Richland County School District One principal recording exposes division in school community

Published: May. 23, 2023 at 4:29 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - WIS obtained a 20-minute audio recording of a Richland County School District One principal chastising her staff and threatening to report them to the district’s human resources.

Multiple sources reported to WIS the recording was from a late-April Burton-Pack Elementary staff meeting. Principal Ashton Jones discussed a recent school review where the staff’s focus was largely on her performance instead of their students.

Jones took the reins as principal last April.

Throughout the recording, Jones reflects on the staff’s treatment of her in the last year and how she’s done things to assist them.

She said she was not welcomed when she arrived.

“I was not given the opportunity that the other eight or nine principals had, to get with their principal, to get everything done,” she said.

Jones said she went out of her way to meet with staff and collect feedback and spent weekends helping the school. She pointed to her accommodating staff on arrival times.

“I accommodate several people in this room who can’t make it to work on time. Nowhere near 7 a.m. but there’s no complaining when I do those accommodations, but there are complaints about me when I do something they don’t like,” she said.

Jones admonished the staff for not having “tough conversations” with parents about their students. Additionally, she said she has tough conversations with district personnel, having her staff’s back.

“They don’t think very highly of y’all, they look at the scores and I’m just being honest,” she said.

The speech later turned to a recent review of the school. She admonished the teachers for their classroom management and said teachers largely focused on her performance and not that of the students.

“I’m glad I’m the focus of conversation, I must be somebody special,” she said.

Jones said she was not going anywhere and threatened to report staff to the district’s Chief Human Resource Officer Dr. Jeffrey Long.

“Dr. Long has told me and made it clear, send them, send the writing, I’ve been told that y’all say things and things have been made up that I said, that I’d let you know. Send them to me, don’t put them in upslope, don’t keep them here at your school because the issues have been going on before you got here. So send them to me, because maybe Richland 1 is not the place for them. Maybe the leadership role is not the place for them. But I have not done that to any of y’all, any of y’all, despite how y’all have done me,” she said.

She later added:

“The next time something is said about me, Dr. Long will know about it. That’s not a threat, that is a promise,” she said.

On May 19, WIS reached out to district spokesperson Karen York about arranging interviews with Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon and Jones for this story.

Neither Witherspoon nor Jones was made available for comment, but York provided a statement on behalf of Witherspoon:

“In Richland One, we promote and expect a positive climate and culture across the district that seeks to improve student achievement and student outcomes. That effort should be done in a positive manner. As a part of that positive climate and culture, any employee is able to express concerns without fear of retaliation. In that spirit, we address issues and concerns that are brought to our attention on a regular basis.”

York later told WIS the matter has been “addressed.”

Several members of the district’s community reached out to WIS about the recording, expressing polarized viewpoints on Jones and what was said.

A Richland 1 employee who requested WIS withhold their identity said the reprimand was “unnecessary,” and designed to assert power.

“Being, this is my building. I am the boss,” they said.

The employee conceded comments are made about Jones, but questioned whether they were as severe as Jones made it out to be. She said Jones has instituted a culture that pushes teachers away.

“At the beginning, she planted the seed of negativity, of ‘if you don’t want to be here I’m not going hold you here if you want to transfer’ and then as all of these other negative things started taking place, people have actually been putting in for transfers,” she said.

The district’s hiring website shows nine teacher openings at the school.

Former Richland 1 school board member Beatrice King also reached out to WIS expressing her strong disapproval.

“Appalled. No person deserves to be talked to like that. I was horrified,” she said.

She expressed specific concern about the threats of retaliation.

“Completely inappropriate for the leader of a building,” she said.

However, several Burton-Pack teachers reached out to WIS in Jones’ defense.

Teacher Demetrea Cooper sent a statement reading in part:

“...The principal Ms. Jones has been dealing with disgruntled, insubordinate, rude, abrasive staff since her arrival and the departure of the previous principal....”

She later wrote:

“...I do not understand the negative connotation of the recording that is being depicted. Ms. Jones is an AMAZING principal and she goes above and beyond to help families, students, and staff. No one knows what she does behind the scenes such as going to parent’s home in the evening, going to the hospital with students, purchasing clothing for students with her money, getting community helpers to donate services to help the students...”

Staffers Aughtry Lee and Venita Bland sent a joint statement reading in part:

“...She is constantly asking us, “What can we do together to improve our school, our classrooms, and our students’ learning?” When it comes to individual students, we are encouraged to ask not, “How can I stop this student from causing any problems?” But rather, “What can I do to help this student overcome his or her difficulties?” The focus is always on the students and how we, as dedicated professionals, can work together to make a difference in their lives. She combines high expectations with support. Ms. Jones is trustworthy, sincere and devoted to her work...”

Here is the full recording:

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