VALDOSTA -- Just before midnight Monday, the Valdosta Board of Education unanimously approved a new leader for one of the city school system's two middle schools. However, school officials refused to name the new hire until all candidates were notified of their decision Tuesday.

Beginning July 1, Artrice Haugabrook will stand at the helm of J.L. Newbern Middle School, which serves 800-plus sixth- through eighth-graders each school year. A graduate of Florida State University, Haugabrook entered the field of education 10 years ago, serving nine of those years with the Valdosta City School System. She is currently an assistant principal at J.L. Newbern Middle School and doctoral student at Valdosta State University.

Superintendent Sam Allen said the school system received 13 applications for the position from educators all over the southeastern portion of the United States, including states like North Carolina and Alabama. The 13 were narrowed to three finalists by a committee comprised of Assistant Superintendent Joann Mabry, Personnel Director Maude Johnson, and a J.L. Newbern Middle School teacher and parent, he said.

Monday, the three finalists met with the middle school's School Council, which made a recommendation to the board. Shortly after 9 p.m. Monday, members of the board met with each finalist individually before making the final selection.

"All of the candidates were excellent," Allen said. "It was tough to make a decision because all of them were of such a high caliber. That's unusual to find so late into a school year."

He said Haugabrook was an obvious selection because of her knowledge of the school, its population, and mission. Plus, she impressed the board with the way she stepped up to the role of interim principal while her predecessor, Principal Fred Davis, was serving his country in Operation Iraqi Freedom during the latter part of the 2002-03 school year.

"She really proved herself," Allen said.

Davis, who served as chief warrant officer in charge of petroleum distribution for the Army Reserves during the war in Iraq, will be director of Special Programs at the central office.

Allen said he approached Davis about this move shortly after he received his orders in mid-March, which mandated a one-year deployment.

"We were really concerned about the uncertainty of the situation in Iraq and Mr. Davis's deployment," he said. "We wanted to do what was in the best interest of Mr. Davis and the students."

Davis accepted the new position, which he will officially assume on July 1. He said he looks forward to doing something different, having served in school administration for the past 26 years.

"I understand the situation," said Davis, who returned to Valdosta at the end of May. "These children are the most important thing. The last thing I want to do was create an unstable environment. Who knows what might happen in the coming weeks. I could be deployed again. Things are not going as smoothly in Iraq as our government would like. "

Allen described Davis as a true educator and said the school board has always been pleased with his administration at J.L. Newbern Middle School. However, he said at the middle school level stability and consistency are necessary for a productive school year, something with which Davis agrees.

According to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, employees returning from military service "must be reemployed in the job that they would have attained had they not been absent for military service ..." Passed by Congress in October 1994 and enforced by the Department of Labor, the act provides clear protection for all members of the uniformed services, including non-career National Guard and Reserve members.

Allen said Davis could have retained his job as principal of J.L. Newbern Middle School.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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