97% of principals retained, none rated unsatisfactory

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Only six of 237 principals whose contracts expire this school year were not retained by their local school councils. In addition, one principal whose contract expires next November has been told his contract will not be renewed.

Janet Froetscher, executive director of the Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC), believes the high retention rate is due both to satisfaction with principals’ performance and to reluctance to change. FRAC, an arm of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, runs a principal assessment center and provides consultants to LSCs choosing new principals.

“The decision to change [an employee] is not an easy one,” she notes. “It’s one that managers have the most difficult time with.”

The school system’s six regional education officers (REOs) also have given current principals high marks. Last June, 252 received an “exceeds expectations” rating, and 158 received a “meets expectations.” None was rated “does not meet expectations.” Interim principals and those on the job fewer than five months are not evaluated.

Under a controversial 1996 amendment to the School Reform Act, LSCs may not renew the contract of a principal who receives an unsatisfactory rating. Currently, the School Board is pushing for an amendment that would allow it to overrule an LSC that decided to oust a principal with a satisfactory rating.

Each REO evaluates close to 100 principals on 24 criteria. Some are objective, such as students’ standardized test scores and attendance. Others are qualitative, such as interpersonal relations with parents and community. Froetscher doubts the evaluations were based on in-depth information. “There’s no way you can know how 100 people are performing,” she says.

LSCs complete the same evaluation form, but she believes “it’s not done with a lot of thought. I think they literally just went through the form and tried to fill it out, at best.”

What Froetscher advises: Principals and LSCs agree early on specific goals for the year, hammer out their respective responsibilities toward meeting those goals and then review them quarterly to determine if they are being met. An ongoing evaluation process would lay the groundwork for later decisions whether to retain a principal, she says. It probably would improve council-principal relationships, too, she thinks. “I think a lot of time principals can rightly say, ‘I didn’t know that’s what you wanted me to do.'”

For principal contracts expiring on June 30, councils had until Feb. 1 to vote on contract renewal. April 15 is the deadline for hiring a new principal.

FRAC has worked with five of the seven councils that declined to renew contracts. Representatives of those five spoke with Catalyst; the other two could not be reached for comment.

Jahn Elementary School

North Center

Jahn parents protested after the LSC indicated that they would not renew the contract of Principal Michael Polak, who has been at Jahn five years and previously worked as an assistant principal in another neighborhood school.

“Some people genuinely like him and have had good relationships with him,” says Marie Leaner, vice chair of Jahn’s council. “He’s friendly, he’s on the playground. One parent said unless he molested one of the children, there was no reason he shouldn’t be retained.”

Parents were particularly upset when the council wouldn’t reveal the reasons for the unsatisfactory evaluation, Leaner says. Legally, an LSC is obligated to keep that information confidential. “We can’t go into details. It really puts us in a jam.”

Referring to their earlier choice of Polak, Leaner says, “The person who we thought was the best person for the job turned out not to be. It was, in the opinion of the council, having a catastrophic impact on the school, so we decided to make a change.”

Leaner suspects that initially central office did not support the council’s decision.

At one LSC meeting, before a crowd of parents protesting the decision, James Deanes, director of school and community relations “got up and stood behind us and said ‘We just want you to know that this council is under investigation, and we’re going to be watching them very carefully from now on,’ Leaner recalls.

“This was the first we heard as a council that we were under investigation, and it was somewhat humiliating to be rebuked like that. It was just inappropriate, and we don’t think it’s defensible.”

Moreover, Deanes wouldn’t reveal the details of the investigation, she says.

Later the council heard that the eligibility of the two community representatives had been challenged: one for living outside the school’s attendance boundary and Leaner for working at a non-profit that allegedly received board funds. The board upheld the first challenge and dismissed the second. Allegations that the LSC had violated the Open Meetings Act also proved unfounded, Deanes says.

