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Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett | Sun-Times file photo

CPS chief vows she'll get to the bottom of principal's complaints

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett vowed Monday to get to the bottom of a respected principal’s complaints — first voiced in an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times — that CPS bullies its principals, leaving them “paralyzed by fear.”

In a telephone call Monday, Byrd-Bennett said she was surprised to read the op-ed by Troy LaRaviere, principal at Blaine Elementary School in Lake View, whom she called “clearly one of our most distinguished.”

On Monday, at least three other principals echoed LaRaviere’s criticisms.



“The thing I don’t want to get distracted from is, this is less about our ability to speak than what it is we want to speak up for.” LaRaviere told the Sun-Times on Monday. “We want to speak up for the end of a school system that relies on shaming rather than capacity building ...”

In the piece published Saturday, LaRaviere characterized the administration’s interaction with principals as “insulting.” He said City Hall “ignored and even suppressed principals’ voices” while pushing its education agenda. 

Sarah Hamilton, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s communications director, said there was no immediate comment on the issue.

Responding to LaRaviere’s op-ed, Byrd-Bennett said Monday, “He does a wonderful job. But he is feeling as if somehow there is this repressive environment coming from me and or my office, that he feels if he says anything there’ll be a retribution, I need to understand that and know where it’s coming from.”

Byrd-Bennett continued: “It’s a little saddening to believe that people think there’s a fear of retaliation. I know I have never set that fear. I have never called a principal in and said, ‘Off with your head.’ ” 

She asks principals about their problems at school visits, she said. And all principals have her email and direct phone number if they want to talk about policy or problems. 

“Maybe it’s a conversation I need to have a follow up with my principals and convene them and address this head-on. This is clearly like in my entire career not anything that I’ve ever experienced, where somebody has a fear of retaliation,” Byrd-Bennett said. “That’s not an atmosphere in which people can work and be productive for kids. I’m now looking at my schedule and saying, ‘When can I get principal groups together in addition to the advisory group I’ve already established?’ ”

LaRaviere said Monday that the way CPS treats its principals “is doing a disservice to our students. . . .  Our rights are less of an issue than the rights of our students to get a quality education. That is what drives us. That’s why we got into this.”

“Right now the policies of CPS are not allowing us to have that effect on our students and that is why we must speak out,” he said, adding that he was flooded with grateful emails and telephone calls from other principals.

By Monday, three more principals had signed their names to posts on a blog LaRaviere started to publish responses to his piece, troylaraviere.blogspot.com, and to an op-ed in Catalyst Chicago. One called on fellow principals to organize and speak out.

“The privatization of education in our city and nation wide alarms me,” Heather Yutzy, principal at Belding Elementary, wrote on the blog, calling on fellow principals to organize. “Unfunded mandates (PE and art) weigh heavily on my shoulders as I prepare to present a budget recommendation to my LSC. My deep passion for differentiation and meeting the needs of all students is extremely difficult to make a reality with such a bare-bones budget . . .

“Principals and the Chicago Teachers Union should be working shoulder-to-shoulder and standing together at microphones on most matters in education,” Yutzy wrote.

Deborah Bonner, principal of Dett Elementary School, 2131 W. Monroe, wrote on the same blog of feeling “like a puppet.”

“Why is there the need to treat professionals as if we work in sweat shops?” she wrote. “The annoying micro managing and finger pointing without the slightest bit of intelligent conversation and support . . .  I just wanted to write to you and say that you have sparked a great deal of conversation in many of us and I thank you for having the courage to do so.”

And in a lengthy piece published Monday at Catalyst-Chicago.org, Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer of Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School, 5510 N. Christiana, wrote that administrators who have raised concerns in meetings — “such as what to do when we see lunchroom employees in tears from being overworked as the district cut school positions by 33 percent to 50 percent” receive no response.

Parrott-Sheffer wrote he believes in most of CPS’ reforms, “Yet the lack of principal and teacher voice in this dialogue — which my heroic colleague Troy LaRaviere has written about in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed — has turned promising ideas into harmful practice. 

“When this is coupled with implementation so poor it borders on malpractice, it is time for significant changes in our approach,” he wrote. 

Pat Baccellieri, a principal in his second year at Bateman Elementary School, 4420 N. Richmond, said he’s had a voice as part of a districtwide group that talks about how to better serve special education students. He has spoken up with concerns, he said, adding, “I didn’t get in trouble from asking a question. It was appreciated and respected.”

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said LaRaviere is “one of the few principals willing to stand up” to City Hall and the central office, but he “may have opened the floodgates.”

“People are so frustrated and so angry. We were trying to get a count of the number of principals who have thrown their keys on the desk and walked away from the job in the last year. It’s in the double digits,” Berry said Monday.

“You cannot manage with a budget that doesn’t provide enough money to cover the things you need. You cannot work in a situation where you’re not allowed to complain,” Berry said. “You can’t continue in an atmosphere where you’re being threatened all the time. Principals can’t say anything. You’re told not to open your mouth. Otherwise, there will be consequences. You’ll get a bad evaluation or an auditor will walk in to your school and audit your books.”

Berry traced the tidal wave of discontent among principals to school-based budgeting and to new “mandates” that come straight from Emanuel’s education agenda.

Berry said she’s not certain how much of the blame lies directly with Emanuel.

But, she said, “Now that it’s out, I want to know what he’s going to do to alleviate it. He is the head of the school system. The buck stops at his desk. What he needs to do is listen and hear what the principals are saying. These mandates — they have to look at them and see, are they reasonable?”