By Terry Dean
With parents at Mann Elementary School mounting a public campaign to keep Sam LeDeaux as their principal, the District 97 board president tried to address their concerns in a letter sent to families on March 12.
Bob Spatz attempted to answer some parents' concerns and questions as well as clarify the district's position concerning how principals are evaluated in the district. LeDeaux, 36, has been Mann principal for two years, but rumors began swirling around the school three weeks ago that he was either gone already or on his way out.
Speaking to Wednesday Journal on Monday, Mann PTO Co-president Maggie Kelly said LeDeaux was indeed out of the building for a couple of days at that time but had returned. According to Chris Jasculca, D97's director of policy, planning and communication, LeDeaux was out sick.
Parents at the school last week launched an aggressive public effort in support of LeDeaux, whom Kelly described as an excellent principal who has "turned the school around in such a short time."
A former Chicago Public Schools teacher, LeDeaux was an assistant principal at Longfellow and then at Julian Middle School before taking over at Mann, 921 N. Kenilworth. Some 65 parents wrote letters of support to the board.
Due to state law concerning employees' privacy, school districts cannot talk about personnel matters in public, Spatz noted in his letter.
"In this case, we are taking steps to respond so that people do not misinterpret our inability to answer specific questions regarding this situation as a lack of transparency. We also hope you understand that we must always weigh our legal obligations and the privacy rights of our employees against the benefit of responding to rumors and speculation," Spatz said.
Kelly, who was among the parents who received the letter, said it was "informative" and did a good job explaining the evaluation process, which some parents were concerned about. The biggest concern involved who actually conducts evaluations.
The superintendent or his/her designee — who is certified — conducts evaluations, Spatz explained, noting that school districts follow guidelines set forth by the Illinois State Board of Education concerning principal evaluations.
Kelly said she understood that D97 is bound by certain laws but thinks the principal evaluation process is "flawed."
"It may be perfectly legal to send a designee, but I don't think that's right. I think if someone reports directly to you, you should take the time to evaluate that person face to face," she said.
According to Spatz, evaluations for principals and assistant principals are required by state law to be completed by March 1. But that date likely stirred the nest over at Mann, Spatz noted.
"The administration, more specifically the superintendent, is not required to make any recommendations by this date, nor is the board required to take action by this date," Spatz said, adding that no decision on personnel is official until the board takes action on a recommendation by the administration.
The D97 board meets this week and the status of LeDeaux is expected to be addressed. He was unanimously approved as Mann principal by the board in May 2012.
All D97 elementary school principals are on annual contracts — the middle school principals are in the second year of their two-year contracts. Spatz noted that those recommendations are discussed in executive session, in compliance with laws protecting the rights of employees.
Concerning the "tone" of the letter, Kelly said some parents didn't appreciate how it came off, specifically Spatz's statement that the board's actions should not be "feverishly influenced" by individuals.
"I thought, 'Ouch,' because I was one of the 65 people to write a letter, and I wrote it hoping that they'd hear my voice," Kelly said.
The board apparently did, as Spatz noted in the letter. He acknowledged the parents' public campaign, including setting up a Facebook page and creating yard signs in support of LeDeaux. Kelly said the Facebook page and yard signs were set up and paid for by an individual parent and not by the Mann PTO. The parent group, she added, sent out a newsletter three weeks ago, letting parents know that now is the time to show support for LeDeaux if they chose to do so.
Kelly said the PTO's primary role has been gathering information and communicating with parents about the situation. And the parents, she added, wanted to let the board know directly how LeDeaux is doing as principal.
"Our intention was to make sure everyone had good, quality information, and we wanted the board to have that information before Roberts makes his recommendation," Kelly said.