Bowing out: At CHS, it's the principal of the thing

Less than two months after he took the top job at Charlottesville High School, new principal Aaron Bissonnette's resignation less than a week before the first day of school has sparked concern and questions.

"I was surprised," says Lisa Drake, who hopes to serve as president of the CHS Parent Teacher Organization this year. She recalls the months-long search last spring that culminated in Bissonnette's hire and says she has no information about the "personal matters" cited by Bissonnette in his August 15 letter to parents— including this reporter— and staff announcing his decision to resign, effective immediately.

"I regret to leave so soon after my arrival, and I appreciate your collective understanding in a time of need for me," Bissonnette wrote. "I will be leaving the school at the close of business today. Perhaps after these matters are taken care of, I will be able to rejoin the Charlottesville City Schools in the future."

In response, the city schools issued only a brief official statement expressing disappointment and wishing Bissonnette "the best as he attends to personal matters." Bissonnette, the statement reads, would be "welcome" back to the division in the future. There would be no further information released about the matter, said new school spokesperson Beth Cheuk in an email accompanying the statement.

So what was behind Bissonnette's decision to leave?

According to Charlottesville School Board Chair Juandiego Wade, the personal matter may have really been more of a personal choice. Teachers had welcomed Bissonnette and were getting used to a new administration that also included two new assistant principals, as well as a new athletic director. "They had nothing bad to say about him," says Wade of the teachers with whom he's spoken.

Wade points out that Charlottesville High School is the "flagship" of the city schools, and that while it has a reputation for academic excellence with extensive AP and advanced course offerings, it is also challenged by the percentage of students living in poverty, with almost 60 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunches.

"It's a tough job," says Wade, who says he was "really disappointed" by the resignation. For Bissonnette, Wade says, it seems the job just "wasn't the right fit."

"We have to take him at his word for it," says Wade, expressing gratitude that Bissonnette, whose salary was just under $119,000, according to budget documents reported in the Daily Progress, chose to depart before school started rather than when students had already returned.

Taking Bissonnette's place as principal is recently hired CHS Assistant Principal Jill Dahl, who spent the past two years in administration at the city's Clark Elementary School and nine years working for public schools in Florida. There, according to spokesperson Cheuk, she was coordinator of AVID, an educational program aimed at closing the achievement gap. Wade notes that Dahl, who is a literacy specialist, also has a military background, and says he and his fellow school board members are confident in her ability to lead.

"The last thing we want to do is put someone in who couldn't handle it," he says.

Drake says she believes the decision to hire someone at the school rather than conduct another search was the right one.

"It seems to me we should wish [Bissonnette] the best and move forward because that's what our kids need," says Drake. "A positive attitude, a positive tone, that's what we as adults are here to provide."


You have got to be kidding me. What is the REAL reason that this guy left? For God's sake, why won't someone in the city school system please tell the truth about what is going on?

Maybe he figured out the job description should have been "Warden".

Toni could be right. I took my daughter out of Charlottesville High School and let her finish her high school education with advanced study classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College about 4 years ago. Charlottesville High School was nothing short of a zoo.

Your photo caption makes it appears as though 3 principals quit in the past 2 years. The fact of that is Dr. Taylor left to take position of Superindent at another district, William Clendestine's role as Interim was never a permanent one as he is the kind to guy to serve in districts temporarily to fill the void until someone can be put in. CHS has really only seen one guy resign (i.e. get the boot) and that's the most recent because he came from a small NC district and had no idea what he was getting into. He probably cared more about the position and paycheck rather than whether it was a job he could hack. On the same side, the hiring party should have never hired him because he was not qualified to do the job. A guy who holds his Masters from the University of Phoenix is not equipped for the CHS top job.

CHS is an easy place to fall off the rails, if a kid is predisposed to that weakness, much like the other local public highschools (and some of the more notoriously partying privates). The kids that succeed there -- and there are a lot of kids that succeed there, as shown by how many of them get into top universities across the country -- tend to be self-starters, well-organized, able to balance multiple responsibilities and -- most key -- adept at avoiding the traps that all teeneagers face, no matter where they go to school. Yeah, high school is somewhat zoo-like -- it always has been, and some kids can't hack it and benefit a lot more from home schooling or from taking classes at junior colleges away from the peer pressures of other teens. CHS is common in that regard. But CHS does provide unique challenges for administrators, compared to the other local schools, due to its demographics (demographcs that also, by the way, far better prepare kids for life in the real world than does a sheltered environment), and it sounds like maybe Bissonnette just wasn't experienced, self-confident, or commanding enough to take on the task. Odd that the school board didn't spot this at the hiring stage -- he must hve put on a good, if unproven, show. At parent orientation the other night, Ms. Dahl seemed poised and self-assured, much like Mr. Taylor, and this transition may really turn out to be a lucky one for CHS, if she can maintain CHS's well-earned reputation as providing a superb academic launching pad for the kids who are able to exploit its advanced opportunities.

