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Charter School Board President: Lesson 101

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I’m not sure where to start with this story of turmoil, hurt feelings and differing views. I apologize if I am incoherent, but it is 5:00 in the morning and I can’t sleep. The story in the morning paper reports that some of the teachers and the former principal of our charter school felt that I was micromanaging the school. From my perspective, I was not as much trying to carry the ball as I was trying to pick up the fumble. Is it possible that I was creating interference instead of helping the team? Obviously, some people think so.

We’ve had two days of constant scrutiny from the media. It’s hard to work or meet or have open discussion when every word or utterance might be quoted for the world to read. Emotions are very high. That would be a good thing, if the emotions were about children and their education. I don’t feel as if that is what is happening.

It may be hard to blog about what’s happening because I am at the center of the controversy. I learned that the former principal did not ask for a five-week leave of absence because she had personal business to conduct. That’s what she wrote in her request for time off. In reality, she wanted to be away from the job long enough for me and the rest of the Board of Directors to miss her leadership. She explained this in a telephone conference on a morning news show six days after leaving the job. I thought she needed time to repair her house which she started renovating recently. I even designed a plan for her to take the leave without jeapordizing her status as the principal. She left last Wednesday morning, two days before the plan was to be presented to the Board in a special meeting.

When she left, the principal took her personal belongings, including her mini-refrigerator. She left her school cell phone and the keys to the office with the business manager. She didn’t call the next day. But, in her mind she was not really quitting her job. She was still trying to make a point. Her departing message was something like “Roslyn needs to get a weak Assistant Principal and run the school herself.” I missed all of the clues that she felt this way. I loved being an elementary school principal. But, I swear that I have no desire to return to that level of pressure and responsibility.

Our teachers staged a sick out that has made us look like we can’t manage the educational programs of our own children. I’m not sure how we can repair the damage and get back on track. The new principal is confident and excited about his work, including healing the wounds of injured staff members. The irony about this situation is that while the Board was meeting to select the new principal, our staff was planning the sick out at a local fast food restaurant six blocks away. Why didn’t they just come to the meeting? Why air our dirty laundry and make a spectacle of our school? Was it fear of retribution or a calculated power play? I have a hard time accepting that our employees plotted to shut down their own school. They can’t possibly know that their actions could result in the loss of the charter and their jobs as charter school employees. I’m sure they didn’t know that the lower than anticipated number of returning students has created a reduced job market for teachers. Other schools are cutting surplus staff, not hiring. Or maybe they did know and acted out of desperation, anger and frustration.

Although the conversation in the marathon meeting yesterday was about Board and Administration relations, I sat out most of the meeting with reporters. Too many Board members in the auditorium would have constituted a quorum and made it subject to the open meetings law so I left the room and provided a venue for teachers to speak their minds without fear of being quoted by the reporters. Also, I knew that they wanted to talk about me.

One of the reporters asked me “How do you know that the selection of the new principal will not result in the same type of problems?” I know that communication is critical to our progress and I know that trust is equally important. I can take responsibility for being overzealous. I don’t want this principal to take drastic measures to get the Board’s attention. He’s a real team player. I was impressed that he took the large charter application plan home after the interview and returned the next day with a list of tasks to complete that included many of the things his predecessor had not started. He also asked more questions than I did during the interview.

I’ll let him carry the ball without interference. If he fumbles, I’ll wait to see if he can recover it before diving into the melee. I’ve been a principal—state principal of the year and president of a principals’ association. I’ve been an area superintendent—supervising over thirty school principals (including McDonogh 42’s exiting leader). I’ve never been a charter school Board president until now. How hard can it be? This lesson is hard, but I’m still learning.

Read the article: http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2007/12/school_hit_by_teacher_sickout.html

9 Comments

I have been following this story in the Times-Picayune this week. I am so sorry for all of the emotional strain every member of the faculty and staff are experiencing. The eyes of the city, and through this blog, the nation, are on McDonogh 42. I hope this can be a story of victory in the face of adversity--and I'll be praying for that. I am not in your shoes, so I really don't know how hard it is, but you are a voice for the city and how this is handled can be a case-study for charter schools to come. It's not so much who is at fault, but how you deal with the crisis. The title of this blog is "Starting Over"--maybe that's the attitude everyone needs to have. Move forward, move forward. Keeps students first, but be leaders ahead of them. Anyways, like I said, I am praying for you all.

