Longtime Holmes Elementary School Principal Laurel Muhammad will retire in June, one year earlier than previously planned, she announced last week.

At the beginning of the school year the charismatic and sometimes controversial Muhammad had announced that she planed to retire after the 2006-07 school year.

But Muhammad, who turns 60 next month, said that she now feels in her gut that she should make this her final year.

“It’s time,” said Muhammad. “It’s bittersweet. I’m looking forward to being able to do other things, but I’ll be leaving a place I’ve come to love. It’s hard to do.”

Muhammad has spent her entire 23-year career in District 97. She began as a student-teacher in Beye School. She taught third grade at Mann School, was an assistant principal at Lincoln School for a year, and is now in her 17th year as principal at Holmes.

Muhammad has always generated strong feelings, having been something of a lighting rod in recent years who was at the center of some bitter divisions among Holmes parents.

In January of 2004, a third-grade teacher was let go (people still disagree whether he was fired or resigned) and many parents were very upset. Two years ago approximately $9,000 of district lunch money disappeared. A support staff person was let go although no charges were ever filed.

Feelings ran high. Parents were divided between those who supported and liked Muhammad and those who felt she had a tendency to minimize problems rather than address them.

Those who supported Muhammad felt that she was being blamed for every little thing. Others felt that Muhammad was part of the problem. Those parents say that Muhammad, while charming in person, could be vindictive in private towards those who brought up problems or challenged her. More than one parent spoke of a culture of fear at the school.

Last year Holmes held a series of community conversations that tried to bring the school community back together. These meetings met with some success and things seem to be much calmer at Holmes now according to most parents interviewed.

“I really think she is leaving on a high note,” said Shelia Judge Fingerman, a parent who is a chair of the school improvement team and has long been a backer of Muhammad. “We’ve done a lot of good work the last two years.”

Judge Fingerman, whose third child to go through Holmes is in fifth grade, said Muhammad has always been there for Holmes students, especially kids from difficult circumstances.

Angela Farnham, another member of the school improvement team and the mother of a first-grader and a kindergartener at Holmes, is sad that Muhammad is leaving, but admitted that not all parents share her sadness.

“I will not be pleased to see her go,” Farnham said. “I found her to be very responsive. My experiences have been very positive with her. I’ve never seen someone have to respond to so much negative feedback.”

Those parents who will not be sad when Muhammad retires were reluctant to speak for attribution often saying that they feared retribution.

One thing all can agree on is that things will be different next year at Holmes.

“I think there will be a collective exhale when she leaves,” said one parent who asked not to be identified.

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