Board sets time limits on principal selection

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Warning to local school councils: Don’t drag your feet when it’s time to select a new principal. If you tarry, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas will decide for you.

A rule the School Board adopted in July provides that if a local school council (LSC) does not select a new principal within 90 days of a vacancy, an interim principal can be appointed “to serve up to one year at the pleasure of the general superintendent.”

While the Chicago School Reform Act gives councils 90 days to submit three names to the superintendent if it cannot agree on a candidate, it is silent on what happens if the council does not act at all within 90 days.

“In those instances—and there aren’t many—we have to ensure that someone is in charge of the school until the council gets its act together,” says Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney. “This is not a way to usurp the power of the LSC.”

That’s not what LSC advocates think.

The Rev. Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, says the law is “explicit” in giving LSCs alone the authority to name principals except in limited situations, including when a school is declared in educational crisis, put on probation or reconstituted or when a council deadlocks and submits three names to the general superintendent.

“We agree that a school needs to have a principal. We just have a problem with who does the picking,” says O’Hagin.

The issue was set for a court test in a lawsuit involving Clemente High School. In February 1997, Vallas appointed Irene DaMota as interim principal as controversy swirled about the use of state Chapter 1 funds at the school. Council members ratified the appointment but later voted to hire Betzaida Figueroa as the permanent principal. Vallas had removed Figueroa as principal of Kelvyn Park High, which, like Clemente, was on probation.

Maintaining that Figueroa’s appointment was invalid because it wasn’t made within 90 days of a vacancy, the board went to court. In a preliminary ruling, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Ellis E. Reid permitted DaMota to remain temporarily at the school. However, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, he warned: “I have a problem with the central board putting someone in for an indeterminate time, until they come out of whatever position they are put in by the board.”

Subsequently, a new council took office, and it voted to retain DaMota as interim principal. The board then dropped its suit.

“The 90-day rule is still unsolved, and that’s a real problem,” O’Hagin says.”But it’s an issue for other schools, so we’ll see what happens.”

For example, the board’s Law Department informed the LSC chair at Trumbull Elementary that the council’s choice for principal would not be approved and that it was “without the legal authority to directly select a contract principal” because it didn’t make the 90-day deadline.

Since April, the Reform Board has appointed 14 interim principals without LSC approval.

Meanwhile, another Circuit Court judge ruled against the board in a lawsuit involving the principal’s job at Gale Community Academy, which also had been embroiled in controversy. In April 1997, the Gale LSC voted 7 to 2 to hire Beverly Martin, but the School Board rejected the decision on the ground that notice of the meeting had not been posted according to the Open Meetings Act. (See Catalyst, September 1997.)

The LSC sued, and Judge Albert Green ruled in its favor. “I found that the meeting was properly posted and that she had been given a valid contract,” he told Catalyst.

The lawsuit raised another issue— whether it takes 6 or 7 votes (out of 10) for an LSC to select a principal in the event it submits three names to the general superintendent and the superintendent refuses to select any of them. However, that issue became moot when Green ruled that the first vote by the Gale LSC was valid.

The Board has said it will appeal Green’s ruling.