Showdown at Curie High School

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The April 2007 meeting of the Curie High School local school council began, as always, with Secretary Norma Valle taking attendance. It didn’t take long. Only six members were present—parents and community representatives, all of them Hispanic. No teachers, no students, no whites, no African-Americans, no principal.

But the lack of a quorum and the absence of Principal Jerryelyn Jones wasn’t much of a surprise. Calling the meeting and highlighting Jones’ absence was the whole point.

Begun more than a year earlier, the conflict between Jones and the Curie LSC ultimately would be viewed as proof that local school councils needed an overhaul.

The battle resulted in the dismissal of Jones as well as the Hispanic LSC chair, Tom Ramos, an unprecedented intervention into local school politics by Mayor Richard M. Daley, and legislative efforts to limit LSC powers.

Daley was fresh off another election victory. He had never been a strong supporter of the councils, which limit greatly the influence the Board of Education—and, therefore, the mayor—has over individual principals.

LSC opponents saw the Curie flap and the mayor’s intervention as the “perfect opportunity to get rid of LSCs,” says one longtime CPS employee who did not want to be named.

Despite a concerted effort in Springfield to use the power struggle at Curie as a reason to strip LSCs of their power to hire and fire the principal, LSC opponents did not succeed.

“There’s still some muscle in the school reform community,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, one of the groups that led the charge to protect the LSC law. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

An LSC’s power to dismiss principals was last challenged – and rebuffed – in 1999, when state legislators, including Barack Obama, turned back an effort by former Schools CEO Paul Vallas to wrest some control over principal hiring and reaffirmed the authority of councils to dismiss principals unless the decision could be shown to be “arbitrary and capricious.”

Current CEO Arne Duncan has been much less openly antagonistic toward individual councils than Vallas, but no more supportive. Many of the 100 new schools being created under Renaissance 2010 don’t – and won’t – have elected councils with the authority to hire principals.

The Curie story

Jones, a 25-year veteran at Curie, was in her seventh year as principal when the new LSC was elected at the end of the 2005-2006 school year.

The first public evidence of a rift between Jones and Ramos came at a School Board meeting in 2006, when Ramos complained that Jones had denied him funding for a trip to a conference in Washington D.C.

Behind the scenes, things were much worse. Jones had filed ethics charges against Ramos for allegedly soliciting a bribe from a vendor, and another complaint questioned Ramos’ eligibility to even be on the LSC.

Eventually, things got so bad that the LSC made the decision not to renew Jones’ contract. It was unusual, but not unheard of, for an LSC to choose not to renew the contract of a sitting principal who has been doing reasonably well.

Shortly after Jones’ dismissal was announced, however, Mayor Daley got involved, calling Jones a “superstar” and suggesting that the LSC should reconsider a decision that could have a widespread impact.

“This is a great injustice,” said the mayor, who does not generally weigh in on LSC decisions. “If we allow this to take place all over the city you will get rid of good principals.”

The mayor’s endorsement of Jones – and the suggestion that what was going on at Curie was a citywide problem – led to widespread condemnation of the Curie LSC.

“That’s when everything got really messed up,” says LSC member Jose Gutierrez, who voted against Jones.

Was it racism?

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote that “the problem with local school councils is that anyone can run for one.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn said the rules letting LSCs dismiss principals sounded like “a road map for the pursuit of personal vendettas and an invitation for petty tyrants to flex their muscles,” and called the situation at Curie a “mandate” for a change in the law.

The conflict at Curie pitted Jones, a generally well-respected African-American career educator, against Ramos, who was leading a newly-elected school council that was, for the first time, predominantly Hispanic.

Ramos and his supporters repeatedly denied that race had anything to do with their decision, which they said couldn’t be explained publicly due to privacy issues.

“I get along with anybody,” says Gutierrez. “It’s not about race.”

Still, all the votes against Jones came from Latino parents and community members, many of whom had won election over a slate of African-American candidates the previous spring. Once predominantly Polish and African-American, Curie is now 65 percent Hispanic.

Some Hispanic parents had complained that Jones wasn’t fluent in Spanish and didn’t have Spanish-speaking staff in the office to make the school welcoming for newer parents, Ramos says.

The racial overtones of Jones’ ouster echoed the removals of some principals in the early 1990s when it was African-American LSCs removing white principals.

“I don’t know if this is a racial thing as much as it is a power trip for the LSC members who are orchestrating it,” says Marty McGreal, a former Curie teacher who admires Jones. “No matter what is motivating the LSC to do this, it has nothing to do with education or what is best for students.”

Parent and former LSC chair Otis Davis—who took over as chair again after Ramos’ ouster—is a Jones supporter as well as a friend of Ramos. He says the dispute was about power, not race.

“The agenda is to hire principals that they could control,” says Davis.

No flip-flop

For whatever mix of reasons, the circus-like atmosphere surrounding Curie would only get worse.

Shortly after the Daley announcement, Ramos was called in to meet with Duncan and agreed to propose a reconsideration of the Jones decision. But his motion to reconsider the vote was rejected by the council and Jones’ dismissal was retained.

“We’re not playing,” says Gutierrez. “We have our reasons. We decided. We’re not going to flip-flop.”

The LSC’s refusal to change course gave LSC opponents an opportunity to start floating the idea of changing the LSC law. The main legislative proposal would have limited LSCs’ ability to fire principals with favorable ratings from area instructional officers, and placed the burden of defending the dismissal decision on the LSC. At present, LSCs can fire anyone as long as the decision isn’t arbitrary and capricious, area officer’s ratings are not a required component of their decision, and the burden of proof is on the principal.

Initially, Jones said she was proud of her accomplishments at the school and was determined to appeal the LSC decision despite the bleak outlook—an idea she dropped after she was named AIO of Area 24. Just 12 principals have begun the process to appeal their dismissals over the last eight years; none has been reinstated.