GSOE- you're right, but that's the same zoo that places more kids into Ivy League and other top 50 universities than any other school in the area, and it's not even close. Also the place which offers more AP courses than any other school in the state.

The zoo exists within the school much the way it exists in this town.

I really wish people around Charlottesville would do their homework before bashing CHS. I know at one time many years ago the school had issues but Thomas Taylor was an excellent principal and CHS offers a top notch education to its students, over half of my daughters friends live in different districts and their parents pay for them to attend CHS. Mr. Taylor did not leave CHS because it was "too much to handle" he left for a better career opportunity. My daughter has recieved a wonderful education and has had many wonderful experiences at CHS, she is now in her Senior year and loves her school. Maybe there isn't a scandal behind Mr. Bissionette leaving, maybe he decided CHS was not the right fit....

maybe not a scandal, but definitely some dysfunction when countless administrators have left city schools in recent years. was surprised when i read that Rosa Atkins' contract was renewed early (at all) by the school board.

a personal reason is a personal reason and here's to hoping it stays a private matter. life is not a reality television show to play itself out for everyone's entertainment.

I question too the reason behind his leaving. Is the administration that overbearing that it is their way or the highway ? I'm surprised that more questions have not been asked. I am MORE surprised though that an assistant principal was hired immediately as the PERMANENT replacement. No committee ? No parent and teacher involvement ? Only the view of Central Office ? seems a bit fishy to me.....
By the way, the critical comments towards CHS are surprising - and it seems based on assumptions - not reality. Thank you to the parents at CHS who have current knowledge of what that high school can offer - and the statistics of its success to overcome the biased earlier comments. Zoo - my arse!

Is this a great issue of THe Hook, or WHAT!

two cents August 22nd, 2013 | 3:01pm "a personal reason is a personal reason and here's to hoping it stays a private matter. life is not a reality television show to play itself out for everyone's entertainment."

Perfectly well said, two cents.

I hope readers take your words to heart.

I Know It, are you being serious about Bissonnette's masters from U of Phoenix?

CHS is a very good school with good teachers and administrators. It also has some duds in the group too - but all schools do. It's not for all students though. My daughter attended there for 2 years (we moved out of the city) - I even paid tuition for her go there the 2nd year. But eventually she decided to do her last 2 years at MHS. Another good school with excellent teachers and good adminstrators. We are very forunate with our choices - especially in the public schools in this area. All schools are zoos. Teenagers are loud, messy and learning to become adults. Some do that transition better than others. Especially if they have support of their family, community, church, friends, neighborhoods.

Indeed, I'm dying to know if this guy was a ticket-punching degree-mill graduate...

All reasons are "personal"...
Why local governments and NGO institutions persist in hiring directors from outside is one of life's great mysteries. I suppose they do it in the belief they'll get somebody more complaisant with their wishes instead of promoting from within and getting someone who's beholden to former coworkers. In practice they all to often end up with people like this who run shrieking off into the night or they get gold-bricking prima donnas who some other place was relieved to be rid of.

@Toni H., they hire "outsiders" so that they can get a new perspective on making changes. Promoting from within often just results in the same-old-same-old.
Thanks two cents for your comments.

So how come we end up with the "same-old-same-old." Major hires that blow up and cost a ton of money. I hope they make that Bissonette pay back his moving expenses etc.

There probably is a larger story to investigate here: there were very few applicants for the CHS job when it was open, compared to the WAHS job that was open at the same time. There is a growing perception that the superintendent and her deputies are not good at attracting top candidates or at retaining top administrative or teaching staff, notwithstanding her rather inflated salary compared to those of her peers. And responsive, transparent communication -- returning inquiring emails and phone calls form parents, for e.g. -- is virtually nonexistant. For some reason, this has been a recurring problem for Charlottesville over the last decade.