First principal appeals dismissal under new law

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The first test of a controversial state law granting recourse to Chicago principals ousted at the end of their four-year contracts is now underway. Principal Elizabeth Elizondo of Finkl Elementary in Little Village requested a hearing after her local school council declined on Oct. 29 to renew her contract.

Elizondo, principal at Finkl since 1995, notes that in her recent evaluation, she received a “meets expectations” ratings from the council and from the regional education officer. Although the school is on probation, “our scores and our attendance have consistently gone up,” she adds.

“Principal evaluations are not the sole criterion by which any council should determine to renew a contract,” responds Dion Miller Perez, a parent representative on the council. He declined to explain the council’s decision, citing the confidentiality required by law in personnel matters.

If the American Arbitration Association overrules the council, the arbitrator may renew Elizondo’s contract for up to two years.

Based on evidence presented at the hearing, the arbitrator must rule on whether the council’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

However, those who helped craft the law, and the association charged with carrying it out, appear to disagree on what that phrase means.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) said it meant there should be no unreasonable reason for a council’s decision. Bill sponsor Sen. Arthur L. Berman (D-Chicago) confirmed that interpretation.

The phrase is defined that way by “a whole slew of labor law,” concurs Zarina Suarez O’Hagin of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc.

“It is generally a difficult standard to meet [and] not one that gives a great deal of discretion to the party making the decision.”

Unlike the courts, however, arbitrators don’t consider legal precedent, says Richard Reilly of the American Arbitration Association. Since the law fails to define “arbitrary and capricious,” he says, “Then they’ve left it to the individual arbitrator to define it, [just as] beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

The law, passed last May as Senate Bill 652, took a middle ground between what schools chief Paul Vallas proposed and the objections of local school council advocates.

Vallas wanted to give the School Board power to overturn an LSC’s decision on principal retention. LSC advocates argued that such authority would allow the School Board to usurp the fundamental power of elected councils choosing their schools’ leaders. In the end, the Legislature allowed for appeals of non-renewals but gave jurisdiction to the American Arbitration Association.

Under the law, arbitrators must rule on a case within sixth months of a contract non-renewal.

In the meantime, the council may search for a new principal and even offer a contract, pending the arbitrator’s decision. The School Board must pay for the arbitration.

The Local School Council Summit, a coalition of school reform groups, is lobbying for amendments to the bill. The coalition includes the Lawyers Committee, Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, Designs for Change, Teachers Task Force, Participation Associates and Parents United for Responsible Education.

For example, the Summit would like arbitrators to consider not only a principal’s past performance, but also a council’s future goals for the school, according to O’Hagin. This, she says, “is a right any company has. A company can be going along OK, and the board of directors may decide ‘We have a new vision, and the leader of this institution is not taking us where we want to go.'”

Overall, she finds the law “a not unsatisfactory compromise.”

Whether the Summit renews its fight to overturn the legislation altogether “may depend on what happens with this first [case].”