Disputes could bring down principal, council members

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At Revere and Avalon Park elementary schools, local school council members have accused their principals of a host of wrongs: failing to provide information about school internal accounts, changing school improvement plans without LSC approval, failing to implement programs, intimidating teachers and “buying” contract votes by offering jobs to relatives of LSC members.

In the end, though, it was Revere’s lack of academic progress that was likely to lead to some type of disciplinary action against long-time Principal Dean Gustafson. In a Jan. 15 interview, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said that Gustafson and at least one Revere LSC member could be removed, and that the school would likely be one of up to 40 placed on remediation. Revere is one of 132 on the state’s academic watch list, meaning that more than half the students have scored below state expectations on IGAP achievement tests for the past three years.

At Avalon Park, the entire council could be disbanded and declared “dysfunctional,” Vallas said; the LSC had been told it must fill three vacancies and complete a number of other tasks during a 30-day mediation period.

Both schools recently underwent investigations under the School Reform Board’s educational crisis policy. A similar investigation is underway at Disney Magnet Elementary in Lake View, one of the city’s most highly regarded schools.

The conflicts at the three schools are nothing new. At Revere, the problems escalated when the principal turned in a school improvement plan and budget without LSC approval, an act that is “definitely illegal,” notes Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, which has been working with the LSC.

In a letter to Chief Education Officer Lynn St. James, Woestehoff wrote that the SIP did not include any improvements then being considered by the LSC, and that Gustafson seemed “almost entirely disengaged” at school meetings about the SIP.

LSC members also say that Gustafson has refused to arrange for substitute teachers, using parents instead to cover classrooms of absent teachers. And member Syl Hendricks reports being arrested for trespassing after Gustafson reportedly called police and told them that “a stranger” was on the premises.

When the Office of Accountability submitted its initial findings, LSC members were dismayed that the report pretty much exonerated Gustafson; the members accused board administrators—many of whom are ex-principals—of a whitewash.

Joseph Hahn, who spearheaded the investigation at Revere, counters, “Whoever the decision goes against is going to say the other side got a pass.” The board won’t hesitate to fire a principal if it’s warranted, he adds, pointing to Prosser Vocational High, where the principal and two other administrators were removed late last year. As for Hendricks’ arrest, Hahn says it arose out of a dispute over the use of a parent room and the distribution of literature at the school without the principal’s permission.

As for the SIP, Hahn adds, “it was a major problem on the principal’s part” that the school had no valid plan, and Gustafson was told to develop one with the LSC’s input.

Still, says LSC Chair Johnny Holmes, the conflict wouldn’t have escalated “if the test scores would go up, there wouldn’t be a problem.” But during Gustafson’s 12 years at Revere, they hadn’t.

Gustafson could not be reached for comment.

‘Hardened positions’

Avalon Park LSC members also were dismayed when investigators blamed them for the lion’s share of problems and called for disbanding the LSC if it could not fill vacancies, approve the school improvement plan and budget and complete a number of other specific tasks within 30 days.

The conflict with Principal Earl Williams began when Williams refused to include goals for Iowa and IGAP test scores in the school improvement plan, LSC member Bert Murrell says. The LSC wouldn’t approve the plan, and problems worsened when Williams began boycotting or walking out of LSC meetings, Murrell adds.

He acknowledges that the LSC hasn’t been able to fill three vacancies—”council members are falling faster than we can get them.” Still, he adds, “Our main problem is that since he’s been principal, our scores went down. If the scores were improving, it would be a lot less of an issue.”

Murrell says he had voted to hire Williams because he had told the council, “If I don’t raise scores in four years, vote me out.”

Some LSC members don’t want to work with Williams, says Woestehoff, but the principal isn’t blameless either. At one meeting, she recalls, his behavior was “appalling. He spent the entire meeting attacking the LSC. He refused to discuss specific issues. No one could get a word in edgewise.” Now, she observes, there are “hardened positions” on both sides.

