How to get rid of a CPS principal | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

How to get rid of a CPS principal

The quest to fire Ogden International’s leader exposes flaws in the disciplinary mechanism.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

BOBBY SIMS
  • Bobby Sims

Five months since CPS removed Dr. Michael Beyer, the principal of Ogden International School, from his position, he's still getting paid but can't return to work.

As the Reader reported in November, CPS justified Beyer's removal with the findings of an Office of Inspector General investigation that concluded in June 2018. The heavily redacted OIG report, which was released to the public, cited "75 instances" over the course of three school years "where students were temporarily unenrolled and re-enrolled within the same school year," or coded as transfers during prolonged absences. The OIG claimed that Beyer knew about and directed these falsifications. Though the OIG admitted they were "unable to determine" how these improper codings impacted the school's attendance rate, the report nevertheless stated that "the OIG believes that Ogden perpetuated this unenrollment and transfer practice to manipulate the attendance numbers and protect Ogden's SQRP." (The School Quality Rating Policy judges and ranks schools by several factors, including attendance rates.) Since November, Beyer has also faced new allegations of mishandling student data.

Beyer's removal from Ogden came at a pivotal moment, as the K-12, 1,700-student, two-campus school based in the Gold Coast and West Town merged with Cabrini-Green-based Jenner Elementary this school year. The merger consolidated the overcrowded Ogden, which serves a largely well-heeled, international community, with the under-enrolled Jenner, whose student body of about 215 was majority Black and low-income.

Beyer and his allies argue that his removal is indicative of long-standing problems with how CPS disciplines principals, especially those who bring negative attention on district officials. They also say his case raises questions about the integrity and independence of the OIG. The full context of Beyer's legal situation is Dickensian in its procedural complexity and Kafkaesque in its logic—so much so that conspiracy theories abound about what's really going on. But its implications for the fate of the school are perhaps more important. Ogden, according to the accounts of parents, students, and community members, has experienced instability that threatens not only the fate of the merger but the future possibility of others like it.

CPS officials never explained why, having had the OIG's report since June, they'd only moved to fire Beyer in November. But this wasn't the first time he'd gotten in trouble with the district.

An outspoken and often polarizing leader, Beyer was issued a "warning resolution" in January 2016 over an e-mail he'd sent to state legislators that appeared critical of CPS ("Public education in Illinois, and especially in Chicago, seems chaotic and unplanned," Beyer had written to fellow members of a state task force on high-stakes testing) and a post on Facebook inviting Ogden parents to help clean up the school. Beyer was cited for insubordination to his supervisor and unbecoming conduct and given vague "directives for improvement," among them: follow all district rules, don't speak out publicly against the district or its leadership, and don't be insubordinate.

Beyer claims that in the two years following this warning resolution his district bosses routinely "threatened to have me removed for even the slightest alleged infractions that they perceived, creating a hostile work environment." (CPS didn't respond to the Reader's request for comment about this allegation.)

Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, Beyer and the late Jenner principal Rob Croston worked together on the complicated and at times contentious merger of their schools. It was April of 2018 when investigators from the OIG's office first contacted Beyer's staff with questions about attendance records.

News of the attendance fraud and Beyer's removal came as a shock to many in the Ogden community, especially since his contract had just been renewed by the local school council in August. Others, who'd been unhappy with his leadership style and had long accused him of dismissive and improper treatment, expressed joy at his departure. While there were plenty of people who either loved or hated Beyer, there appeared to be consensus that a midyear removal of a principal managing a school merger was disruptive and showed poor planning by CPS when they clearly could have made that decision as early as June.

In the information vacuum, speculation and conspiracy theories proliferated: maybe the mayor's office wanted to tank the success of the Ogden/Jenner merger by pressuring CPS to remove Beyer, thereby making it less likely that a rich and poor school would merge in the future? Maybe CPS wanted to clean house of any principals who raised red flags for any reason in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal uncovered by the Tribune in the summer of 2018? Maybe CPS CEO Janice Jackson was cracking down and following the OIG's recommendations to improve her chances of staying in her job under a new mayor? Maybe CPS was finally heeding complaints from parents who'd been unhappy with Beyer's leadership? Maybe this is just how slowly district bureaucracy works?

