A Matter of Principals | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

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A Matter of Principals

Paul Vallas's latest maneuver looks like an end run around LSC autonomy.


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By Linda Lutton

Lidia Franco has been a teacher at Harriet Beecher Stowe elementary school in Humboldt Park for more than two decades, but she's never seen the school improve more than it has in the last year. This is due to one thing, she says--the local school council's decision last year to hire a new principal.

"During the time the former principal was there we didn't see any progress," says Franco, a teacher representative on Stowe's LSC. "She was there eight years. The state in which the principal before her had left the school, that's the way she continued things." Far from progressing, Franco says, Stowe was getting worse. The school's library was closed. Special ed students went to class in the boiler room. "The principal made life so difficult that many teachers--good teachers--left the school," says Franco. "There were many situations that gave us cause not to renew the principal's contract."

But that isn't the way schools chief Paul Vallas saw things. As Stowe's LSC went about the work of selecting a new principal, "the board gave us a lot of problems," says Franco. "Mr. Vallas said the principal we'd had for eight years was 'a fine principal.' The board was not happy that we were not renewing her contract."

Stowe's LSC finally selected a candidate with an impressive resume. Charles Kyle was an assistant schools superintendent in La Grange at the time; he had a doctorate in the sociology of education from Northwestern University, had served as a superintendent in the Berwyn-Cicero high school district, was a full faculty member at the graduate school of education of Loyola University, and had even worked a year as an administrator in the office of policy of the Chicago Public Schools. In 1993, before Vallas, he'd actually been a candidate for superintendent of Chicago schools. And he knew Humboldt Park--a couple of years ago he served on an oversight team that Vallas sent in to review conditions at Clemente High School.

But the Board of Education said Kyle wasn't qualified to be a CPS principal.

"There were a thousand problems," says Franco. "First they said he wasn't qualified, he was missing credits. It was never ending, the things they thought up. We had to go to monthly board meetings to try to pressure them to accept our decision--when by law they had to respect our decision."

But that law might soon change. Vallas is proposing legislation that would allow the central office to veto certain LSC decisions on principal retention. Under his proposal, any LSC that decides not to retain a principal who's received a "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations" rating from the central office would have its decision reviewed by an advisory panel. The three-member panel would be made up of one representative from the central office's Academic Accountability Council; one from the Local School Council Advisory Board, a partly elected, partly appointed body; and one from the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, which supports Vallas's proposal. The panel would recommend that the principal stay or go, and Vallas and the board would have final say.

Likewise, an LSC that wanted to retain a principal who'd received an unsatisfactory rating could be overruled. Vallas's proposal would erode the cornerstone of the 1988 School Reform Act--the power it gave the parent-majority councils to hire and fire their schools' principals.

"If passed, the bill would give good principals support for keeping their jobs and would help to remove poor principals from schools where they are failing to improve students' education," wrote Vallas in a letter last month to LSC members. "The idea is so logical and simple that it is hard to understand why anyone concerned about improving the Chicago schools would be opposed to it." Vallas went on to say that the proposal actually strengthens LSCs, which would benefit "by having specific criteria set by law for evaluating principals and deciding whether or not to renew their contracts."

The proposal arose from the handful of cases, at Stowe and other schools, where an LSC decided not to renew a principal's contract even though that principal had received a satisfactory rating from the board--or, in a very few cases, from the LSC itself. Board ratings are given by six regional education officers who must grade about 90 principals each. And though the board has gotten tough on social promotion and academic accountability where students are concerned, it's been less strict with principals. Last June, all 410 principals evaluated received either a "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations" rating. None got a "does not meet expectations" grade.

"Right now we have three schools [whose LSCs] have rated their principals 'meets' or 'exceeds,' and yet they have not been retained," says Carlos Azcoitia, deputy chief education officer. "That's why you want to trigger the review committee, because in those situations you have teachers, you have other parents, and you have the community saying, 'But why? Why have you rated this person like this and yet not retained them?'"

