At lunchtime, Jonathan Brannon played basketball with De Vargas Middle School students in the school gym.
At a school dance, he joined in and busted out his breakdancing moves.
At a De Vargas fundraiser, he volunteered to take a pie in the face to raise money for hurricane victims.
But that charisma and enthusiasm didn't earn Brannon praise from leadership at Santa Fe Public Schools. Instead, it got him transferred to a less challenging position at an elementary school.
Last week, SFR obtained a copy of a letter to SFPS administrators, signed by seven De Vargas staff members, protesting Brannon's recent transfer to Agua Fria Elementary School. The letter—and comments staff members made to SFR on condition their real names not be used—alleges SFPS not only took away the best vice principal the school ever had, but also lied about the reason.
Brannon came to De Vargas at a time of instability and uncertainty for the school. Four years ago, almost half of tested students were proficient in reading; last year, less than a quarter of them were. The school's math proficiency level has been declining for years, reaching a dismal 13 percent proficiency rate last year. The school is currently in its second year of "restructuring"—the most severe corrective action a school can face under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which kicks in after a school fails to meet proficiency standards for five consecutive years. Brannon was De Vargas' seventh vice principal in five years; the Jan. 6 letter from De Vargas staff cites an overall staff turnover rate of 50 percent from year to year.
Brannon started at De Vargas this fall. Being African-American and over six feet tall, Brannon "stepped in and definitely looked out of place in a sense," DeVargas staffer Nancy Miller says.
"But the kids took to him right away," Miller says. "He became an authoritative male figure."
At a school where discipline issues take up 98 percent of staff time, according to an estimate by De Vargas staffer Pete Diaz, a tough but relatable authority figure seemed to be exactly what students needed. To advise students with discipline problems, Brannon found common ground in stories from his youth, Diaz says.
"He used personal anecdotes of his life and how he used education to better himself and to get out of the situation where he lived, because he grew up in the 'hood,' so to speak," Diaz says. "It brought him to a level where they could relate to him: This isn't just an administrator; this is a real person."
Brannon made contracts with kids coming back from suspension that actually kept them from acting out again, Miller says. While other teachers and administrators had tried unsuccessfully to get kids to stop sagging their pants—a violation of school rules and a sign of disrespect—"after a few weeks with Jonathan here, the kids were wearing their pants where they were supposed to," Miller says. Fights at school decreased—then shot back up to previous levels when Brannon left.
"The first six days we were back from Christmas vacation, we had five fights," Diaz says. "I don't know that that would have happened or not if he was there, but he had things under control."
Brannon was moved to Agua Fria over the winter break. On Jan. 4, SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez visited De Vargas and told staff that Brannon asked to leave because he "was having difficulties at the middle school level" and "felt uncomfortable here," Miller says. One of the teachers who contributed to the Jan. 6 letter wrote that staff was "deliberately lied to" and told Brannon had no middle school experience. John Adams Middle School in Albuquerque confirms that Brannon worked there up until August 2011.
Miller and Diaz say SFPS moved Brannon because De Vargas principal Diane Garcia-Piro wanted him gone. Garcia-Piro tried to stop various Brannon-led initiatives to reward students for academic success and good behavior, Diaz says, and resented Brannon "because he became so popular so quickly and was respected so fast," Miller says.
Gutierrez declined to comment on Brannon's departure, citing personnel confidentiality policies. Brannon also declined to comment. SFPS Board of Education Member Steve Carrillo won't disclose what the board was told about the move in a closed session, but says he is "very concerned about the conflicting information" he has since heard from other sources. Garcia-Piro says she can't discuss Brannon's departure or allegations that staff was lied to, and says that despite receiving an F under the new state schools rating system, De Vargas is "on a pathway to reform."
But morale at De Vargas has reached a new low—Garcia-Piro even acknowledged it in a Jan. 11 meeting, Diaz says, telling staff she is "not responsible."
"That just struck me as a disconnect with faculty," Diaz says. "There are teachers that have already said they aren't going to be back next year."