Doctors Charter school in quiet Miami Shores roiled by secret meeting and resignations

Doctors Charter School, located at 11301 NW Fifth Ave.
Doctors Charter School, located at 11301 NW Fifth Ave. For the Miami Herald

Doctors Charter School seems to have all the ingredients for success: enthusiastic community support, involved parents and a decade of high-performing students.

But the Miami Shores school has been caught up in controversy in the last few months, even drawing the attention of state prosecutors in a city better known for its annual “Unity Day” festival than for civic mischief.

A secret meeting of the school’s board, multiple resignations and the unceremonious ouster of Doctors’ popular executive director have prompted the kind of public acrimony rarely seen in this quiet village of 11,000 residents.

The Miami-Dade ethics commission in June kicked an investigation over to the state attorney’s office to determine whether Florida public meetings laws were broken when the volunteer board met in private to decide the fate of the school’s rookie executive director. No one denies the May 21 meeting took place — but it has been painted as an innocent mistake by a board that didn’t know better and simply wanted to discuss personnel issues without embarrassing anyone.

“We didn’t want to air anybody’s dirty laundry in front of the public. That wouldn’t be fair,” said Dennis Kleinman, a longtime board member whose term expired this month.

In its May meeting, the board quietly reached a decision not to extend executive director Nicholas Dorn’s contract. During a follow-up meeting called by the board to address the error of meeting secretly, Dorn headed off the de facto firing by telling the board he didn’t want the contract renewed.

“I can’t work with that,” Dorn said. “I’ve been working hard and diligently. I’m doing this for the same school that they love, that we love. It hurts to some extent.”

The news of the pending ouster stunned the parents of Doctors Charter, many of whom rallied behind the leader of a school that serves 600 students.

“Let me tell you what I’ve seen firsthand: Mr. Dorn’s open-door policy, his complete availability to speak to a child or a parent,” Rosemarie Moore-Banich, a parent at the school, said at a recent public meeting. “He has an openness to change and innovation.”

A nationwide search led the board to pick Dorn to head Doctors Charter just last year. He left his position as a director at St. Andrews School in Boca Raton and brought 15 years of education experience to Miami Shores — the city where he grew up and where his wife is a pastor.

“For me it was a special kind of opportunity to come home, to some extent, serve the community that had raised me and make a difference in kids’ lives,” he said earlier this month.

Dorn took over for an executive director who was well-liked but somewhat absent toward the end of his tenure because of illness. By contrast, the 37-year-old Dorn was everywhere. He made it a point to greet students by name and with a handshake every day, supported parents as they launched a new baseball team and fixed up the school, bringing in a new cleaning company.

A new schedule was set to launch in the fall, and more technology was brought into the classroom. Dorn also spearheaded at least three after-school committees intended to address staff issues.

“He cares about the students at the school,” Samantha Gallo, a student at Doctors Charter, said at a recent public meeting. “If you have a problem, he will help you.”

Dorn’s supporters demanded answers from the school board that had decided to dump him. But by then, the school board realized the error of its private meeting. And facing savvy parents — some of whom are lawyers — no one was willing to publicly defend their decision. At least three of the 13 school board members resigned in the days after the private meeting. One said she resigned because she didn’t have the time to devote to the board, but former member Joan Lutton had different reasons.

“I resigned because I thought the shadow meeting was not a good idea and the board did not give Mr. Dorn a chance to give his side of what I thought was gossip,” Lutton wrote in an email. “I think he had done a good job making some needed changes.”

Public records provide some clues about why the school board wanted to oust Dorn. They show that Mayor Alice Burch, the village’s newly elected mayor and a longtime school volunteer, pushed behind the scenes for a new school leader. In a package delivered to school board members, Burch shared anonymous complaints from teachers who said staff were brought to tears over their treatment by the executive director. Among the complaints: too many meetings, changing the way teachers could take time off and telling them they were overpaid.

Burch said she was simply sharing her opinion with the board.

“If I had thought that that letter would go public, I would never have sent it,” Burch said.

Dorn’s own self-evaluation also noted internal morale problems and strife. He wrote that department chairs “cast me in unfavorable light based on misunderstandings or malcontent interests,” in meetings. Dorn also cited a “lack of participation” in faculty meetings and alludes that he has been “accused of micro-managing.”

In one bullet point, he complained about political pressure: “Maintained vision for the school in spite the machinations of political bodies behind the scene in pursuit of dissembling progress in order to preserve stagnation and false sense of stability.”

At a recent council meeting, Burch acknowledged mistakes had been made in the process to remove Dorn, and she apologized.

The school’s board has since undergone big change, with six new members picked in mid-June. Among the new board’s first actions, in a meeting on June 18, was to unanimously offer Dorn a new contract. The room, packed with parents, broke into a light applause when the motion was made. Dorn now has a decision to make, reflecting on the last month or so of controversy.

“How it’s affected my family and my wife, I need to think about it,” he said.