"Evaluating someone and offering them another contract are two completely independent things," says Suzanne Davenport, acting executive director of the research and reform group Designs for Change. She points to the business world, where an employer "may have other reasons for not extending your contract" than the quality of the work you did. "You could have changes in the council," says Davenport. "Maybe the LSC is rethinking the school's vision. Maybe they're just waking up and saying, 'Hey, we could get further than this.' They shouldn't have to prove that the principal was incompetent in order not to give another contract."

Azcoitia and Vallas say LSCs don't base principal-retention decisions on educational criteria. They add that the proposed legislation would force them to do so. Most LSC members vehemently dispute the charge, but Azcoitia asks, "If they are basing their decision on educational criteria, then why do you have cases in which someone could be rated 'meets' or 'exceeds' and suddenly not be retained? Or vice versa, why have we had probably 38 to 40 schools in which councils have been complaining--after giving a contract--about the principal and asking us to remove them?"

Azcoitia says that so far people have interpreted the legislation to be of use only when a principal's contract is up for renewal, but he suggests that the board could step in at other times as well. "In the middle of a contract, after you retain, a lot of things happen. And many times [LSC members] ask us, 'Oh, we made a mistake, there's a four-year contract, we've retained this person.'

"I think this whole school reform movement and the role of parents and community will be strengthened by using this kind of an approach," Azcoitia says. "I think it will invigorate this whole process."

Both sides of the debate can pull horror stories out of their hats. Reform groups hark back to the days when principals owed their positions to patronage and held onto them for life, and they toss in stories of sexual molesters protected by tenure. Advocates of new legislation tell stories of dictatorial LSC bosses who demand special treatment for their own children and if they don't get it make the principal pay with his or her job.

Legislators haven't been eager to get between Vallas and local-control advocates. When the CEO took his ideas to the senate education committee in mid-March he was told to work out a compromise back in Chicago. At the school board's request, the senate stripped Senate Bill 652 of legislative language, turning it into an empty "shell bill" to which that compromise can be added as an amendment. School reform groups and LSC members have scrambled to pin down legislators and the school board on the wording of the amendment.

Even the bill's house sponsor has reservations about Vallas's original proposal. "I think there is a problem here that deserves some address, which is capricious LSCs not renewing a principal's contract who's perfectly good for the job," says Barbara Flynn Currie of Hyde Park. But "what the board first proposed I don't support." Instead of a three-member review panel, Currie proposes "a hearing officer, an arbitrator. Somebody who is professional, who is not an employee of the board or Vallas. I think we can find a solution to the problem of the small number of local school councils that are dysfunctional and maybe making decisions about principals that are not good for the kids, but we're not going to solve that problem by putting at risk [those] that are doing a good job or by giving the board or [Vallas] the authority to overturn the local school council decision."

Designs for Change and other reform groups say that even compromise legislation would usurp the rights of LSCs. "We're very leery of any 'compromise' language," says Davenport, "because what we've seen so far creates some kind of appeals process for principals, and this to us is no compromise at all. This is still giving the central office exactly what they want, which is the ability to create turmoil in any council's decision about their principal. The issue for us is to protect the right of the local school council to make the final decision about the principal."

Reform groups and many LSC members--entire councils have voted to oppose Vallas's measure--are pushing the legislature to take no action this session and instead set up a committee to study the current law. "The board really has not been made to prove that the councils are acting irresponsibly," says Davenport. "Gery Chico--I think it was in a Catalyst piece--he could only cite three principals since he had come on as head of the board where he thought that things had gone awry. So that's 3 principals out of 500-and-some principals. You just don't completely rewrite a law and set up a whole new procedure because of three cases." Only 6 of 237 principals whose contracts expire at the end of the present school year were not retained--for any reason--by their LSCs. A Tribune editorial against Vallas's proposal admonished legislators, "Don't go after a mosquito with a howitzer."

Davenport argues that improving the way some councils make decisions about principal retention should be accomplished through better training of LSC members. Every council member is required to take 12 hours of training in basic rights and responsibilities and then 6 additional hours in other subjects. In the first years of reform, community groups, reform groups, and universities were involved in the training, but since the mayor took over the board in 1995 "the bureaucracy has reclaimed that," says Davenport. "Now they control the first 12 hours of training, and that's where the LSCs are supposed to learn how to evaluate principals. So if they're not doing a good job, the board's not training them very well."

