Morale At Salem City Schools At 'All-Time Low,' Record Says, As Teachers Point To Toxic Climate Under High School Principal

Former and current teachers describe a toxic work environment under the leadership of High School Principal Scott Habeeb

Former and current employees perceived conflict of interest between High School Principal Scott Habeeb (bottom right) and former Superintendent Alan Seibert (top left), who left the district in August. HEAD SHOTS COURTESY OF CITY OF SALEM: PHOTOS BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

Salem City’s school district wants to know why its teachers keep leaving.

Next week, the school board is expected to hear results from a “former employee climate assessment” conducted by a Williamsburg firm at a cost of $10,684. Since September, the consultant has been asking staff who resigned or retired in the last five years why they’ve left.

But former school employees say they have for years made known their concerns, which largely revolve around the leadership of Salem High School Principal Scott Habeeb.

School administrators last summer received a collection of teacher complaints, a copy of which The Roanoke Rambler obtained. The record, which does not list an author, describes itself as a collection of anonymized comments from more than 20 current employees.

In those complaints, and in interviews with The Rambler, current and former employees described morale at an “all-time low” across the division; a toxic work environment at Salem High; the use of nondisclosure agreements for departing staff; and a perceived conflict of interest between Habeeb and former Superintendent Alan Seibert, who left the district in September to take a position as an administrator with Roanoke City Public Schools.

While high school teachers make up less than one-third of educators in Salem, they made up nearly half of those who left the district in the last six years, according to data provided by Mike Stevens, a city spokesman. That data is among the information the city sent to the third-party consultant, Shaffer Evaluation Group, for its climate survey.

Observers described the move for an outside schools assessment as a highly unusual departure from “The Salem Way,” the unofficial creed that dictates anything potentially negative about the city of 25,000 be kept out of public view. In particular, Salem’s schools have a regional reputation for excellence, consistently ranking high on state ratings and earning state awards.

“The study was initiated after some residents in the Salem community expressed concerns about perceived teacher attrition rates,” Stevens said in an email. “Our calculations show that our attrition rate is significantly lower than the state and national averages. However, because of the perception, we felt like this was a good time for a third party provider to take a closer look at staffing.”

The data on teacher resignations does not take into account those who transferred from the high school to other schools in the division, however. While 32 high school teachers resigned in the last six years, the record of teacher concerns claims 90 employees overall have left the high school in that timeframe. It attributes drops in Standards of Learning (SOL) and other test scores to the high turnover. Most SOL scores at Salem High dropped slightly between 2014 and 2019, state data show.

The record of teacher feedback states that employees under Habeeb and Seibert felt they often could not express grievances through official channels. The record does not mention any individual by name but has identifying information by title, circumstance and other details.

“All who spoke are individuals who love Salem City Schools but believe there are significant issues that need to be examined,” the record states. “These individuals felt that there was no mechanism within the system that would allow that to happen as any ‘questioning’ of the system is grounds for public embarrassment, criticism, chastisement, and could be seen as a reason for dismissal from the system.”

In an email, Seibert questioned the veracity of the record; called its claim to represent the views of more than 20 employees “an absurd exaggeration”; and asserted the record “was NOT compiled by an employee or former employee, but by a local politician with a personal agenda.”

“I was blessed to serve for 30 years in one school division in numerous positions...from student-teacher to superintendent,” Seibert said. “During that time, my service and collaboration with colleagues positively impacted tens of thousands of students and thousands of employees, not ‘some.’ I will not be passive if an individual or tiny group of individuals should succeed in enlisting anyone in publishing libelous content.”

Three former employees spoke with The Rambler on the condition their names not be public because they feared retribution; all maintained ties to Salem or to the education field locally.

The issues are emerging now because of new leadership on Salem City Council, according to former employees. In May 2020, voters elected two newcomers to Council — independents Mayor Renée Turk and Councilman Jim Wallace — who ran on reformist agendas with an emphasis on schools. Salem’s City Council appoints members of the school board, which determines hiring and firing in the district.

“You got new people in charge now that are wanting to find out answers,” one former teacher said.

