saw no evidence that he was trying to sell the drug.

"You do what I say or it's insubordination," she said Evans told her. So she relented. The school system, according to documents Imbriano provided, claimed she failed to file the right charge the first time and then tried to cover her tracks. It was "insubordination" and "immoral conduct," according to CMS documents. The system offered her a choice: She could resign as assistant principal and take a teaching job with the system, or be dismissed. She chose dismissal.

Evans, now interim principal at Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines, said he couldn't comment on a personnel matter, but he did say, "I can tell you that that never took place the way she described it."

In October, Imbriano filed suit in federal court after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mailed her a "right-to-sue" letter, as is requisite in discrimination claims. She still wants CMS to pay her the remainder of her three-year contract. She said she's been unable to get a job in nearby school systems, which is odd, considering her credentials and the need for qualified educators. So she's trekking to Chapel Hill for refresher courses in nursing, her previous career. Accepting her job loss has been difficult: "When the first day of school came, I cried the whole day."

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