“Any time that we get complaints from parents that there are some improprieties we take a look,” he says. Parent complaints had prompted his visit that evening, he says, and he wanted to reassure them that their concerns were being addressed. He adds that he was obligated not to reveal the details of the investigation until it was complete.

According to Leaner, another higher-up from the administration pointedly told the council that they were the only school in the region not to renew a principal’s contract. “The implication was, Why were you rocking the boat? You could say that was subtle, [but] if we were not such a resolute council, a comment like that could dissuade [us].”

More recently, a representative from Deanes’s office, whom Leaner describes as “very instructive and supportive,” has attended council meetings to “insure that we are proceeding appropriately,” she says. Domingo Trujillo, REO for Region 2, has also observed meetings, she notes.

The LSC plans to hold brainstorming sessions for the community and then for teachers to identify school needs and leadership qualities for the next principal. “Then we’re going to the business community,” Leaner says. “There are a number of potential partners we want to have input in the selection process.” The council also plans to introduce their top three picks to the community at a public forum.

The LSC received 94 applications, Leaner reports. Of 11 candidates who were selected for the first round of interviews, two are principals whose contracts were not renewed at other schools in February. “They had skills in the areas we were looking for,” she says.

Kennedy High School

Garfield Ridge

After the Kennedy LSC voted not to retain Principal Arthur Mrumlinski, hundreds of Southwest Side residents signed petitions in protest, angry parents packed LSC meetings, and allegations were made that the council violated laws and guidelines governing principal selection, including the Open Meetings Act, according to reports in the Daily Southtown.

The board has launched an investigation into the LSC’s conduct and may go so far as to declare the school in “educational crisis,” the Southtown reported Mar. 18.

“That usually means that students aren’t learning and that grades are down or that there is a dangerous or unsafe situation, but I think it can also apply to a local school council that has gone crazy,” Vallas told the Southtown.

“At Kennedy, all indicators are that the principal has done a good job,” Vallas continued. “The school is safe. Students are learning.”

Declaring Kennedy in educational crisis would allow the board to order new school council elections, among other interventions.

Asked to describe the educational crisis at Kennedy, Mrumlinski says that some teachers who oppose him “have been talking with the students and riling them up.” Also, some of his employees with principal certification are applying for his job. “Teachers are in a turmoil not knowing who is going to be leading the school next. Some days around here the atmosphere is so thick you could cut it with a knife, and sometimes it subsides.”

LSC chair Claudia Cantebury says that the council has been cautious about discussing its decision with the community, for fear of violating confidentiality laws. “They’re upset because we won’t talk to them,” she notes.

But she will list some council concerns: The school library is locked for two periods each day, two gym classes lack a qualified teacher, and a bilingual classroom went without a teacher for some time, possibly months, she believes. In addition, Kennedy had no drama productions this year and no student-written school newspaper, she says. “I guess he just doesn’t think it’s important.”

Mrumlinski has decided to reapply for his job, and Vallas has publicly promised him a job in central office if the contract is not renewed. He previously served as an assistant principal at Lindblom High and is going on 34 years in the system.

The principal says his two biggest accomplishments in three years as principal are establishing internships for 25 students at Argonne National Laboratory, where they work with scientists, and an agreement with Cellular One to donate 82 wireless phones so that teachers can keep in closer contact with parents.

The LSC didn’t give him any specifics on why his contract wasn’t renewed, he says. “Seeking new leadership is the reason they gave me.” On his evaluation, the council have him a “meets expectations” rating, and his REO gave him an “exceeds expectations,” he adds.

Cantebury confirms the reason Mrumlinski cited for not renewing his contract. “We want new leadership. That tells it all. How much more blunt do you want to be?” As for the satisfactory rating, “You’d have to be a pretty dysfunctional school to get ‘does not meet’ on a lot of these things,” she says, referring to the board’s evaluation criteria.

