Pointed concerns are being voiced by a segment of Willard School parents regarding a recent decision by the River Forest District 90 Board of Education not to renew the contract of a popular, non-tenured first grade teacher.
The District 90 school board voted not to renew her contract at its March 22 board meeting. She was reportedly the only full-time teacher not renewed.
More than three dozen parents subsequently confronted school board members at its April 4 Education and Personnel meeting regarding the manner in which board members reached that decision. Questions were also raised regarding the management techniques of new Willard Principal Janice Divincenzo and her effect on the school’s social and academic climate.
The group intends to address the school board again at it’s April 17 board meeting.
Evincing a mixture of disbelief, anger, sadness and betrayal, the parents painted the terminated teacher’s nearly three years of service in glowing terms while castigating board members for their action.
“How can it be that people had a fabulous experience with her, but the school board had a different experience?” asked parent Andrew McMillan.
“I would like to question the people who made that decision,” Gardenier said. “I truly feel this couldn’t possibly be a performance-driven decision.”
Many noted that those present were all parents who voted for the referendum in March. Anna Poulen said the teacher was her inspiration for working to pass the referendum.
“She was the face of the referendum. She was the reason I fought so hard,” Poulen said.
Through nearly an hour of public comment, several people also stated their concern that the problem, as they saw it, was Willard’s principal, and not the teacher. “The wrong person is being dismissed,” said Gardenier.
There were serious concerns expressed about the climate at the school. One mother said her child came to her recently and told her, “It’s not fun there anymore, Mom.”
Kathy Mueller stressed that both teachers and their students are experiencing a negative environment. One Willard teacher, she said, took her aside recently and said she was scared that she might be the next on the chopping block.
Mueller told the board that she had noticed a “lack of responsiveness” from Divincenzo since last September.
“She agrees with [you], and then nothing happens for months,” said Mueller. “This is not the appropriate climate for our teachers,” she added to sustained applause.
Others said they were concerned about the effect on their children. “If we can feel it as adults, the kids can feel it,” said Rafael Mendoza.
Both Superintendent Marlene Kamm and Board President David Gregg addressed the group briefly after the public comments.
Kamm noted that the teacher was probationary, one whose status is evaluated annually and whose performance is evaluated on a regular basis. That evaluation process, she said, is covered under the collective bargaining agreement.
The process, she added, was inclusive of the past three years.
“There is a cumulative performance that is looked at,” she said.
While Gregg said he believed it was “very important to hear from the community on such issues,” he claimed that because the issue was a personnel matter, he couldn’t disclose any details as to why the teacher’s contract wasn’t renewed.
“We can’t offer the specifics you want,” he said.
Clearly not satisfied, the group challenged the board to go further. Someone called out from the audience, urging the board to focus on who had made the decision.
“Please look into the person who made the decision, not just the person on whom the decision was made,” a woman said.
When Gregg reiterated the termination was a personnel issue and wouldn’t be discussed further, someone in the audience retorted, “So, this is something we’ll have to take to the election.”
“You can expect that every employee gets a fair evaluation,” board member Ron Atkins replied. “We’re not in isolation. We don’t have one perspective. We have a 360-degree perspective.”
After the meeting, several parents said they “had issues with Dr. Kamm” and Kamm’s prior relationship with Divincenzo. The two had previously worked together in the Barrington school system a decade ago.
Divincenzo, a 29-year veteran, took over as Willard principal last September from John Swanson, who had been principal there for three years. Divincenzo had previously served as principal at the A.C. Lines School in Barrington the previous three years.
More than 100 candidates had reportedly been considered for the position by Dist. 90 officials last spring. However, according to one source, two of the three finalists on that list were friends of Kamm.
Not all parents contacted last week were critical of Divincenzo. Several said her actions have been reasonable and responsible.
One forwarded an Aug. 30, 2005 letter to parents in which Divincenzo asked for their support in a change related to locking the school’s doors. The change, she said, was for greater security.
Another parent, who asked not to be identified, referred to Swanson as “a teddy bear,” and said that while he was well liked, that didn’t necessarily mean he was always effective.
“Sometimes the most well-liked manager is not always the best manager,” said the parent.
Another parent who had attended the April 4 meeting, said that Divincenzo had shown a willingness to sit down and discuss parental concerns, calling her attitude “really positive”
District administrators reportedly had met on Wednesday afternoon with principals, including Divincenzo. A meeting between Divincenzo and other Willard administrators and teachers occurred prior to school Thursday morning. School board member Ron Atkins was reportedly present, though not the terminated teacher.
On Thursday evening more than a dozen parents met at a private home to discuss their concerns further. A second parent meeting was held this past Monday night to discuss the issues with other parents not present at last week’s meetings.
According to one source who asked to remain anonymous, Divincenzo has asked to be kept apprised of that group’s concerns.
Sources said the group intends to address the school board again at its Monday, April 17 meeting at Roosevelt School.
What isn’t likely to happen is any action through the Willard Parent Teacher Organization. As the week wore on, several parents expressed concern and annoyance that PTO officials had opted to remain neutral regarding the controversy. A call to the Willard PTO’s president on Monday was not returned.