Board insider challenged new president of principals group

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Clarice Berry

Photo by E.J. Rublev

Clarice Berry

What was considered an easy re-election for Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, is now up for grabs with the entry of a well-connected opponent.

Linda Pierzchalski, Area 19 instructional officer and former principal of Bogan High School, threw her hat into the ring in January, vowing to pick up where long-time CPAA president Beverly Tunney, who died last year, left off.

The election, to be held by mail-in ballot during the first two weeks of May, offers the organization’s roughly 1,400 voting members a choice between leaders with very different styles. They can opt for someone who believes working and speaking publicly, as Berry has in recent months, or for someone who is likely to continue Tunney’s practice of working behind the scenes in cooperation with the Board of Education, as Pierzchalski prefers.

President will have to juggle roles

“This is going to be a pretty close race,” says Peter Martinez, director of the Center for School Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Until now, the principals association has provided “a nice balance” between serving as an outspoken advocate on job issues, a role typically assumed by labor unions, and serving as a professional development resource to its members, he notes.

Whoever gets elected will have to address both roles

“You’ve got all kinds of administrative demands being put on principals,” Martinez notes. “At the same, time you have a large number of schools on probation, an area where [the principals association] ought to be working closely with the board.”

Compared to the teachers union, the principals association, founded in 1886, is relatively weak. The association is not a recognized collective bargaining unit. Principals cannot strike and lost their right to tenure in 1989. Central office administrators—60 percent of whom belong to the principals association, Berry estimates—largely serve at the will of the board.

However, the association negotiates with the board for annual salary raises and benefits increases. It also provides a number of services to members, including legal counseling, an annual conference and professional development programs for new and experienced principals.

Tunney, who headed the organization from 1993 to 2003, is widely credited for expanding its professional development offerings. Two showcase programs are LAUNCH (Leadership Academy and Urban Network for Chicago), which trains aspiring principals, and LIFT (Leadership Initiative for Transformation), a training and support program for principals during their first year on the job.

Tunney is also credited with having persuaded the board to raise principals’ salaries substantially over the years. While she was at the helm, top principal earnings grew from $80,000 to $120,000.

“I started at $50,000 in 1990 and left last year at more than $100,000,” says one retired CPS principal.

Perhaps most significant, Tunney had the ear of former Schools CEO Paul Vallas, whom many say relied on her for advice on education issues and strategy. Vallas spoke at Tunney’s memorial service.

The relationship appears to have paid off. During the Vallas years, most principals felt they were able to run their schools without central office interference, educators say. In several cases, principals whose contracts were not renewed by their local school councils landed jobs at the central office. Vallas sided with principals in a 1999 battle with local school councils over principal hiring.

“Bev’s approach was that you have to be at the table to get more for your members,” says Karen Carlson, a longtime CPS principal and Tunney supporter who recently left CPS to become assistant superintendent for Waukegan schools.

‘First minority president’

Still, critics of Tunney’s administration contend that she did not fight hard enough to counter harsh accountability programs, which placed dozens of schools—including Berry’s—on probation, remediation or reconstitution.

Driven by concerns that Tunney had gotten too close to the board, Berry decided to run for president in 1998. She lost that race and a subsequent one in 2001.

Last year, however, Berry won a razor-close runoff election against two Tunney loyalists to finish out Tunney’s unexpired term. “She won by eight votes,” remembers David Peterson, who served as assistant to the president under Tunney.

While campaigning, Berry played up her years of experience as an elementary school principal and the diversity of her slate. “I am the first minority president of the association,” Berry says. In the wake of campaign rhetoric, some feared that Berry would immediately begin battling the board and undo many of Tunney’s initiatives. Such fears have proven unwarranted, as Berry retained some Tunney staffers and kept professional development programs intact.

Berry has, however, publicly taken on the board and the Chicago Teachers Union. For instance, she criticized the board for blaming principals for rodent problems in schools. She also blasted a CTU initiative to rate principal performance and post the results on the Internet. Berry demanded that the union not release the survey results.

In the future, Berry says, “We want to weigh in on every single policy.”

Other Berry accomplishments have not been widely publicized. This winter, she won 4 percent raises across the board for principals, assistant principals and central office administrators. Board officials credit her with ensuring that the revised CPS principal selection criteria do not require 600 existing candidates, most of them assistant principals, to start from scratch. (See Catalyst, April 2004.)

“I know I was perceived prior to my election as a bomb-thrower,” Berry admits. “But I’ve proved that impression wrong during the past eight months. I’m aggressive as president, but I know I’m not helping members if I am constantly creating schisms.”

A Tunney loyalist

Supporters of Berry’s opponent nonetheless believe that Pierzchalski can do the job better.

Pierzchalski has a broader range of experience in the school system, they say, having held posts as a principal and an administrator. She also has experience with racial politics, having persuaded a racially divided local school council at Bogan to renew her contract shortly after arriving at the school. Supporters say Pierzchalski’s smooth transition from principal to region officer to area instructional officer in three years proves she’s on the inside track with top board officials.

Like Tunney, Pierzchalski believes that working behind the scenes is the most effective way to operate. “Bev did an outstanding job,” she says. Rather than generating headlines, like Berry did over the CTU principal survey, Pierzchalski’s approach would be, “Let’s sit down and work it out. That’s the way to go.”

Style differences aside, Pierzchalski’s main goals are increasing membership and regaining central office jobs lost to budget cuts over the past 18 months.

Overall membership in the principals association is at a historic high, just over 2,100, according to officials. Yet only 60 percent of central administrators belong. (“Why would I pay $600 for nothing?” asked one Clark Street administrator.)

Pierzschalski supporters note that Berry was not able to soften the impact of the new probation policy, which could mean half of CPS principals would work at the will of the board rather than under four-year contracts.

“Under Beverly, somebody was always at the table,” says Peterson. “I don’t know if that’s happening as much today.”

“The new [probation] policy is troubling to us,” Berry responds. “We didn’t have a chance to weigh in and, in fact, got only two hours notice.”

Given last year’s close runoff, observers say it would be difficult to predict a winner.

“I have a sense that it’s a little soon for people to evaluate Berry,” says Brenda Bell of Leadership for Quality Education. “I was told that she played unfair and played the race card. I found none of that to be true.”

Berry has the advantages of incumbency, a respectable track record during her first eight months, and her alliance with elementary school principals, who comprise the majority of the group’s membership.

By contrast, this is Pierzchalski’s first run for the group’s top office, and she got a late start, beginning to spread the word of her candidacy in March. However, many members view a vote for Pierzchalski, perceived to be a powerful insider, as a vote for Tunney. Pierzchalski ticks off a list of education leaders—Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins, Professional Development Officer Al Bertani, Chief Instruction Officer Domingo Trujillo, even CTU President Deborah Lynch—as those with whom she has a successful working relationship.

Late-breaking events could influence the election’s outcome. Results of the CTU principal survey could give Berry the chance to position herself as a vocal champion of principal interests. Another round of central office job cuts—CPS announced 200 will be eliminated by next year—could give Pierzchalski a chance to speak out about regaining jobs.

Perhaps most significant is the new probation policy, which will impact principal hiring decisions across the system. Berry strongly opposes the policy, which would mean less job security for principals. Pierzchalski has taken a moderate stance, contending that, in some cases, area instructional officers are in a better position than LSCs to make decisions about principal hiring.

The final tally may ultimately be a case of who or what is most familiar to members, Peterson says. “It’s only been eight months, and in some cases, people choose the devil you know.”

To contact Alexander Russo, call (312) 673-3837 or send an e-mail to russo@catalyst-chicago.org.