Observers described the move for an outside schools assessment as a highly unusual departure from “The Salem Way,” the unofficial creed that dictates anything potentially negative about the city of 25,000 be kept out of public view. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

The 'cult-de-sac'

In the early 2000s, Habeeb, Seibert and Ray Moore, an English teacher, founded an education consulting firm called Solutions, etc. The company provides school divisions across the country with workshops and training on topics such as classroom leadership skills, assessing students’ learning and the transition from middle school to high school.

In 2006, the school board appointed Seibert — then principal of South Salem Elementary School — as superintendent. Before his appointment, Seibert divested his stake in the company, he said in an email. Two years later, Habeeb, Moore and Seibert published “The Ninth Grade Opportunity,” about how educators can help students succeed at the start of high school.

“As best I can recall, a ‘royalty’ payment from the publisher a year or two ago was $41,” Seibert said about the chapters he contributed to the book, which he said he drafted in 2005. “This recollection is based on the running joke in our family that, ‘Dad's book is good for a pizza delivery.’”

Seibert said there was nothing out of line with his prior involvement in Solutions, etc. and that the school board celebrated the 2008 publication of the book, which “was still at least half a decade before the School Board appointed an assistant principal coauthor to a principalship.”

Though a formal business relationship no longer existed, the two maintained such close ties that Seibert effectively shielded Habeeb from accountability, former employees alleged.

When Seibert moved his residence from Montgomery County to Salem in 2006, he bought a house 500 feet away from Habeeb’s in a cul-de-sac in a southwest Salem subdivision. Moore lived there, too, a former employee said. And so did administrator Curtis Hicks, whom the school board in September appointed to succeed Seibert as superintendent. (Seibert would move from the suburb in 2017, property records show.) The educators’ closeness led some former employees to refer to them as the “cult-de-sac.”

In February 2013, the school board named Habeeb, then an assistant principal at Salem High, to be principal.

“The superintendent took care of his [former] business partner, recommended him to be principal of the school,” a former teacher said.

Habeeb — the brother of Republican politician Greg Habeeb, who served in the Virginia House of Delegates between 2011 and 2018 — attended high school in Christiansburg. He joined the Salem school district in 1997 as a history teacher, after graduating from Virginia Tech.

Habeeb took over from long-time principal John Hall, who had served in the role since 1987. Habeeb’s new leadership style rubbed several former employees the wrong way.

Through Stevens, Habeeb declined to be interviewed for this story.

Former employees say Habeeb turned faculty meetings, held every other Wednesday, effectively into workshops for the education areas that Solutions, etc. focused on.

“It basically wasted our time,” one former teacher said. “A lot of us thought he was using that to further his business.”

“I felt like it was double dipping,” another former educator said. “He was using his employees to help this other thing, Solutions.”

Months after becoming principal, Habeeb came under scrutiny over consulting work that encouraged teachers to “actively set out to inspire students and point them to Christ," according to a 2013 article in The Roanoke Times. In an interview at the time, Habeeb said the quoted slides were taken out of context and that he would never proselytize in a public school — which would violate laws promoting religion in public schools. He said one conference session he taught about “Creating a Christ-like Classroom Culture” simply referred to “a classroom where students are loved unconditionally.”

The year before, Habeeb had helped found Restoration Church in Salem. The startup grew from the Church of the Holy Spirit in Roanoke, which in 1996 broke its ties with the Episcopal Church over its increasingly liberal views toward abortion and openly gay clergy.

Habeeb currently serves as an elder and member of the teaching team at Restoration, and chairs the Young Life committee.

Former employees say Habeeb would occasionally make references to religion and scripture in school settings that they felt were inappropriate. He once told a departing teacher that it was in this person’s hands whether their future pupils went to Heaven or Hell.

In addition, the complaints and former employees describe inappropriate comments and actions at the high school, including administrators chastising teachers in front of students; the principal making political statements in faculty meetings that alienated staff; and Habeeb repeatedly referring to his wife as "Hot Julie."

“What it comes down to is, you fit in the box and you follow directions,” a former employee said of Habeeb. “If you don’t do it the way he does it, then you’re doing it wrong.”

'You're not going to get good truths'

Habeeb has his supporters, as well.