Thank you for the prayers, Jeanne. I prayed all night. Today is a brighter day. When facing adversities I always use the old axiom, "If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger." We will work harder to keep students first. They don't need any extra trauma in their lives. I'd like to find a way to apologize to them.

It is rather despicable that teachers would protest management and leave kids (and parents) high and dry. The teachers may have a very legitimate complaint, but it's a very poor way to act on it. If a teacher was on an operating table, would that teacher want a doctor to leave in the middle of performing surgery on the teacher because the doctor is unhappy with the hospital? Poor judgment, if you ask me.

Paul Pastorek
State Superintendent of Education, Louisiana

I agree that it is poor judgement. But since I know the teachers and have worked with some of them in the past, I have to ask myself why they made the choice that they chose.

I read your post and had many thoughts. Having just been through a five year experience of being terrorized by a principal I know what can lead someone to completely cleaning out a classroom/office space and leaving. Having been in teaching for over 20 years, I also know how teachers can easily play "follow the leader" in difficult situations.

If you have sought only to serve your teachers and students, you are a leader. Carry on and people will respect your service and caring. When power plays and politics ensue, you must just keep coming from the same place - the place of serving others. It is not power or political coups that make a leader, it is service. Power is an illusion. None of us has any.

I know I am a bit out of this paradigm, but I felt that I had to share this message.

Just wondering if this a Milken Foundation TAP School? (Teacher Advancement Program) For some reason I believe it is, and just thought you and everyone else should be aware that this will most definitely not be the last problem this school district faces if this program has been adopted. I am originally from a city in the south and have been teaching in Colorado for four years at a TAP school. When I was informed that several schools had adopted this model in an effort to rebuild their schools, my heart sank!!!!! This is an ineffective model and I have watched over the past four years many outstanding principals and educators walk out the door and in several cases leave the profession all together. If New Orleans is truly trying to rebuild their schools the TAP model is the first thing that needs to go!! Don't believe the crap the Milken Foundation says about all of the results that schools will experience if they adopt this model, it is in effect trying to micromanage a school district and this simply will not work! In the past four years working in a struggling school district not only have the test scores remained the same or have dropped the morale of the entire staff has drastically decreased. In order to save or rebuild your schools you MUST GET RID OF TAP!!!!!

Roslyn, In spite of the great difficulty you find yourself in, this hardly ranks with the misfortunes of individuals and groups in the world as I know it. It does sound like you care enough and certainly have the background to belong in the position you are in and must now step forward to lead . As I see it from what has been written, a principal and some teachers have "walked away." When that situation happens, communications have been missed and people hurt. At this point in life, I have learned it is less useful to sit around and judge those people about their moral responsibility, judgement, or anything else. It comes down to saying, "I'm in this boat with you, I care, this is about students, let's get together and solve this. Some honest "giving" will allow everyone to "take" part in a solution. I'll be wishing you the strength to do well. Newton in Vermont

Good morning Newton,
You are correct that in the scheme of world issues, the "sickout" by our teachers is not a major event. It was a setback we had not anticipated. Even though I knew that some teachers were meeting about the situation, one part of me wanted to hope they would realize that coming to the Board Meeting was the best solution. It still bothers me that no teacher showed up to express their displeasure at an open, public meeting of the Board. So many chose to express their displeasure by staging a media event that gave our school unnecessary negative press, I hope you are correct and that part of the problem is miscommunication. I am working on improving that problem immediately.

I am reading this blog with great interest. This story is quite familiar because we faced the same kind of self destructive behaviors just a few years ago. This is what happens when people lose their way and they become preoccupied with adult nonsense. We faced lawsuits, union meddling, an exodus of the old guard (actually I held the door open for them), the firing of a principal, a coup d'etat and some nonsensical threat about the Hell's Angels coming to the school. I arrived at the school armed with the best advice I have ever gotten from a colleague: I asked Claudette "How would you approach this crazy charter school?" Claudette said "Stay above the bullshit Charter Guy...you stay about kids."

That was seven years ago. There is a book about to be released about this amazing school in San Diego... it is called "The Lights of El Milagro". El Milagro means miracle and you are at that crossroads too. Remember the teaching of the I Ching-- "Before there can be great brilliance... there must be chaos."

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