Whatever the reason, according to the OIG's annual report released in January the attendance record falsification investigation at Ogden was spurred by one of 24 such complaints the office logged in 2018. That year, the OIG only recommended discipline for two principals it investigated in conjunction with such allegations: Beyer and the former principal of Burke Elementary school in Washington Park. (Burke had been the source of negative news for CPS in the spring of 2018, with both the dirty school and special education scandals.)

When CPS wants to fire a principal under contract he or she has the right to have a formal termination hearing at which CPS has to present evidence and arguments to justify the dismissal. These evidentiary hearings are presided over by an arbitrator and follow state board of education rules. However, before the termination hearing, the district can suspend the principal without pay by holding a "pre-suspension" hearing overseen by a district staffer (rather than a neutral third party).

After he was removed from Ogden, Beyer's lawyers prepared for his pre-suspension hearing. CPS ignored their requests for a list of rules the hearing officer would be following to make her decision and denied them the unredacted OIG report, citing student confidentiality concerns. Beyer's lawyers immediately filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court claiming his due process rights had been violated. Because principals are government employees with a property right to their pay, and the U.S. Constitution says that the government can't deprive people of life, liberty, or property without due process, CPS has more legal hurdles to clear than a private-sector employer before firing someone. The judge issued an injunction staying any decisions by the CPS hearing officer from going into effect until she could review it for constitutional violations.

Pre-suspension hearings typically happen in one day. Chicago Principals and Administrators Association president Troy LaRaviere refers to them as "kangaroo courts," because, he said, the hearings almost always result in suspension without pay and principals don't usually get to examine the evidence against them or to mount a defense. (Indeed, according to CPS, of the ten contract principals who faced dismissal in the last five years, seven were suspended without pay, two resigned before a suspension decision was issued, and one was terminated without a pre-suspension hearing because they never requested a termination hearing.)

But after the Cook County judge got involved, CPS scheduled three dates for Beyer's pre-suspension hearing and allowed him to bring witnesses, including parents who'd unenrolled children for family travel to testify that he'd never instructed them to do so. On the first day of the hearing (November 15), CPS's hearing officer admitted that there were no written rules for the proceedings. Beyer's lawyers reported this to the circuit court judge. After the second day of the hearing (December 6)—at which Beyer presented more witnesses in his defense—the parties went back before the county judge. CPS finally agreed to provide Beyer's legal team with the unredacted OIG report and subsequently cancelled the third day of the pre-suspension hearing.

Meanwhile, preparations for Beyer's formal termination hearing were still ongoing (these hearings can take months to arrange and are planned at the same time as the district undertakes the suspension process). The arbitrator is selected from a CPS-approved list, but the principal has a right to participate in this selection if she wishes—provided she pays for half of the arbitrator's fees. For this and other reasons, LaRaviere said termination hearings are still far from fair. He added that another problem is that principals are so often suspended without pay that they rarely see cases through to the termination hearing—still employed by the district and therefore barred from getting another job, many resign in the face of months without pay. Many can't afford lawyers, or fees for the arbitrator. (Beyer has been able to fight the district in large part because his attorneys have taken his case pro bono—and because he's still getting paid.)

A few days before the new year, CPS publicly accused Beyer of improperly transmitting confidential employee and student information, including test scores and special education status, through a Google Drive folder that was shared with Ogden LSC members. In a letter to Ogden parents about the data breach, CPS's chief education officer LaTanya McDade wrote that "the settings Dr. Beyer enabled on the folder made the information available to anyone who was provided a link to the folder." She added that an unnamed "community member received a copy of the e-mail containing the link as part of a CPS response to a Freedom of Information Act request" and that this person subsequently posted the link on their website and may have shared it "via other electronic means." Beyer has since argued that the Google Drive folder contained some files which he shared with the LSC to help them decide whether to renew his contract last summer, and that it never contained employee or student information. Several members of the Ogden LSC have also submitted written statements to CPS confirming that he'd never shared sensitive information with them through the Google Drive.

