DePriest a battleground over longtime principal

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On Jan. 22, the local school council at DePriest Elementary School in Austin voted 5 to 4 not to renew the contract of Principal Ruth Lewis Knight, capping two years of disagreement over the school’s academic direction. Since then, a large section of the community has been up in arms, refusing to take “no” for an answer.

“It’s not about academics, it’s not about her being a good principal,” teacher Joyce Randall declared at a particularly raucous meeting. “We’re talking about a power play here, about who’s got the power and who’s going to run it.”

Initially, several council members who supported Knight were able to deny the LSC a quorum. Then, when the LSC was able to resume business, more than 100 community members and their children took up the protest, disrupting meetings with loud speeches, chants and heckling. One night, they forced the LSC to cancel a scheduled community forum for principal finalists. “It wouldn’t have been conducive or profitable for them to be jeered,” explains parent rep Miranda Shields.

Some community members also contend that teacher rep Diane Simpson controls the LSC. Randall, for one, says Simpson is “disgruntled” because Knight transferred her from the library to the classroom. “It’s a personal, private stab in the back,” she says, calling Simpson’s relationship with the other members a “conspiracy.”

Council chair Lauren Harkim dismisses the allegation. “She doesn’t control us; we have our own minds,” she counters. Simpson agrees, calling council members “very strong, opinionated women” who “have an interest in the students, just like I do.” She says returning to the classroom was her preference, and that her objections to Knight are based solely on her performance as principal. “If anyone would look at [that], and look at the school, and then talk to me, then we can have a real conversation,” she says.

Today, the controversy is at least temporarily in the hands of Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, who is mulling three candidates for the job. “I can’t figure out for the life of me why the local school council would want to get rid of [Knight],” he says, adding, “I’ve got a dozen schools that are salivating at the chance to hire her.”

Students transferred

A year ago, LSC parents charged it was Knight who was trying to get rid of them. Knight sought school transfers for more than 100 DePriest students who lived outside the school’s regular attendance area; they included the children of four parent members who had been at odds with her. Knight says the intent was to relieve overcrowding and that she had gotten an OK from the board’s Facilities Department.

Suspecting Knight was trying to get them off the council, the LSC parents sought the help of attorney Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project. Working through the summer, O’Hagin helped them successfully petition the board’s Law Department. She says the board ruled the transfers illegal because the school wasn’t officially overcrowded.

Another point of contention last spring was DePriest’s school improvement plan. Council members had long objected to what they considered Knight’s Christmas-tree approach to school improvement. “You just get program on top of program on top of program,” contends Miranda Shields. “There’s no direct tie-in with the basic curriculum.”

The council decided to take the matter into its own hands, cutting a math coordinator position from Knight’s proposed school improvement plan. The coordinator had been at the school for more than five years with no improvement in math scores, Shields says.

Knight counters that LSC members could have come to SIP planning meetings more consistently and made their wishes known earlier. She says they dragged their feet so she would be forced to work on the final version during spring vacation. “To take my vacation, I felt, was just another ploy,” she says. “‘This is our power, we can do this.'”

Knight says she’s proud of the many programs she’s introduced during her 13 years leading DePriest. They include increased staff development, test-taking workshops, a computer network, Socratic seminars and a science lab.

When the council majority gave Knight her walking papers, though, they gave her scant explanation, saying only that the council wanted “a change in leadership.” Knight says that falls short of a legal requirement that a council “provide in writing the reasons for the council’s not renewing the principal’s contract” at the principal’s request.

“There’s not any substance behind it,” says Knight. “That is a safe thing to say to keep from being sued.”

Many of her supporters agree. “When you all made the decision, you had a reason,” teacher Phyllis Smith angrily told council members at one meeting. “You could have sent her an airmail, special-delivery letter, and she would have gotten it.”

But O’Hagin says she counseled the members to keep the statement vague. “This is not a removal for cause,” she notes, adding, “You do not want to arm anyone with potential lawsuits here.”