Charles Kyle, the new principal at Stowe, says that school's LSC put him through the most thorough interview of his life. "They had a whole day of interviews--a Saturday--where I was interviewed for a half hour in English and a half hour in Spanish," he says. "There were at least 12 people in each room. The group included everybody--parents, parent patrol, teachers, union, administrators. Some weeks later I was called back and it was close to three hours of interviews--an hour and a half in each room. They had their questions written out, and they covered every area you could think of--from academics to discipline to parent involvement to the bilingual program. Very intelligent questions. There was a technical expert that was present for all the interviews from the board. And then there was a community forum with over 100 people. I had about half an hour to speak with parents and answer questions. And then they asked to come out and visit my [La Grange] school district. They went on a tour of the middle school, they spoke with the principal, with the business manager, with the superintendent. The whole process was extremely professional."

Franco says Stowe's LSC surveyed all the faculty, about half the parents, and 25 percent of the local community before deciding not to renew its principal's contract. "After that we followed a set procedure," she says. "We did everything exactly the way the board guidelines for the selection of a new principal stipulate, and we were being assisted by someone from the board." Stowe's LSC also was aided by a nonprofit organization that provides consultants to LSCs choosing principals. "We followed guidelines meticulously," says Franco, "so that at the end the board couldn't say that we had done something wrong. Nothing, nothing was done wrong. We followed the letter of the law. And despite all that the board gave us a lot of trouble about naming our new principal."

Stowe's LSC even garnered kudos from a finalist who didn't get the job. "We have a letter from one of the candidates, who even though she wasn't selected she felt proud just to have participated in our process because we had shown such professionalism, and she congratulated us as a council," says Franco.

Kyle was involved in the late 80s in drafting the reform legislation that created local school councils. "I've always believed that the local communities can have a structure very similar to the board structures in the suburbs," he says. "Many of these suburban districts have a very, very sophisticated, very participatory structure. I always believed that that could be replicated at the local school level in Chicago, and to see that happen was very satisfying."

Vallas claims that most LSC members support his plan, though two public hearings have turned out far more people opposed to it than in favor. The Principals and Administrators Association favors the bill, on the grounds that principals can be treated unfairly under the current system, but a number of individual principals have come out against the measure. So have school reform groups, and Vallas has attacked them fiercely during the debate, calling them "special interest groups" and alleging that "Chicago school reform has become a cottage industry."

A sample letter of support from LSC members to their legislators said, "It is our belief that [reform groups'] opposition stems from a desire to protect their own vested interests. They thrive on conflict. If there is harmony, there is no need for the existence of some reform groups." Three versions of the letter were passed out by the board at a public hearing--a hearing that, incidentally, counted toward LSC members' training.

Vallas is careful to distinguish between reform groups and LSCs; he's said repeatedly that he gets along well with LSCs, thinks the balance of power between them and the central office is about right, and thinks they are working well. Davenport says his deeds don't match his words: "His behavior since he has been in office has been to selectively target individual LSCs for practices either around principal selection or around spending money--like Clemente--and try to make them into the centerpiece of a policy decision to basically take that power away from those councils."

All sides agree on the importance of the principal to the success of a school and its students. At Stowe, the library has been reopened, special education students are now in classrooms, and Kyle has started a tutoring program and a middle school within the school. He clocked 70 hours of professional training that the school board said he owed, and last month, 11 months after he was first offered the job, the board gave Kyle a contract to sign. He says the central office moves slowly, but he has only praise for its accomplishments: "We have a million dollars in new windows, and the difference that it makes to the kids to see a hundred-year-old school renewed--it tells them that they're worthwhile, that people care about them. And that's gonna affect their test scores."

As to SB 652? "I'm hopeful that there will be a compromise worked out that will allow the central office to be confident of the qualifications of their principals and also be respectful of the local school council's right to hire principals."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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