Beyer's lawyers didn't hear from the district again until January 24, when CPS issued never-before-seen rules for the pre- suspension hearing process and announced they were reopening a pre-suspension hearing on both the attendance fraud and the new data breach charges. The hearing rules said, among other things, that neither CPS nor the employee facing suspension may force the other side to present evidence or witnesses and that CPS's ultimate suspension decision couldn't be appealed. Beyer's new pre­-suspension hearing was scheduled for January 31.

"After you tried a case and you're about to lose you can't go back and change the rules to try to win," said William J. Quinlan, a lead attorney at The Quinlan Law Firm, which is representing Beyer. He said the newfangled pre-suspension hearing rules appeared to preempt their defense maneuvering. "It shows the zeal with which they want to fire Michael."

On January 31 the CPS hearing officer didn't allow Beyer's lawyers to call any witnesses to defend him on either the record falsification or the data breach charges. A week later CPS decided to suspend Beyer without pay. If not for the Cook County judge's injunction on all of their pre-suspension hearing decisions, he would have been. The judge is expected to rule on whether the suspension can go into effect at the end of April. Planning for Beyer's termination hearing is still ongoing.

Since he got his hands on the unredacted OIG report, Beyer has been busy researching the cited unenrollment cases. In March, Beyer and I met at a north side Chipotle. The normally clean-shaven, suited-up principal came dressed down in athleisure, with a stubble beard and cotton wool protruding from his left ear due to a recent surgery. He brought a clear plastic file box stuffed with papers from which he pulled out a spreadsheet.

Beyer wouldn't show me the names of the children and families identified in the unredacted report, but he explained that of the 75 instances of improper unenrollment over the course of three school years, there were just 41 unique students. Many of them were siblings, so in total the report concerned just 33 families, all from the elementary school. Beyer obtained written statements from five of them, accounting for 11 of the improperly coded attendance cases. He said all of those families confirmed that they'd never been interviewed by the OIG's investigators, that temporarily unenrolling their students from Ogden was their own decision, and that Beyer didn't encourage them to do so.

On the second page of Beyer's spreadsheet was a detailed breakdown of the effect of the improperly coded attendance records on the school's overall attendance rate. Since the OIG couldn't determine what effect the alleged fraud had on Ogden's attendance rating, Beyer said he wanted to do the math himself to prove he and and his staff couldn't have been scheming to game the SQRP.

According to official CPS reports, in the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 school years when the 75 cited cases happened, Ogden Elementary's SQRP attendance rating was 95.4 percent, 95.2 percent, and 95.7 percent, respectively. (In its report the OIG indicated slightly lower overall attendance percentages based on "Dashboard"—CPS's raw data hub, while the district itself adjusts raw numbers to make sure schools aren't penalized for factors such as students' medical absences.)

To receive the highest rating for attendance, the SQRP requires an elementary school to have a minimum rate of 96 percent average daily attendance. The next rung down in the attendance rating is 95 percent. If all the Ogden students who had been unenrolled or marked as transferred had been marked as absent, the school's SQRP rating would have fallen by 0.23 percent, 0.13 percent, and 0.26 percent in each of the three school years, according to Beyer's calculations. This would not have brought Ogden's attendance rate below the 95 percent threshold in any of the three years. "So why would we cheat?" Beyer said.

He was indignant that the OIG didn't do the math to show the effect of the 75 cases on Ogden's attendance rating while accusing Beyer and his staff of willfully committing fraud to game the rating. "They have the data. Either one: they're lazy, two: they don't know what they're talking about, or three: they don't want to say that this didn't affect our rating."

CPS's inspector general Nicholas Schuler declined to answer questions about the investigation, citing pending litigation and disciplinary proceedings. "Our office has full confidence in its investigation and summary report," Schuler wrote in an e-mail.

A part of Beyer would have been happy to be officially fired long ago, he said with a grim laugh. But he said he can't bring himself to drop his battle against the district and give up hope that he might still return to Ogden. "I want to clear my name," he said. "And I do care about the merger."

Sandeep Soorya and his wife were "totally surprised" to read the redacted OIG report and see between the blacked-out lines that that their family's situation was referenced, especially since they were never contacted by investigators. His son and daughter go to Ogden. In December 2017, the family prepared for a long-anticipated trip to India to visit his wife's relatives and observe a religious holiday. Their kids, then in sixth and third grade, would have to miss two weeks of school.

