This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

A little more than a month ago, parents crowded into the small media center at Oak Hill School to meet their kids’ new principal, Brian Oliver.

On Tuesday night they were back in the same room, ready to tell Caldwell County Schools Superintendent Steve Stone what qualities they want in Oliver’s replacement.

Oliver, appointed as Oak Hill’s principal in July, stepped down after the first week of school in August to accept a central-office position with the McDowell County Schools. The Caldwell County Schools have received 12 applications so far to replace him.

On Tuesday, parents placed a strong emphasis on finding a candidate who is energetic and engaged, who is seen more often in the hallways than at his or her desk. Parents said they want a principal who knows their child’s name and interacts with them, who attends ball games and works with the local Ruritan Club.Other parents asked that the new principal take a hard line on bullying, emphasizing from the beginning that it is not tolerated. They asked for a principal who would support arts integration in the classroom and make parent volunteers feel welcome.

All of that feedback, along with questions gathered from teachers and staff members at a separate meeting, will become part of the interview process for the Oak Hill principal candidates. Those candidates – Stone said he expects around 25 – will be interviewed by two central-office staff members and three representatives from the school.

The interview team will recommend two candidates to Stone, and he’ll recommend one to the Caldwell County Board of Education, which will appoint a new principal at its Oct. 14 meeting. If a current Caldwell employee is appointed, he or she could be in the office at Oak Hill by Oct. 16; an external candidate would likely come with a 30-day waiting period.

At Oak Hill, the stakes for any decision can seem high. Oak Hill’s enrollment has dropped in recent years, a predicament it shares with K-8 schools across the country. Oak Hill once had more than 300 students; it now has 129.

Parents whose children are in the zone to attend Oak Hill often request transfers to other schools within the county. That request is often granted in Caldwell County, a district that traditionally has had liberal transfer rules and today touts itself as a “school system of choice.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, two teachers described Oak Hill as a place with a “broken spirit” and warned that a new principal would have to understand that it might take parents and teachers some time to warm up.

Stone took a hard line on Oak Hill’s future, addressing rumors that the new middle school being built at Hibriten High would fuel consolidation.

“We are not going to be actively recruiting middle-school students from Oak Hill, Happy Valley or Kings Creek,” he said. “That is not our intent, nor are we going to close K-8s, nor are we going to close down services that are being offered to the middle-school students here.”

Stone said he is looking for a new principal who can understand why parents are making the choice to transfer outside the Oak Hill district and make changes that will get those students back.

“I will say Oak Hill needs to get its numbers up,” he said. “I think the principal can work with the community and get those kids back.”