Parent member Hattie Holmes gives another reason for the noncommittal statement: “We didn’t want to slander her name; to me, I was trying to be kind.” Fellow parent Casondra Pounds agrees, saying, “It’s nothing personal. Dr. Knight is a pleasant person to me.”

39 applicants

Despite the contentiousness, DePriest received 39 applications for principal.

In late February, the LSC enlisted the help of Hilton Clark, a consultant with the PENCUL collaborative. Clark visited eight times, moving quickly through topics like screening resumes and writing interview questions. By March 31, the council had chosen 11 semifinalists, interviewed them and narrowed the pool to four.

In Clark’s view, though, the process suffered from lack of communication. “There is no real dialogue between the community and the LSC,” he says. As community protests mounted, the council said less and less. Clark mainly faults the protesters. “If you want to hear people,” he says, “you’ve got to stop shouting.”

With only six council members attending meetings—one short of the total required to name a principal outright—the council compiled a list of three candidates to submit to Vallas. On April 13, as police controlled the crowd, it announced their last names only. According to the Office of School and Community Relations, they are, in order, Donna J. Newton-Holland of Ogden, Benita Goldman of Daley and Bernita Dinwiddie of Edwards. All are assistant principals.

Council members say their requirements were modest: at least three years’ administrative experience, at least three years’ elementary teaching experience, and an ability to communicate well with staff, parents and the community. Parent rep Holmes adds wryly that she preferred “somebody who doesn’t mind having toilet paper in the bathrooms.” Holmes and others say the building isn’t well maintained.

Leaders of reform groups support the LSC. O’Hagin, who began working with the council a year ago, says, “This body probably has more information on what has gone on in the school with this principal than anyone else around.” She adds, “I just feel they are thoughtful, well-intentioned, and they’re interested in having a good school.”

“They’re a cohesive group. … They’re trying to do a good job,” says Sheila Castillo, coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. And Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, says, “I can see no fathomable reason why this LSC has been put under such harassment.”

Hilton Clark is supportive, too. “They’re not a homogenous group that has demonstrated to me any kind of personal vendetta against the principal,” he says. “They truly believe that what they’re doing is good for the school, and they believe a new principal will do a better job of educating the kids.”

Pamela Price, a school and community relations facilitator, takes an opposing view, expressing particular sympathy for the angry children who attended LSC meetings. “They couldn’t figure out why [anyone] would mess with a school that’s not on probation, not on remediation, and the scores are going steadily up,” she says.

Price adds that she has never seen a principal selection as chaotic as DePriest’s. “It’s a soap opera, a saga,” she says. “I’m lost for words.”

James Deanes, director of School and Community Relations, says the LSC should throw in the towel. “Some of it seems to be they’ve dug a line in the sand and they don’t know how to get out of it,” he says. “They’re fighting for the sake of fighting.”

What happens next depends on Vallas, who strongly supports Knight. Under state law, Vallas could declare the school in “educational crisis” and install his choice for principal. He says he would do that only if the LSC’s actions damage student performance. Otherwise, he says, “I’d be intervening in a council a week.”

Vallas also could stall by holding the list for 30 days before sending it back. He says that if he intervenes at DePriest, he likely would take this course.

Once the council gets the list back, it has 15 days to make its own choice. While the law doesn’t specify how many votes that would take, board lawyers say seven would be needed. In that case, principal selection could simply grind to a halt until the new council steps in on July 1. Then, Vallas says, he would “let the new council take a crack at selecting a principal.”

But, he adds, “The only way I would reject all three picks is if they don’t have someone comparable to the outgoing principal.”

If Vallas does pick one of the three finalists, his choice likely would have a hard time, says Anthony Bolton, a new LSC member. “I think it would be difficult to get along with a new principal, the way this principal was let go.” All the recently elected council members support Knight.