Chicago principals in line for unique protection

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Chicago principals would gain a unique employment privilege compared with their counterparts throughout the state and most of the country under a bill that passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly by wide margins at the end of the legislative session.

Under Senate Bill 652, Chicago principals could appeal a local school council’s decision not to renew their four-year contract. The appeals would be heard by a hearing officer appointed by the American Arbitration Association, and the School Board would pay all of the council’s “reasonable costs,” including lawyers’ fees

In the rest of the state, principals have no right to appeal a local school board’s decision not to renew their contract, according to Brian Schwartz, legislative director of the Illinois Principals Association. The state association has not even considered lobbying for legislation that would grant such rights to its non-Chicago members, says Schwartz.

According to an analysis of state laws by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, most states offer no appeal to contract principals who are dismissed, though a few offer tenure. Among school employees, “principals generally have the least statutory protection with regard to employment protection and procedural due process in the course of attempts to terminate or reclassify them,” the association’s 1993 analysis finds.

Principals signed to single-year contracts outside of Chicago do retain their tenure rights as teachers, meaning that they get priority in applying for teaching jobs in their districts. However, principals signed to multi-year contracts forfeit even those rights, in both Chicago and downstate.

One of the study’s authors says that Chicago principals may deserve special protection because they serve two bosses: an LSC and central office. “If the community wants to go to the left and the central office is headed in the opposite direction, you could have the best administrator in the world, and they’re going to fail under those circumstances,” says Max Pierson, a professor at Western Illinois University.

Meanwhile, an official at the American Arbitration Association says the bill would open up “a new area.” The association’s only similar experience has been in cases where school boards have attempted to remove principals for cause in the middle of a contract, says Richard Reilly, the association’s senior vice president for labor-management issues.

Those cases have not been easy for school boards to win. “You have a day or two of presentation, where the [principal] is saying, if you terminate me, you are also giving me suicide for my career,” says Reilly. “So they’d better have their ducks in order.”

To succeed in such cases, school boards have to present carefully compiled documentation. “If there’s a problem that school boards have, it’s due process, documentation, giving notice,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things that arbitrators look for. … The [personnel] file should speak for itself.

“The principal shows up to the hearing in his first communion suit,” Reilly quips. “From the arbitrator’s point of view, you get a snapshot of one day. … The principal can say, ‘OK, if you bring in five people who say I’m no good, I’ll bring in five to say I’m the best.’ If they worked this hard being principal as they do defending their job, they wouldn’t be having a hearing.

“That’s the problem for the neutral [party],” Reilly notes. “This person sounds great, but I hear from the other side, this person’s a blob. … Why didn’t you put him on notice two years ago?”

LSCs would have a difficult time making a case that they simply wanted to look for new leadership, Reilly says. Such councils would be “sitting on a time bomb,” he says. “What any smart attorney is going to do [if you terminate me] is say, the reason you’re getting rid of me is, I’m over 40, I’m Irish, I’m a veteran, I’m a runner … and you’ll have to refute that.”

Councils should be prepared for a principal’s advocate to use side issues as “a smokescreen,” says Reilly. For instance, a principal may argue that “he cut this person’s child from the baseball team five years ago, and now this person wants revenge. You don’t wanna focus on that; you wanna focus on the true issue: Is the person a good principal? The problem is, the person who tends to lead the charge tends to be the person whose kid got cut from the baseball team.”

The involvement of Reilly’s group was key to a compromise crafted by Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), the bill’s sponsor in the House.

As initially proposed by Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas and the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the bill would have given the Chicago School Board the power to overturn any council’s decision not to retain a principal who had received satisfactory evaluations from central office.

LSC advocates, including Designs for Change and Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), denounced the proposal as a “power grab” and mobilized LSC members to register their opposition.

Under Currie’s compromise, the board has no role in a principal’s appeal of an LSC decision. “What is different in this legislation from the original is the balance of power between Vallas and the LSCs remains untouched,” Currie said on the House floor.

Even so, Vallas signed off on the bill compromise, as did the Chicago principals association.

LSC groups opposed the bill outright, even in its final form, but quickly claimed victory when it became apparent it would be adopted. “LSCs’ and school reformers’ hard work paid off!” trumpeted a May 20 flyer from PURE.

Other provisions of the bill include:

Felons banned: People convicted of certain crimes—including sex crimes against children—will be barred from serving on councils.

LSC appeal: An LSC decision to keep a principal who received an unsatisfactory rating from central office could be appealed to an independent arbitrator. Existing law already forbids LSCs from retaining principals rated unsatisfactory by central office.

Fiscal oversight: The board will be able to appoint a fiscal management team to take over the budget process at some schools, after a probationary period.

Probation: The bill revises the criteria for putting schools on probation and remediation, adding attendance rates, truancy rates, dropout rates and graduation rates.