Declining to be interviewed, Williams said: “I hope our problems can be solved.” He added that he and the LSC had agreed not to talk to the press.

Williams, who was voted out as principal of Austin High in 1989, is “a very resourceful person” who has progressive educational ideas and could be a good principal, says a former Austin teacher who asked that her name not be used.

But, she adds, “I personally felt that he was the kind of principal who would say ‘I’ll get you if you don’t do what I say.'”

“He’s from the old guard, where ‘my school is mine,'” she continues. “Yet there’s a large movement that says schools don’t belong to one person anymore, they belong to a whole community, including teachers, parents and students.”

‘Fired’ principal hangs on

At Disney, long-standing complaints against Principal Raphael Guajardo aren’t likely to force the removal of either him or the LSC because the school is performing well academically and the council seems “pretty responsible,” Vallas told Catalyst.

That outcome is just what critics say they fear. “I’m wondering if this new [accountability] office is really accountable, but rather a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, sweep-things-under-the-rug kind of thing,” asks Disney parent Katie Simmons.

Simmons and other critics charge that Guajardo has called the police to have them forcibly removed them from the building and LSC meetings. They also say that he harasses staff, has made racially insensitive remarks, refuses to let them distribute literature for parents at the school, and fails to spend school funds in a timely manner.

In 1993, the former LSC voted 9-0 to dismiss Guajardo, and the former School Board subsequently issued a warning resolution against him; the charges are private because they are considered a personnel matter, but they reportedly include teacher harassment and failure to implement the school improvement plan. Under that resolution, Guajardo was to be fired if he continued committing the infractions. (See Catalyst, April 1994.)

Critics say the complaints are still valid, and one veteran teacher says staff morale is at an all-time low because the faculty is split over the conflict. “He’s come up to me and harangued me in front of my kids just for no reason,” says the teacher, who asked that his name not be used. After having taught at five schools, the teacher adds, “He’s the worst principal I’ve ever been under.”

Parents have taken their children out of the school solely because of Guajardo. “I just got tired of it,” says Chris Popielewski, who removed both her children. She says another dozen parents “that I know of personally” have done the same.

A former member of the school’s PTA, Popielewski says Guajardo forbade the organization to conduct fundraisers because they would not turn funds over to him to pay for busing about 50 students who live too close to the school to qualify for busing at the board’s expense. The organization regularly raised around $40,000 to $50,000 each year, Popielewski says.

‘Get a life’

Some of the complaints might not seem serious, says LSC member John Aguiña, but they violate board policies and shouldn’t be overlooked. “All these things build up, and what you get is staff morale going down and parents and teachers getting disgusted.”

Just that week, Aguiña says, Guajardo seized copies of a flyer for parents that he and others were passing out to children on buses. “If we can’t do it in school or on the buses, how can we get the word out?” There was “nothing negative” in the flyer, he adds.

Guajardo also could not be reached for comment. But LSC Chair Tariq Hafeez asserts that a small, vocal group of critics “somehow make it a personal cause” to try and get Guajardo fired and, in the process, are hurting the school. “For God’s sake, get a life,” Hafeez adds.

Guajardo “is not the best principal,” he acknowledges, but his shortcomings are in managing people, “nothing curriculum or education-related. Even those teachers who don’t like him respect him educationally.” When the council renewed his contract, Hafeez points out, it added a requirement that Guajardo take a course in management to help improve school relations.

Hafeez also defends a controversial decision by the LSC to discontinue the communication arts program. He maintains that Disney—which has an enrollment of about 1,800 and uses team-teaching—needed the eight teachers for regular classes and couldn’t afford them otherwise. The LSC includes several highly-educated members, Hafeez adds, and “you wouldn’t think they would think of goofy things to do with the school.”

“Let him do his thing until he does something illegal he should be removed for,” he maintains. “Otherwise, respect the will of the majority, and try to work with it. If you’re not satisfied at the end [of his contract], then you get another crack at it. That’s what democracy is all about.”