Parents fight back after school district refuses to halt parade of bad principals

Portland Public Schools has a problem managing principals who harm students, schools and their communities.

As a result, Parents for Excellent Portland Principals offers a forum to share ideas and concerns. The more fellow parents connect, the more we see the problem with bad principal assignments is rooted in district dysfunction.

When parents across Portland complain about unethical and possibly illegal practices by specific principals, district administrators consistently:

• Throw support behind the principal without investigation.

• Dismiss substantive parent concerns as based in racism.

• Minimize concrete problems as based on “poor communication.”

• Reassign and/or promote the principal to a new location.

• Withhold information on how to file formal district complaints.

• Do nothing, wait it out and hope parents lose energy.

Examples of what we have seen, either directly or reported by other parents:

• In a North Portland school, vital programs have been cut, morale has plummeted and staff turnover is high under a first-time principal. More than 150 parents signed a petition asking for the principal’s removal. The district’s response was: “We support this leadership,” and took no action. This year, in the first week of school, when a parent asked a PPS administrator why there were no sixth-grade teachers, the administrator implied the parents’ concerns were racially motivated.

• At a west-side school, about 40 parents and staff members complained to the principal that a probationary teacher repeatedly bullied students. The principal warned parents that if they followed through with complaints, their children might suffer retaliation. The district later told parents that the principal was “confused” and claimed it was “poor communication.” The principal’s contract was renewed and the teacher awarded permanent status.

• This spring, in a widely circulated video, a principal spoke to the PPS board, stating that a specific school’s transfer parents were, in general, problematic “white entitled” people who have learned how to “work the system.”

• In a Northwest Portland school, a principal was promoted after two short, but problematic stints as assistant principal at two other schools. At both schools, the then-assistant principal had targeted and intimidated senior staff and accumulated years of complaints from staff and parents. Now, as a first-time principal, the same behaviors were exhibited and worse: calling black staff and community members who disagreed with her “assimilated,” and the “wrong kind of black person.”

More than 100 parents signed a petition asking for district intervention. The district refused to meet with parents individually but instead organized a group meeting. At the meeting, PPS administrators labeled the two dozen parents as motivated by “white privilege.” The administrators also refused to acknowledge the years of known bad behaviors they had done nothing about before promoting this principal. This year the school is hemorrhaging families.

• In an east-side Portland school, parents complained for three years that their principal bullied staff, parents and students. The school lost students, staff and beloved programs because of poor leadership. The PPS administrator in charge failed to take meaningful action regarding parent and staff complaints. The principal was recently re-assigned to a district position.

Principals have a challenging job. They should serve as a buffer between district and state needs (often sensible, now increasingly unproven and whimsical) and school needs. They should manage staff, support students and engage parents and the community.

We appreciate the many outstanding principals who are creative and tireless in serving the needs of the entire school community. We applaud new PPS board member Tom Koehler for his commitment to better principal evaluations as part of the solution. We also are heartened by new board member Steve Buel’s courage in blowing the whistle on bad district decisions and dysfunction.

Some of the principals mentioned here are people of color and some are not. We recognize that racism is real, institutionalized and needs to be addressed in our schools. Yet, too often the district flippantly charges “racism” about parent and staff complaints to conceal the real issues, including the district’s own racist treatment of faculty, staff and students of color. This rhetorical tactic is meant to shut down accountability and diminishes the ability to address authentic race and equity issues.

PPS needs a better process and accountability for the selection, development, management and placement of principals. The culture of no accountability, apathy and low standards must change in order to make PPS a leader in education.

Principals should be rewarded for leading, coaching, inspiring and respecting their communities. Principals should be supported in finding creative ways to serve their unique communities. We ask that the board and district come together with stakeholders to resolve these issues and put an end to the unnecessary damage.

Finally, we ask the district to create PPS board policy or language to prohibit the bullying and harassment of parents.

Paul Anthony, Dana Brenner-Kelley, Bruce Scherer and Aaron Smirl are members of Parents for Excellent Portland Principals.

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