Some Chicago Principals Say Their Voices Are Stifled But Mayor Disagrees

By Denisa R. Superville — May 16, 2014 3 min read
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A few Windy City principals publicly aired their grievances against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration this past week, with some accusing the administration of stifling their voices.

The public airing started over the weekend, when Troy A. LaRaviere, the principal at Blaine Elementary School, penned an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times titled “Under Emanuel, Principals Have no Voice.”

LaRaviere wrote that since the early days of the administration, “principals felt publicly maligned and disrespected by the mayor,” whose administration has disregarded their knowledge and experience in private while praising them in public.

The administration, he said, “ignored and even suppressed principals’ voices in order to push City Hall’s political agenda for Chicago’s schools.”

Principals were told their comments must be in line with the school board’s and were instructed to have an “elevator” speech supporting the district’s policies at the ready.

Though deeply concerned about the impact of the administration’s policies, principals were afraid to speak out, fearing harassment, firing, and poor evaluations, he wrote.

He ended the piece with a call for action, asking principals to raise their voices.

“Those of us who know better must lift our voices to persuade the residents of Illinois to reject these backward ideas and to oust the politicians who peddle them,” he wrote.” We must work together to build our own system-wide improvement effort. The future of public education is at stake, and the future of Chicago’s children is at risk. We must lift our voices and be heard.”

Several principals took him up on his call to speak out, some signing their names onto comments on LaRaviere’s blog and on Catalyst, a news journal that covers the city’s schools.

In a follow-up piece on LaRaviere in the Chicago Tribune, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, said she was surprised at LaRaviere’s charges.

Still, she said she planned to look into the matter.

“This is a district issue for us to resolve,” Byrd-Bennett was quoted as saying. “I need to figure out is this perception or reality. If it’s reality, I need to intervene and fix it. If it’s perception then I’ve got to clear up that perception or miscommunication.”

The newspaper also quoted an elementary school principal made available by the district, Pat Baccelleri, who said he felt his voice was heard.

“I think the way I understand it is that, as a CPS employee, I work for an organization,” said Baccelleri, the principal of Bateman Elementary in Albany Park, who also said that he checks with the district’s communication department before press interviews. “If I’m speaking for the district or as my role as principal, I want to make sure I’m not saying anything against what the district is saying.”

But Clarice Berry, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, offered a narrative similar to LaRaviere’s, describing what she called a “gag order” that restricts principals’ ability to challenge policies that they feel hurt students.

“This is the worst it’s ever been, the micromanaging, the threats. The intimidation is unprecedented,” Berry told the paper. “It’s not done in writing. It’s done person to person over the telephone. They want you to say nothing.”

By Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who faces re-election next year, was chiming in.

Emanuel rode high on union support when he was elected mayor of the nation’s third largest city in 2011. But his support with the union has slipped due to some of his education policies, including the closure of 50 public schools, charter expansion, and not least of all, the seven-day teachers’ union strike in 2012, the city’s first teachers’ union strike in 25 years.

Although elections are months away, a Chicago Sun-Times poll published last weekend showed that only 29 percent of the 511 voters surveyed said they would vote for the current mayor if the elections were held today.

Emanuel said his administration’s door was open to listen principals’ input. He even gave an example: The idea for the expansion of the International Baccalaureate Program came from principals.

“If a principal has a concern or an idea, her attitude, my attitude is we want to hear about it,” he said Thursday, according to CBS Chicago. “If there are concerns, Barbara meets regularly with the principals. I meet with them when I go to schools, and bring their ideas in.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.