Neither side discussing reason why Hamilton superintendent resigned

This week saw the end of one of the longest, unexplained absences of a school superintendent in Southwest Ohio school history.

For more than two months Tony Orr — the superintendent of Hamilton Schools — was gone from office, having been ordered on Feb. 5 to leave by the same board that last year extended his contract to 2020.

The board’s statements regarding the unexpected move — started because members said there were allegations Orr “violated board polices” — were non-specific Thursday in the wake of Orr’s resignation.

No reason for the resignation was given in the short statement read by Hamilton Board of Education President Steve Isgro at the beginning of the board’s meeting, or in the separation agreement the superintendent signed that will pay Orr through July 31.

Until then Orr will remain on paid administrative leave — he earns $156,818 annually — and he will also receive $130,000 within 30 days of his July 31 resignation date, according to the agreement.

Isgro said the board, which had conducted an independent investigation into the allegations, will not discuss Orr’s situation because it is a personnel matter.

The board voted 4-0 — member Laurin Sprague was unable to attend the meeting — to accept Orr’s resignation, according to the separation agreement signed by the board and Orr on Thursday.

In a statement released after the meeting, Hamilton school officials said: “Orr’s resignation ends an investigation that began in February of allegations that the former superintendent may have violated board policies.”

Isgro emphasized the investigation did not involve students in any way.

“We understand that people may still have questions,” Isgro said. “But, ultimately, this is a personnel matter, and we will honor the privacy of all involved.”

This news outlet conducted numerous public records searches of Orr’s personnel files and checked with Hamilton Police, who said there were no criminal investigations or incident reports involving Orr.

Orr, who in February said he had no idea what the nature of the allegations were, released a statement minutes after the board’s vote to accept his resignation and separation agreement. He stated in a single sentence that he was resigning for “personal reasons.”

Orr again declined to comment Friday as to why he resigned.

Debra Gann, president of the teachers union for the 10,000-student district, was reluctant to discuss her thoughts as to what may have been the reason behind Orr being ordered on paid leave.

But minutes after Orr resigned Thursday, Gann did say some teachers in the district “weren’t trusted in doing our job and we felt like we were micro-managed, which is very uncomfortable for a teacher.”

She declined further comment.

In his written departure statement emailed out Thursday evening, Orr described himself as a “change agent” but added “on the other hand, I realize that change is difficult for people, and without it, students will not improve.”

At the time of Orr’s hiring in 2015 the Hamilton school board voted unanimously to give him the job. Under his leadership the city schools saw improvement in 18 of 23 academic areas - as measured by the Ohio Department of Education’s annual report card.

In 2017, Orr had his contracted extended by the Hamilton board, until 2020 and was earning an annual salary of $156,818. The board vote was 4-1 with board member Tom Alf the lone vote against Orr, but Alf has declined to reveal then — and since — why he cast his vote against extending the superintendent’s contract.

Orr’s most recent evaluation by the school board used a 1-9 numerical scale in descriptive ratings of “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” and “commendable.”

Orr received all numerical ratings in the “commendable” category, except for the highest satisfactory score of “6” in the “area of responsibility” pertaining to “seeks and accepts constructive criticism of his work.”

Though in the same listing under comments, the Hamilton board wrote of Orr: “Asks for constructive criticism.”

In 2015, Orr left his previous superintendent’s job at Clark County’s Northwestern Schools early after accepting the Hamilton job as part of a “transition agreement” with the school board at that time.

According to public records, Orr told the Northwestern board on April 1, 2015 he was resigning — effective Aug. 1, 2015 — to take the top job in Hamilton.

But Orr was later told by the board not to report to work at Northwestern Schools starting in late May 2015 until his contract ended in July as part of a transition agreement between himself the board.

No allegations of misconduct or violations of board policies were made against Orr from Northwestern officials, according to this newspaper’s review of personnel records.

Orr’s separation agreement with Hamilton Schools includes a provision that reads: “it is understood that the execution of this agreement does not constitute an admission of any kind whatsoever by any party.”

Isgro said the independent investigation of the allegations against Orr is in possession of the district’s attorney and not considered a public document available under Ohio law but rather a privileged document protected by the attorney-client relationship.

Orr’s leadership of Hamilton Schools since 2015 has occasionally included contentiousness.

He was regularly Southwest Ohio’s most vocal superintendent in blasting state school officials for what Orr described as excessive and unnecessary student testing. Moreover, Orr sharply criticized the state’s annual report on schools as not providing an accurate reflection of the district’s improvements in academics and other areas.

And last school year Orr sent out a controversial letter — as part of a promotional campaign for the city’s public schools — to Hamilton families with school-age children attending private schools — mostly Catholic — in the city.

Orr, who later apologized to the school board for his wording in the letter, wrote “unlike some non-public schools, our state of the art schools have a caring and professional teaching staff who are highly qualified.”

The letter generated complaints from officials and some parents from Badin High School, Butler County’s only Catholic high school and located in Hamilton.

“Some of the letter was misconstrued, which was certainly not my intent. It was not our intent to offend. I do extend my apology for that,” Orr told the board in March 2017.

“I am solely responsible for the letter. In the future I’ll certainly be more thoughtful given the total (school) community so that we can work collaboratively,” he said. “If I could go back in time I’d change my wording.”

Orr’s statement released shortly after the board vote accepting his resignation, said, “it is bittersweet that I submit my resignation to Hamilton City Schools.”

“On one hand I am exceptionally proud of all that my leadership team, teachers, and I have accomplished. Working together over the past three years, we improved in 18 out of 23 tested areas and significantly increased the graduation rate. I believe that our students’ performance will be even higher this year as a result of our efforts,” wrote Orr.

“As a change agent, I was excited to champion free preschool for our families, a centralized registration center, a blended learning academy, and implementing the Literacy Collaborative to help our elementary learners. The positive evaluation I received in July serves as a reminder of these accomplishments. On the other hand, I realize that change is difficult for people, and without it, students will not improve. My wife, daughter, and I are looking forward to our next adventure in education where my priority will continue to be serving the needs of students, staff, and community,” said Orr.

The board also announced Thursday that interim superintendent Larry Knapp will continue in that leadership position for the 10,000-student school system through next school year.

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