GRAPEVINE, Texas — Former Colleyville Heritage High School Principal Dr. James Whitfield sat down and spoke with WFAA Tuesday after Grapevine-Colleyville ISD trustees voted to pay him until August 2023 to walk away from his job.
For weeks, Whitfield was encircled by rickety critical race theory accusations that divided much of the district's community.
Now, Whitfield's main message centers around looking toward the future and thanking those who stood behind him during a heated chapter in the district's history.
"The uncertainty of what happens next makes you pause a little bit," Whitfield said. "But I'm excited to see what's next for me."
Whitfield's next move isn't in stone yet, but if he doesn't take a job with another school district by Aug. 15, 2023, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD will pay him his salary until then -- while he logs zero work hours for the district.
Whitfield's salary is $125,000 per year.
If you ask why this is all happening, you'll find yourself wandering into a divisive saga that ended Monday night at a special board meeting.
Whitfield had been on leave from the district since Aug. 30, a little over a month after a former school board candidate named Stetson Clark accused him of advocating for critical race theory: the idea that racism runs deep and continues to shape American society today.
"Because of his extreme views, I ask that a full review of Mr. Whitfield's tenure in our district be examined and that his contract be terminated effective immediately," said Clark.
After the board voted 7-0 in September not to renew his contract with the district, trustees Monday voted unanimously to keep Whitfield on paid leave until Aug. 15, 2023.
His current contract isn't even supposed to extend beyond June 30, 2022.
A joint statement between Whitfield and the district was read aloud after the vote:
“The Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District and Dr. James Whitfield have been in the media frequently in recent weeks concerning the disputes between them. Both the District and Dr. Whitfield each strongly believe they are in the right. However, each also agrees that the division in the community about this matter has impacted the education of the District’s students. In addition, the time, expense, and disruption for both Dr. Whitfield and the District would continue for some time and would further harm the education of District students. The District and Dr. Whitfield have mutually agreed to resolve their disputes. Dr. Whitfield and GCISD strongly agree it is important we continue to provide a safe and nurturing educational environment to all students, no matter their background, race, or gender. The District and Dr. Whitfield each wish the best to the other in the future. The District and Dr. Whitfield have agreed this will be their only public statement on this matter.”
Whitfield can't directly talk about his situation leading to the mutual agreement or disparage the district publicly as part of the settlement.
But he can talk about critical race theory and how the outrage surrounding it has altered his life.
In his almost 20-year career, Whitfield told WFAA that he's never taught CRT or advocated for it.
"When these allegations are levied against you, the worst thing you can do is suffer in silence," Whitfield said. "Until it came up as it did, I had no idea what the teachings or foundations were."
Before that 7-0 vote in September, Whitfield told WFAA he had not explicitly been informed why his job was on the chopping block.
At the time, he said he was only given a list of 34 things the district considers when not renewing a principal's contract. However, Whitfield said district officials didn't elaborate further.
On Sept. 20, during a contentious school board meeting filled with Whitfield's supporters, a district official revealed for the first time why Whitfield was up for non-renewal of his contract.
A laundry list of reasons was read aloud, including performance issues, insubordination, and Whitfield failing to establish and implement high expectations for all staff and students.
In addition, the official also said Whitfield was deficient in observation reports, evaluations and lacked communication skills and situational awareness.
The official also listed an instance where Whitfield failed to report misconduct among staff.
Whitfield told WFAA after the meeting that the reasons listed for his termination were ridiculous and said many were never explicitly brought to his attention prior.
He never got to publicly refute or tackle each issue due to the settlement being reached.
Still, the district agreeing to a settlement largely says it didn't want to enter into a court battle.
"The national spotlight isn't something you hope for or wish for, but sometimes those moments happen," Whitfield said. "All I wanted to communicate was that I want to make sure that every student who walks through our doors has access to an equitable and excellent education."
After Whitfield was pushed to the forefront of district controversy, he revealed to WFAA that he thinks trouble began in the primarily white Texas suburb after writing a letter to the school community following the murder of George Floyd.
He wrote that systemic racism is “alive and well” and that the community all needed to work together to achieve “conciliation for our nation.”
In 2020, Whitfield became the first Black principal at Colleyville Heritage High School. He's been a shining star with the district and has been promoted several times within the Grapevine-Colleyville ISD system.
Yet in 2019, Whitfield said he felt his progress was being attacked when someone complained to administrators that he was setting a "bad example" by posting pictures of himself kissing his wife on Facebook.
The photos were from an anniversary trip in Mexico over a decade ago and showed the pair kissing one another and embracing on a beach, fully clothed in the sand. He said he agreed to take some of the photos down. Whitfield's wife is white and has defended him publicly.
Once Whitfield was sidelined, speculation grew throughout the community that the district had a knee-jerk reaction to Stetson Clark's CRT comments and parental input that followed.
The district has said: "The decision to place Dr. Whitfield on administrative leave was not a result of statements made by members of the public, including those who spoke at recent meetings of the GCISD Board of Trustees. Nor was the decision made in response to allegations Dr. Whitfield was teaching Critical Race Theory, or because of the photos on his social media account that were brought to the attention of the District in 2019."
"I've heard from educators both locally and across the country going through similar issues in their respective communities," Whitfield said. "Anti-CRT folks can't prove that those teachings are even in public education, and my advice to the people facing criticism is not to be afraid to speak up and fight."
The belief that Whitfield has been targeted because he was vocal for diversity and inclusion fueled a student walk-out and passionate statements supporting him during the public comment section of board meetings.
Whitfield was a beloved figure in his school and wanted to thank the people that fought for him.
"People listened to them, and it may not seem like it because they didn't get the desired outcome they wanted--but they have been an inspiration to so many people around the country," Whitfield said. "I'm proud of them for speaking up and letting their voice be heard. They were talking about their experiences as students of color, inspired people, so don't think this is the end of their fight."
WFAA asked Whitfield if he thought another school district would hire him after all of this -- and he sounded confident.
"I'm sure there will be those opportunities down the road. Whatever it is I'm doing, I want to be actively involved in making kids' lives better."