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Reform Effort Tested as Councils Fire Principals

March 1, 1990

CHICAGO (AP) _ The city’s sweeping education reform effort is getting its first major test as principals learn whether they’re being rehired or fired by parents.

Although the process is being declared a success at most schools, teachers and students in the nation’s third-largest school system are protesting some firings, and accusations of backroom deals and bigotry have surfaced.

These disruptions have raised doubts about the effectiveness of the councils that were elected in October as part of a package to improve Chicago’s troubled schools by putting more power in the hands of local communities.

Under the 1988 reform law, half the 540 community councils - one for each of the 71 high schools and 469 elementary schools - decide this year whether to terminate their principals’ four-year contracts. The 270 other councils vote on their principals next year.

About 10 percent of the principals under consideration are expected to lose their jobs, said School Board spokesman Ken Moses. The councils have until April 15 to announce their decisions.

The School Board said it has no figures on how many principals have been notified so far.

The reform law was passed because of the double-digit dropout rate, poor test scores, violence and other ills that led William Bennett, then the federal education secretary, to label Chicago’s school system as the nation’s worst in 1987.

The councils consist of six parents and five other members, including teachers and the principal at each school in the 410,000-student system.

The principals have no say on their own contracts, which range from about $40,000 to $70,000 a year, and fired principals have no recourse other than reconsideration by the councils, said Bob Saigh, another board spokesman.

David Peterson, principal at the Wells High School for 13 years, is among the principals fighting their dismissal notices.

Many of the 1,700 students at the mostly Hispanic school staged a sit-in Tuesday to protest the firing, announced the day before. The faculty has written to Superintendent Ted Kimbrough, who has said he would intervene if it appeared councils acted improperly.

Assistant Principal Miguel Trujillo said Peterson ″has the support of the community, the student body, the faculty and the staff.″

″The councils are using hidden agendas ... regardless of how the school community feels,″ Trujillo said.

Peterson said the councils are being asked to act too quickly, without enough information. ″One council member said I was too strict, another said I was too easy,″ he said. ″One said she was looking for a Hispanic.″

″I’ve never felt that I had a divine right to be principal of anything,″ Peterson said. ″But I don’t believe that local councils were set up to turn schools into bastions of racism or ethnicity.″

Dan Solis, executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization, a community group active in the reform effort, said the racism charges were false. ″It’s just presenting the bogeyman out there,″ Solis said.

Allegations of discrimination also have surfaced at Burns Elementary School, where council members said they voted not to renew principal Donald Kriz’s contract because he wouldn’t cooperate with them.

″They want him out because he’s not Hispanic, and that’s the bottom line,″ said fifth-grade teacher Lorraine Stepanek, who was among teachers picketing Wednesday outside the school in a mostly Hispanic district.

Donald Moore, whose Designs for Change group helped shape the reform package, said the protests are ″part of a process called democracy.″

″We’re talking about schools that are failing miserably across the city,″ he said. ″There is need for new leadership in many schools and it’s totally predictable that people ... at risk of losing their jobs are going to try to hang onto them.″

The School Board defends its decision to empower the councils.

″This is the first year this has been done,″ Moses said. ″Whenever you have a new system ... somebody’s not going to be pleased. But if you can manage to satisfy the majority, then I think you can call it a success.″

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