Ex-consultant accuses D97 of 'witch hunt'

? Toperoff says D97 conducted "witch hunt" for teachers who said morale problems persist at the middle school.

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By DREW CARTER

An Oak Parker and former consultant at Brooks Middle School accused District 97 last week of conducting a "witch hunt" to find teachers who contend that morale is still a problem at the school, and of allowing race to overshadow real problems at the school.

"The school and district leadership continue to be much more concerned about the messenger than about the substance of the message," said RaeLynne Toperoff, who prefaced her remarks at the board's Feb. 23 meeting by saying she spoke as a resident only, not as the executive director of Teachers' Task Force, the consulting firm that began the improvement process at Brooks in October 2003 by meeting with parents and teachers to identify critical issues.

Toperoff's district-sanctioned February 2004 reports on Brooks and Holmes Elementary Schools began improvement processes at both schools, but Toperoff was dismissed from involvement in either process.

District officials denied both of the allegations after the meeting.

Toperoff said the latest incident began when a parent, Amy Abbott Pappageorge, spoke at the Dec. 1 board meeting. Pappageorge relayed comments?#34;which Toperoff had conveyed to her?#34;that Brooks teachers felt morale was getting worse at the school.

Pappageorge said the next day, Felicia Starks Turner, the Dist. 97 director of human resources, called her to ask for names of the teachers she had spoken with. Pappageorge said she did not know who had made the comments, but if she had, she wouldn't have released their names anyway.

Starks Turner did not reply to a request for comment.

At the meeting, Toperoff compared the incident to a First Amendment rights lawsuit brought against the district approximately 20 years ago by two teachers who had been punished for speaking out against district policies.

"By contacting the parent who was bringing a most important message to the board ... I believe this administration came dangerously close to impinging on First Amendment rights to free expression by staff."

Superintendent John C. Fagan denied the allegations after the meeting.

"I don't know what RaeLynne is talking about," Fagan said. "We certainly have never tried to curtail anyone's freedom of speech. All employees are well-protected under the grievance procedure."

Fagan said he would check to see whether any grievances had been made before getting back to the board. He said he couldn't investigate charges of harassment unless an employee files a complaint.

Toperoff said that a better strategy than asking a parent for names would have been to go into the school to talk with teachers about morale.

Morale worsening, some teachers say

WEDNESDAY JOURNAL spoke with three Brooks teachers about morale at the school. The teachers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, each said morale was low.

Experienced teachers are considering getting transfers or finding jobs outside the district.

"It's at a point where the frustration is a sadness," said one teacher who had participated in the critical issues charter process. "That just seems prevalent."

People once supportive of the principal and improvement process now are turning toward the opinion that things are not going well, the teacher said.

The teacher estimated that "a good percentage" of teachers feel that morale is bad.

"It is a heavy, dark cloud," the teacher said. "It is not getting better."

"Yeah, I think morale is still low here," another teacher said. "My concern is, what does that mean?"

The teacher said that teachers in general are doing a great job?#34;that bad feelings about improvements at the school aren't affecting the classroom. But those feelings and tensions are affecting the culture of the school, including collective decision-making, teachers not feeling like they're part of the process, or that their input is taken seriously, the teacher said.

Board President Ade Onayemi said those remarks are contrary to what he has heard from parents and the School Leadership Team, which is leading the process at Brooks.

"They have been working very hard at Brooks and getting incredible results," Onayemi said.

"Morale is a very important thing for me," he said. "I wish there were ways within their process [teachers] could make that known to [the board]."

Onayemi advised teachers to use formal channels to air their grievances, including talking with union representatives.

Does race preserve status quo?

At the board meeting, Toperoff said district leadership was responsible for allowing race to be used to preserve the status quo at Brooks.

"You have permitted the subterfuge of racial motivation to overshadow issues of competence and compatibility," she said. "You have silenced people of all backgrounds who want to speak out but are afraid of being characterized as having racial motivations or of being considered disloyal."

She said after the meeting that when parents attacked her report as being racist, the board and superintendent should have stood by her.

"When people attacked us, we became the issue," Toperoff said.

She said she looked to the principals of both schools to defend her and say they were committed to the process. "They didn't do that," she said.

At the suggestion that she spoke out because of sour grapes over her dismissal, Toperoff said that anyone suggesting that does not have the best interest of the community at heart.

"I don't want to be the issue."
Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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