In late March, the LSC is just beginning to sort through 37 resumes, all from Chicago Public Schools employees. “We have no ax to grind, we have no vendettas against anyone,” Cantebury stresses. “Do you think we have the time to screw around with this? We put in a lot of hours. This has almost ruined a few marriages. We’re doing this for the children.”

Hoyne Elementary School

Calumet Heights

Hoyne’s council declined to renew a contract for Principal Barbara Martin, now in her eighth year at the school. LSC Chair Yvette Horton says that her council agreed not to talk with the press.

Earlier, there had been some controversy within the council over not renewing the contract, according to project manager Susanne Schnell of the Commercial Club of Chicago. But she reports that the selection process is now running smoothly.

“The current principal is being reconsidered along with the other applicants,” she notes. “They’re planning to have a community forum [to] present the finalists before making a final decision. It’s a very professional process.”

Gray Elementary School

Portage Park

LSC Chair Larry Murphy says he can’t legally comment on the reasons for not renewing Stuart Gold’s contract. But he will say what the LSC is looking for next: “We’d like somebody who’s an outstanding communicator. Somebody who has a vision that will take us beyond a year or two.” The council also is requiring administrative experience at a large school.

Gold says the “official reason” the council declined to renew his contract is that “they want a new vision and spirit. How do you like that? I’ve been here 13 years.”

He feels the LSC rarely acknowledged his accomplishments. For one, “I’m one of four schools that have an enrollment over 1,000 that have their students scoring at norms in both reading and math. My scores are at a nine-year high, and they’re not renewing my contract.”

Gold says Paul Vallas and Reform Board Chair Gery Chico both have promised him a job at the board. “They both said that I’m a good principal. But that doesn’t undo the damage to my reputation.”

“I’m glad that Vallas is lobbying for a change in the law,” he says, referring to the board’s effort to require LSCs to renew the contracts of principals with satisfactory ratings from their REO. Gold says he received an “exceeds expectations” rating.

Chappell Elementary School

Lincoln Square

“There were varying reasons,” for not renewing Principal Margaret Niedermaier’s contract, according to LSC Chair Brian Cash. Some members want someone who speaks Spanish, and others want to make sure the school has the best possible person for the job, he says. “In other words, they weren’t eliminating her; they just weren’t offering her a contract.”

“Overall, I’m fairly satisfied with the education my kids are getting,” Cash adds. “The most important job a local school council can do is select a principal, and I felt it was my duty to see that we got the best available administrator for them.”

Niedermaier says she was shocked when the council announced that her contract would not be renewed. She has served at Chappell for 25 years, 6 as principal and 19 as assistant principal.

“An unsatisfactory teacher gets a chance to be remediated,” she points out. “They never gave me the courtesy of letting me know what was wrong.”

She says the only reason they cited for non-renewal was: “They wanted to see what was out there.”

Niedermaier notes that the school’s rising math and reading scores have earned it recognition from both the School Board and Designs for Change, a local school reform group. This LSC’s predecessors gave her an “exceeds expectations” evaluation, as had her REO, she says.

An “underlying influence” for the council’s decision, she believes: “My assistant principal was working to get my job. I had full trust in him. I would never suspect that anyone would be treacherous.”

The Chappell LSC has received 30 resumes, according to Cash. To set criteria for the final selection, the council brought in an additional six teachers. “We felt that this would give us more balance in the decision-making process, and it would give the people whose jobs it would affect a voice.”

The council plans to select a candidate with both administrative and classroom experience, who would work well with the community, and “who felt that the fine arts were part of a well-rounded education, and not just the three Rs.”

Cash says the council has had some frustrating interactions with the board during the selection process. For one, a Spanish interpreter from the board interjected her own opinions during an LSC meeting, he says, on “what was proper procedure, what wasn’t. She was disruptive. At one point, I had to ask her if she was a lawyer.”

“When we first voted not to renew the contract we did seem to draw a lot of board attention for two meetings,” he notes. “We felt we were being scrutinized. My perception was that we were rocking the boat, and they didn’t like it.”