Chicago Councils Begin To Decide Fate of Principals

By William Snider — March 14, 1990 5 min read

In their first major exercise of extraordinary powers granted to them under a 1988 reform law, 49 of Chicago’s newly elected local school councils had voted as of last week not to retain their current principals.

The decisions sparked protests at about half a dozen schools where popular principals were dismissed. In at least two of those cases, white principals have been quoted as charging that they were unfairly dismissed by Hispanic-dominated councils.

But the vast majority of the 276 councils facing such decisions this year have apparently chosen to retain their principals, according to reports from 272 schools compiled by district officials.

The number of principals affected by the actions could change in the coming months, because the councils are free to reconsider their decisions up to the point when they officially sign a four-year contract with a principal.

The process of principal selection by the councils has by and large gone smoothly, most participants and observers interviewed last week said.

“In the majority of instances, the process is going quite well,” said Peggy Gordon, director of the Lawyers School Reform Project, an independent group of more than 100 lawyers who have volunteered to provide information and advice to the school councils.

“But like anything else that’s completely new,” she added, “there are bound to be difficulties along the way.”

Even one of the reform law’s most vocal critics, Bruce Berndt, president of the Chicago Principals’ Association, conceded that, “over all, most of the schools have handled themselves very well.”

Under the Chicago reform law enacted by the state legislature, half of the district’s 540 school councils are to select a principal this year, while the other half will face the same decision next year. The schools were chosen by lottery, except for the more than 100 schools with interim principals, all of which are going through the process this year.

Central-administration officials had urged the councils to inform their current principals whether their contracts would be renewed by the end of last month, in order to give the councils time to seek replacements and the principals time to find other jobs.

Each council has 11 members: 6 parents, 2 teachers, 2 community representatives, and the principal. Six votes, not including the principal’s, are required to approve retaining a principal, while seven votes are required to hire a new principal.

Evaluation Methods Varied

The methods used by the councils to evaluate current principals varied widely among the schools, observers said, and depended to a great extent on the amount of training the council members had received since their election last fall.

Denise Fells, chairman of the council at Trumbull Elementary School, said she abstained from voting on the fate of her school’s principal ''because we didn’t discuss it as thoroughly as I felt we should. I didn’t want it to be decided on personal issues, and thought we should do more of a professional evaluation.”

Ms. Fells also said she felt the4council “did not have enough training and time” to make its decision. As a result, the principal, who has been at the school for 2 years, did not receive enough votes to keep her job, although she has been invited to compete with other candidates for the post.

In contrast, Mark Massery, chairman of the council at Oscar Mayer Elementary School, said his council used a “professional” evaluation process borrowed from private industry and tailored to the requirements of school leaders.

Several of the council’s members had previous experience in personnel evaluations, he said, and all have undergone many hours of the training offered throughout the city by dozens of nonprofit groups.

Eight members of the council voted in favor of dismissing the current principal, one voted against the motion, and one abstained, Mr. Massery said.

In the end, he said, “it was immaterial whether [the principal received] a good or average or poor review. We need a principal that shares the same philosophy of organization and operation that the council does.”

Racial Motives Alleged

The white principals who claimed, according to press accounts, that they had been let go by councils seeking to hire Hispanic administrators failed to return phone calls last week. The council members involved, whose schools have predominantly Hispanic enrollments, have denied the accusations.

Such charges of racism “are a smokescreen” to cover “a well-orchestrated anti-reform campaign,” charged Daniel Solis, executive director of United Neighborhood Organizations, a coalition of community groups active in Hispanic neighborhoods.

He also claimed that some principals who had been dismissed had allowed students and teachers to leave classes and conduct protests in their schools to “test the waters” of the central administration’s willingness to enforce the councils’ decisions.

Ms. Gordon of the Lawyers Project agreed that “there are situations where principals are not willing to concede that under the new regime, they will not be retained.”

“There are other situations,” she added, “where the chairman of the local school council is trying to usurp the role of the principal.”

“But the biggest problem I see,” she said, “are the schools where the councils are not trained or experienced enough to have the wherewithal to make this decision.”

Mr. Berndt of the principals’ union said that one of his major concerns with the selection process is the fate of interim principals, most of whom were promoted during or just prior to the current school year.

Of the 49 principals informed that their contracts would not be renewed at this time, 30 had interim status.

The principals who are not rehired are not guaranteed a job with the school system under the terms of the reform law, although they are free to apply for other posts for which they hold the proper credentials.

“I think that’s a really rotten way to treat people you’ve asked to go in and run a school for a year,” Mr. Berndt said. “They should have been given the courtesy of returning to their original positions.”

The councils are expected to sign contracts with their current principals, or with new principals selected through regional or nationwide searches, by April 15.

At the same time, many have begun working on their two other major statutory duties: developing improvement plans for their schools, and deciding how discretionary money should be spent to meet the goals of the plan.

“We’ve crossed another milestone insofar as the implementation of the reform law is concerned,” said Robert Saigh, a spokesman for the district, “and in the main, it is going according to procedure and without incident.”

“I feel extremely good about the overall results,” added Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a group that has helped lead the reform effort. “One of most significant things that has occurred is the incredible public debate occurring all over the city about educational issues, about what the schools’ priorities should be, and about how our money should be spent.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 1990 edition of Education Week as Chicago Councils Begin To Decide Fate of Principals