At this school in Connecticut, parents have been complaining for years about the principal, who various parents describe as being a “control freak,” using unduly harsh discipline, berating and belittling parents, and humiliating and intimidating children. Finally, this summer, ninety parents signed a public petition of no confidence in the principal. According to the petition, “a culture of intimidation and a fear of retribution reign” at the school.
Parents actually banding together to complain publicly about a principal: this was an impertinent disruption to an otherwise peacefully self-perpetuating school system. “Sadly, this is the forum that they use,” said the principal. “It divides the community.” School board members were quick to react against the idea that the board should ever actually intervene in what goes on in the schools – er, I mean, in building-level issues. (This argument is often couched in terms of the board sticking to “policy” and staying out of “personnel matters.” It never seems to occur to school board members that they could enact policies against objectionable practices.) The school board chairman said, “The Board of Education only has responsibility for managing one person – that’s the superintendent – and we trust her to manage all district personnel effectively” – even though people have been complaining for over a decade. When two board members suggested that the principal be put on administrative leave, they were quickly accused of politicizing the issue.
So we get the same old recipe. Thanks to federal and state mandates, local school boards have very little power over educational policy to begin with. What power they have, they’re reluctant to use, for fear of encroaching on the role of unelected administrators. Policies and practices of individual principals, in particular – the people who actually run our schools on a day-to-day basis – are almost entirely insulated from any public influence. How that can lead to anything even remotely resembling democratic accountability for our “public” schools is a mystery. If we were trying to design schools that were more impervious to the concerns of the people they’re supposed to serve, it’s hard to imagine what we would do differently.
Still, it’s nice to see more parents realizing that outspoken public protest, not deferential isolated meetings with school adminstrators, is the best hope for meaningful change. My guess is that this petition is much more likely to have an effect than the “letter-writing campaign” waged by parents at the school ten years ago.
The school, by the way, happens to be my own elementary alma mater. I posted a comment.