Poe Middle in limbo as principal’s criminal trial is slated to begin this month

A majority of Fairfax County middle school teachers say they feel respected and empowered to lead their classrooms as they see fit. They also say their school is a good place for them to work and for students to learn. More than 80 percent say they intend to stay at the same school next year.

The fact that teachers at arguably one of the best school systems in the region would view their working conditions so positively is not surprising. But what has surprised some is that teachers at Poe Middle School in Annandale also have mostly positive views about their school, which has been mired in an embezzlement scandal and saw the departure of its longtime principal just months into the school year.

In November, Poe principal ­Sonya Swansbrough, 47, was arrested and charged in the theft of more than $130,000 in school funds, including money from federal grants meant to serve the school’s poorest students.

Swansbrough, who joined the county school system in 1990 and became principal at Poe in 2006, is accused of falsifying time sheets and paying her son, Brenton Rusnak, 21, for work he apparently never did. Rusnak was a student at Radford University when he allegedly received payment.

Some teachers at Poe said the positive results may have more to do with the timing of the survey. Teachers were asked about job satisfaction and working conditions, among other issues, beginning in January. But some say morale at Poe has plummeted since completion of the survey in February. They say they feel cast away by the Fairfax administration and unmoored because of the lack of a permanent principal.

Swansbrough was suspended and placed on unpaid leave, school officials said.

School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason) said the administration has started a search for a new principal.

“I would definitely say that the new principal will be turning a new page,” Evans said. “Hopefully we’ll get a great, energetic, dynamic principal in there.”

Since Swansbrough’s suspension, two administrators have stepped in to lead the school, assistant principal Colleen Noone and interim principal Glynn Bates.

The school held a meeting for parents Monday with Douglas Tyson, the assistant superintendent who oversees Poe, to discuss the process for selecting a principal. The meeting was lightly attended, Evans said.

“They are in a very difficult spot there,” Evans said. “It’s always difficult when there’s an interim there. People don’t like the impermanence of that.”

In a letter to the Poe community, Tyson encouraged parents to submit ideas and “skills, experience and leadership characteristics needed for Poe Middle School. You might also address any challenges or issues” a new principal should tackle.

Evans said the goal is to hire a new principal for Poe before the end of the school year. Superintendent Karen Garza will interview the final candidates before making her decision, Evans said.

In the survey, close to 73 percent of the Poe faculty said the school had an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. About 79 percent of the teachers said they were recognized for their accomplishments. Overall, about 72 percent of teachers said the school leadership was effective and 89 percent said the school is a good place to work.

In the same survey, which came two months after Swansbrough's arrest, the Poe faculty emphatically disagreed with how the school’s finances had been handled. A total of 94 percent of the teachers said they did not have any influence on how the school’s budget was spent.

Swansbrough is scheduled to appear in court May 19 for a preliminary hearing on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. Her son and former Poe finance clerk Bethany Speed, 39, were also charged with related crimes.

t.shapiro@washpost.com

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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