Mark Johnson, president of the YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, said he has always had positive interactions with Habeeb. Johnson had two children go through Salem High and has a current child there.

“All of them knew him because he chooses to be very available to students. They have always had good things to say about him,” Johnson said in an email. “Most of all, I feel like he has a heart that wants to serve students. He seems to create a culture at the high school where he expects the teachers to do that as well. As a parent, I appreciate that. When we have had interactions in the school setting I have found him to be relational, transparent, and fair.”

For some former employees, however, disagreeing with Habeeb could bring retaliation. One described his leadership at the high school as “very dictatorship.”

“He had this very manipulative way of either you’re in or you’re out,” this former employee said. “And when you’re out, you don’t get anything you want” — whether it be a preferred classroom or flexible schedule, “just to make people miserable,” this person said.

“What it comes down to is, you fit in the box and you follow directions,” the former employee added. “If you don’t do it the way he does it, then you’re doing it wrong.”

Former employees have also raised concerns about the district’s use of non-disclosure agreements, according to one employee who signed one. This former employee recalled the response from a veteran schools administrator when this person informed him of the division’s use of NDAs: “He was like, ‘That’s shady as hell.’”

“To the best of our knowledge and research, we have had between 6 and 8 separation agreements with employees, who left the division since 2007,” Stevens, the city spokesman, said in an email. “Only one of these has occurred while Mr. Habeeb has been a principal. These employees represent four different worksites in the division.”

Stevens said, “confidentiality agreements are signed to protect both the employee and the employer when there is a separation of employment during the employee's contract period. Finally, these are not handled by the principals or any other school staff members, but by the division’s Human Resources Department.”

The former employee recalled reaching out to the Shaffer Evaluation Group and mentioning that some employees had signed NDAs. The consultant’s reaction, this person said, was, “‘What? I can’t do my work if people won’t talk to me,’ and I was like, ‘Exactly.’”

Former employees expressed concern that the outside evaluation only encompasses employees who left in the last five years, noting that such former employees still use the school system as a reference. One former employee said, “you’re not going to get good truths in the last five years.”

The record of teacher complaints also makes mention of an incident in which Habeeb wrestled a student to the ground to break up a fight. The Rambler obtained a video of the incident taken by a former student.

The record says its reference to the incident, which happened a few years ago, is an example of the tight connections between the administration and high school principal at the time.

“Faculty and staff do not trust conversations with Central Office staff,” the record states, referring to the administration then overseen by Seibert. “Over 20 people were called to be interviewed by HR about a student fight incident at the high school where the student was body-slammed, and nothing was done. They were scared to talk, but they did. The accused [Habeeb] knew some of the things that were said in those interviews. This is an example of why teachers don’t want to ‘have the conversation.’ There is no closure, no follow up, no apparent change of behavior.”

Seibert said the video is misleading, and that the complaint record is wrong.

“Did you notice that when the student lunged they slipped and fell?” he said in an email. “Unless you are using an edited version of a video, these are the facts of the incident and it would only take a few interviews to validate those facts, but apparently falsely claiming 20 is a theme here.”

Awaiting an 'unbiased, third-party' survey

City and school officials say they are awaiting the survey results before talking about the work climate at Salem schools.

“On behalf of the School Board, we look forward to receiving the results of the survey later this month,” David Preston, chairman of the school board, said in an email. “Any comments before we receive the report would be inappropriate.”

Stevens, the city spokesman, also reiterated that the evaluation is aimed at capturing why educators have left division-wide.

“The survey is being done to capture the reasons for teacher attrition in the entire division, not to single out any individual,” he said in an email, later adding: “We look forward to receiving the report on the entire division from this unbiased, third-party organization.”

Turk, the mayor, said she is waiting on the consultant’s findings.

“I am sure you will agree that it is important for all employers to be aware of the work environment of their employees,” Turk said in an email. “The Salem City School System has sent out a survey regarding the morale and work environment for all teachers in the Salem system. At this time, we are awaiting the results of that survey.”

Stevens said city staff hope to have the consultant’s presentation ready for the school board’s development workshop on Friday, Jan. 28.

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