The abrupt removal of an elementary school principal on Chicago’s north side has the school community grappling with district policy, free speech, and what’s next for their school.
Parents and protesters confronted Chicago Public Schools officials about the removal of Principal Troy LaRaviere at a raucous two-hour meeting at Blaine Elementary School on Monday night.
Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, Chief of Network Supports Liz Kirby, and Chief of Network 4 Ernesto Matias were on hand to answer questions submitted on green and yellow note cards.
Jackson said because the issue was a sensitive personnel matter, there was only so much she could say. But she did list some of the charges being brought against LaRaviere.
“Charges include violation of teacher assessment guidelines; violation of the Board’s internal accounts manual; violation of the Board’s acceptable use policy of equipment; violation of the Illinois State Board of Education’s directives,” Jackson said.
LaRaviere has been a vocal critic of the Chicago Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and has spoken out against state standardized testing and the privatization of janitors. He also supported Emanuel’s mayoral challenger Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia and is a delegate for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
Jackson said Monday that speaking out isn’t wrong, but insisted LaRaviere broke the rules.
“I don’t think there’s any other setting, or organization, or corporation that would allow such behavior to stand,” she said, without going into detail.
Many questioned what the district’s move says to students who are taught to ask questions and speak up for what they believe is right. Jackson countered by saying there’s a right way and a wrong way to speak up and “the rules are the rules.”
One of the charges against LaRaviere was “violation of directives laid out in” a warning resolution issued by the Board in August 2015. That resolution cited LaRaviere for interrupting a budget meeting and resisting central office pressure that all eligible students be given the state PARCC exam. Last year, many parents and students opted out of the exam, although the state law is vague on whether or not parents can opt out on their child’s behalf. The district and the state insist every child must be presented with a copy of the test, even if a parent sent a letter asking to have their child removed from testing.
At the meeting Monday night, district officials divided the auditorium, allowing parents on the main floor and community members in the balcony. The answers sought from each group varied -- with many parents seeking answers about what’s next for Blaine, and many activists wanting answers about the district policies and the ability of principals to speak out when they believe something is wrong.
Parents’ questions ranged from why some people did not get the email announcing the change to why the district is paying retired principal Pedro Alonso to serve as interim, instead of appointing one of the two beloved assistant principals.
One mother questioned how much money was being spent on disciplining LaRaviere. “Is the budget crisis the top priority for CPS? Is Troy LaRaviere’s reassignment going to improve or make any dent in that budget crisis?” To which, Janice Jackson said, “I don’t believe the two are related.”
Other parents wanted to understand why Blaine’s Local School Council was not involved in the decision.
“That is an elected body and there are some legal lines being crossed,” said Jonathan Eyler-Werve, a parent of a kindergartener. “Here’s the thing about the Blaine parent community, there are a lot of lawyers out here, and right now, we’re getting really good at looking at election law and looking at the laws governing our school system.”
Jackson said Local School Councils have the power to hire the principal and evaluate his or her performance but is not guaranteed involvement in disciplinary matters.
Community members and activists, at times, chanted from the balcony and asked about LaRaviere’s political involvement and what role Mayor Rahm Emanuel had in his removal. Jackson insisted he had none.
CPS said LaRaviere is scheduled to have a disciplinary hearing on Friday and another one at a later day with the Illinois State Board of Education. In the meantime, Blaine’s assistant principals are focused on moving forward with their work.
“We remain committed to the teaching and learning that needs to take place here every day and we are so proud of our teachers welcoming our students back from spring break,” Assistant Principal Angela Brito said to the crowd.
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.