Monday, October 30, 2006

Wonkitorial: Dancing "The Bad Principal Shuffle" In CA

In a large number of California school districts, it's been known among educators for decades that the Evil Twins of cronyism and nepotism reign supreme in the hiring and continued employment of principals and other school administrators. Bob Sipchen of The Los Angeles Times is calling 'em on it:
Some of the smartest, hardest-working and most caring people I know are public school principals.

That said, education reformers have complained for years that the Los Angeles school district's bureaucracy either ignores complaints about bad principals or shuffles crummy principals off to other schools. "The dance of the lemons," it's called.

A recent e-mail from the union representing administrators in Los Angeles schools offers disturbing insight into why principals who have no business being on campus sometimes continue to reign.

My Oct. 2 column discussed a kindergartner's troubles with Anna Feig, the principal at Woodland Hills Elementary School. Some parents and teachers praised Feig as a strong leader who "runs a tight ship," while others called her a tyrant who they say intimidates and retaliates against those who cross her.

Two days later, Mike O'Sullivan, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) e-mailed his colleagues, calling that column "a piece of journalistic garbage that unfairly trashed the reputation and character of one of our outstanding elementary principals." Attached to his missive was a copy of a letter to the editor of The Times by the union's administrator, Dan Basalone, who said I had "demeaned one of our finest principals" and recommended that "no administrator agree to any interviews" with me.

O'Sullivan didn't return my calls and Basalone hung up on me after I insisted that we talk on the record.

If I were a principal, I'd be embarrassed that the supposed leaders of a professional organization would defend someone without an investigation, let alone declare her among the district's finest.

In the days after that column, School Me's blog exploded with comments so voluminous and vehement that it is inconceivable that the union bossmen were unaware that the principal in question is controversial.

Since then, I've received dozens of e-mails and talked to dozens of pleasant, decent-sounding people who, without a trace of irony, describe Feig as, among many other things: "a monster," "extraordinarily rude," "a bully," "beastly," "one of the nastiest persons I've ever met" and "a despot" who is "as close to pure evil as I've ever seen" and "belongs in prison for her treatment of these children."

Parents and teachers, current and former, report filing complaints almost from the moment she arrived at the West Valley school a decade back. They advised high-level administrators about an array of concerns, including their belief that the principal plays fast and loose with the permit process determining whether some students can attend the school. At least one critic wrote to the district questioning the ethics and legality of the way the school counts tardies and absences to avoid losing attendance money.
There's much more to read in the whole thing.

In nearly all California school districts, the superintendent, and the superintendent alone, recommends who is hired for administrative positions. Sadly, all-too-many governing boards become mere rubber-stamps for their well-entrenched superintendents, who become "well-entrenched" due to their insistance on four-year contracts that must be "bought out" should a board move to dismiss its superintendent. To make things worse, these contracts often feature annual "automatic extensions" that add another year on the anniversary of the superintendent's appointment by the board.

What these "well-entrenched" superintendents often do is distribute administrative jobs to their cronies like so much Halloween candy. The objective is to build an "administrative empire" that is loyal to them personally, and not to the larger community or even its elected board of trustees. This is especially true in those districts where the superintendent routinely hires people from outside the community while rarely promoting classroom teachers and others from within.

In such districts, it becomes well known that merit and hard work count for little when opportunities for promotion do occur.

When trouble does come in the form of a parent or employee complaint against a school administrator, the superintendents of these "administrative empires" will often back their hand-picked administrators "to the hilt."

The reasons why have more to do with the superintendent's need for self-preservation than any sense of fairness or loyalty to his or her subordinates.

To dismiss an incompetent administrator implies, among other things, that the superintendent made an error in judgement by hiring the bad administrator in the first place.

And in the "cult of personality" that often pervades districts which are under the thumb of their superintendents, anything (or anyone) that threatens the public's perception of the superintendent as anything less-than-perfect can't be tolerated.
See our latest EduPosts here and this date's Extra Credit Reading there.