Soorya reached out to Beyer "and asked him how we should handle this so we don't penalize our children and the school," he explained. He and his wife worried that if their son accrued too many absences he wouldn't be able to participate in extracurricular activities. "[Beyer] said 'Don't travel during the school year.' He told us that there's no way around it: 'You're gonna be penalized and the school is gonna be penalized.'"

But not going was not an option. It had taken Soorya, who's Pakistani, years to get a visa to India. This felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Soorya said they talked to other families at the school with similar circumstances—diplomats, immigrants, and business people who sometimes had to go abroad for long periods of time. "They told us they disenrolled their children during times of travel," he said. The Sooryas did the same.

Soorya's wife testified in Beyer's support at one of the December pre-suspension hearings. Even when they heard the news of the data breach later, it didn't shake their confidence in him. "It was like they were piling on another allegation to justify letting Principal Beyer go," Soorya said, adding that the school has taken a turn for the worse since his departure.

There've been reports of frequent fights at the middle school campus, which is in the old Jenner Elementary building. In mid-February, a staffer was arrested following a physical altercation with a 12-year-old student. Later that month acting principal Rebecca Bancroft e-mailed parents about changes to between-class hallway movement to "reduce unstructured student transition time." Soorya said his son and his friends reported feeling scared in school.

Things have calmed down somewhat and the Sooryas hope that their son can still finish middle school at Ogden, but they've decided to send their daughter, who'll be starting middle school next year, to a private school. "CPS lost touch with our community," he said. Though his family was supportive of the merger, the way this school year has unfolded has made him think that CPS couldn't be trusted to pull off such a complicated social operation. "You can't pull the leader of a school out and expect a merger to go through," he said.

The Sooryas, of course, don't speak for all 2,000 families at Ogden. "I think regardless of who's the leader that merger is going to be challenging and it'll take time to get things going smoothly," said Lloyd Hervey II, the parent of a second-grader and LSC member. Plenty of people are still satisfied with the school, others were unhappy with Beyer's leadership long before he was accused of any wrongdoing by CPS, and still others were and remain skeptical of the merger.

To Naajidaah Jones, the mother of a second-grader who'd previously gone to Jenner, Beyer's removal didn't exacerbate any concerns she didn't already have. She said she never felt at home at Ogden. "Beyer had a very standoffish demeanor," she said, and the curriculum and disciplinary expectations haven't taken the needs of Black kids into account. "There are no Black teachers, what does that say to Black students?"

Jones wasn't surprised to learn of tensions at the middle school. "Although we come from up the street from one another we're at two different ends of the spectrum," she said of the Ogden and Jenner communities. "It's a class thing, it's a culture thing, and a race thing too . . . A lot of young people are already hormonal and going though their own stuff so to have to integrate with these people they don't have any connection to—it's a culture shock."

Jones plans to enroll her son in a different school next year—an independent private school with an Afrocentric curriculum.

Whatever ultimately happens to Beyer's employment or the current parents' enrollment decisions, the merger is here to stay. And the questions these last few months have raised—about how CPS deals with problem principals, the reliability of the OIG, and how best to reconcile the competing needs of radically different CPS communities—will remain.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman issued a brief statement for this story, reiterating the OIG's findings and adding that "the district agrees with the OIG's independent assessment that Dr. Beyer failed to act with professional integrity and should be removed from his position. The removal of Dr. Beyer was necessary to promote a healthy school environment, and we are committed to providing students, parents, and staff with the support they need to ensure the merger of Jenner and Ogden continues to be a success."

LaRaviere, who was himself removed from his principalship at Blaine Elementary in 2016 after publicly criticizing the district and the mayor, said the CPAA is now collecting information about other principals who've faced possibly unlawful terminations and is considering a class action lawsuit. So far they've gathered details on about 40 principals "who have been fired, forced to resign, harassed—people who have said that they've left under duress," since 2011. Beyer's case may be a landmark because his legal team's maneuvering created an extensive paper trail of inconsistencies in the district's disciplinary procedures. But why should we care about how CPS principals are fired?

"Because," LaRaviere said, "stable leadership is a huge factor in whether or not these schools are going to be able to give those kids what they need to realize their God-given potential."   v

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Soorya had a Pakistani passport.