Teachers’ union president Ed Allen is critical about the strategy of the principals’ union who presented a letter of protest and demands to the Oklahoma City Public Schools board Dec. 12.
Allen described it as “off the wall” and “wrong” in an interview with Free Press last week. He also thinks the principals union is not being forthcoming about the real reasons for the letter.
The principals’ protest letter was critical of what principals perceive to be their negative treatment by the district under the leadership of Supt. Aurora Lora.
And there may be even more emotional fuel behind the protest than is being admitted.
Are principals worried that more of them than usual may not have their contracts renewed for the next school year?
“In most years there may be one or two principals shown the door because they were ineffective,” Allen said. But from what he’s been hearing, it may be different this school year.
“We’ve heard varying numbers, anywhere from 10 to 17,” he said about how many principals might be pushed out next spring. He said he has not seen any list.
Allen and his staff are in positions daily to hear about dynamics in the district. He leads the American Federation of Teachers local that bargains on behalf of teachers in OKCPS, the largest district in Oklahoma. In that position, he and his staff get to know teachers, building administrators and central office administrators.
He thinks the attack on Lora and the board less than six months into her administration is a response to the superintendent’s focus on accountability for all staff of the district, not just teachers.
He characterized the principals’ argument: “Someone’s saying you’ve got to do your job, and so we’re not going to make that about doing our job, it’s about incompetence at the board, if they’d just get out of our way,” said Allen.
“They’re essentially saying – you’ve had six months, she isn’t getting the job done, she needs to be outta here. Which gets us right back into the same old problems,” Allen said.
“They are asking for things that any employer would never grant, and so I don’t know where they’re coming from.”
There was no direct mention of possible firings in the formal letter delivered Monday night.
Yet, the first two demands in a list of six in the letter were about how the building administrators would be disciplined.
The first demand is for “outside-trained, neutral investigators to examine the facts with regard to any allegations and/or complaints of School Administrators.”
The second demand is for the district to “pay the attorneys’ fees and costs of any Administrator that is successful in any employment action against the School District Administration.”
One of the strongest statements in the principals’ two-page letter said, “We contend that the District at-large is non-communicative, ineffective and exerts control by force or fear and absent genuine collaboration with school Principals and Assistant Principals.”
The letter complained about the “climate and culture” of the district.
The superintendent has taken a position of listening to her building administrators, but also demanding accountability for improvement.
Lora had seen the letter earlier in the afternoon of the board meeting and so her comments pointed to what the board and visitors would hear later.
“It’s about holding people accountable,” Lora told the board. “At the end of the day, the truth is, what we’ve been doing for a long time has not been working out great for us.”
Later in her presentation she said, “I think one reason why I’m coming under a lot of fire right now is because I have really high standards for the work that we do.”
Lora acknowledged the need to support principals and other staff but the standards matter, too.
“We are going to put some supports in place to help them get better, but I’m not going to lower my standards because kids in Oklahoma City deserve better,” she said.
The action capped a 14-day process of interaction between Lora and building administrators intended to salve a festering relationship between the parties.
The first meeting to address building administrators’ complaints was held two days before Thanksgiving according to Lora.
Lora made comments to the media between the regular session and the executive session of the board.
“They expressed to me that they had some misgivings and concerns,” she said. “I immediately re-arranged my schedule that day to sit down with them for a couple of hours to just go through all of the things that they are feeling.” That was two days before Thanksgiving.
She acknowledged that this is “a stressful time to be a principal in Oklahoma.” Budget cuts and the budget-induced reductions in staff have taken their toll on administrators, she said.
This comes after less than six months of Lora’s administration. She came to the district as associate superintendent two years ago.
The board hired Lora July 1 to move up into the superintendent position left vacant by the resignation of her predecessor, Rob Neu.
Is there already a due process system in place for district principals and assistant principals? Yes.
In an email, Free Press asked OKCPS legal council Brandon Carey if principals through their representative union negotiate the terms of their contract every year.
He answered, “We negotiate with the OCBA on a yearly basis, so they have engaged in collective bargaining this year and in previous years.”
Carey said that he was not able to divulge the content of negotiations, however.
The building/site principals and assistant principals are represented by Local No. 79 of the American Federation of School Administrators, one of the nation-wide unions in the AFL-CIO, a long-standing federation of industrial unions.
The current president of the OKCPS local is Gregory T. Frederick, Principal of U.S. Grant High School. He declined an interview for this story and referred us to their attorney, Rob Redwine.
Redwine read the letter to the board on Dec. 12 and then repeated the union’s talking points of the letter to the media afterward.