Patrick McAndrew

A wildly popular and beloved Oak Park elementary school teacher appears to be out of his job, and now his supporters are looking to District 97 officials to address what they believe are much deeper problems related to low building morale and the treatment of teachers at a school known for producing many great ones. 

The fight that community members in Oak Park have been waging since early this year to keep Patrick McAndrew — a Golden Apple-winning teacher with roughly two decades of experience at Beye — in his job as fifth-grade teacher ended this week.

On Tuesday, Amanda Siegfried, D97’s communications director, confirmed that the district had assigned “a non-tenured teacher whose contract was renewed for the 2021-2022 school year,” to the post at Beye, 230 N. Cuyler Ave.

Siegfried said the district did not interview for the fifth-grade position, because an interview is not required when transferring a teacher from one assignment to another.

She said the transfer was requested by an elementary principal in the district, who made the request “due to a projection of insufficient student enrollment and and class sections in the fifth grade.”

McAndrew’s supporters had been hoping that district would postpone filling the fifth-grade teaching position until interims were hired to replace Beye Principal Jennifer Schemidt, who is leaving this month after a year in the role, and Senior Director of Human Resources Gina Hermann, who is also leaving.

Schemidt plans to return to Naperville Community Unit School District 203, the district she worked in before coming to Oak Park as a school psychologist. Both administrators were instrumental in the district’s decision not to renew McAndrew’s contract this year.

“How did we get to the point where we’ve lost one of our best teachers in the district?” said Wendy Roderweiss, who started a Change.org petition last week with hopes that the district would postpone the process. As of June 15, the online petition had garnered nearly 800 signatures.

“And to have this [at the hands of] two people who are quitting and leaving the district makes things all the more confounding,” she said. “These two people who will no longer be part of our community have so greatly impacted our community by their decision-making and they are still doing it.”

McAndrew was suddenly placed on paid administrative leave in early February. In January, he had taken a 10-day trip to Nepal to visit his family.

In an interview earlier this year, McAndrew said he took the trip for his mental health and so he could see his family and pets, who live in Nepal. He said the trip and his use of two paid sick days were sanctioned by his doctor.

District officials nonetheless initiated the termination process, arguing that McAndrew failed to notify Schemidt of his plans to travel to Nepal in violation of his union contract, “intentionally and fraudulently submitting a paid sick leave request,” and for a range of alleged behavioral infractions, including “failing to truthfully respond to questions asked by” Hermann during “the fact-finding investigatory interviews.”

McAndrew’s possible termination and the fact that he was out of the classroom for more than a month during the suspension, with students cycling through at least three substitute teachers during that time, prompted community members to stage a demonstration in March outside D97’s administrative headquarters.

McAndrew has disputed each of the district’s claims and has said that, prior to this year, he had never had to be formally disciplined. To the contrary, he said, his performance reviews had been glowing and Beye’s former principal, Jonathan Ellwanger, had even recommended that he take more leadership positions.

In a rare move, the D97 school board in March decided against taking up the administration’s recommendation to terminate; instead, they voted 6-1 to suspend McAndrew for 10 days without pay.

But just as he returned to the classroom, McAndrew, who lost his tenure after leaving Beye for a stint, learned that Schemidt was not renewing his contract.

McAndrew and the Oak Park Teachers Association, the union that represents D97 teachers, have filed a grievance and have been meeting with D97’s interim superintendents and district attorneys. The grievance process includes three stages and could take months to resolve. A representative with the OPTA declined to comment on the process and the district does not discuss personnel matters.

Meanwhile, teachers and parents are afraid of what McAndrew’s situation means for other teachers at Beye and across the district, going forward.

Karen Fogg, who also teaches fifth grade at Beye and is McAndrew’s close friend, said that for McAndrew to lose his job for something so minor “is kind of crazy.”

Fogg said she was “stunned every step of the way that there was no stopgap” that would prevent the situation from snowballing.

“I’ve never heard of one person in an HR position having so much power,” she said. “Hundreds of letters went to the board. Is nobody seeing what’s wrong here? What’s the process behind this? Who were they getting advice from? Patrick has an impeccable record. Prior to this, nothing has blemished his professional reputation.”

Fogg said she’s heard from teachers who are afraid that they’ll also be in McAndrew’s position.

“It’s been scary and has made teachers feel very anxious. People are worried now about taking sick days,” she said, adding that teachers are also scared of speaking out about the process for fear of retaliation.

“This was a whole year when we preached self-care and protect yourself and give yourself grace, but nobody gave Patrick grace,” said Fogg.

Roderweiss said she would like more information from the district about the processes and procedures that govern placing a teacher on administrative leave.

“Patrick was not allowed to email or to speak to anybody while he was on leave for what amounted to [alleged] administrative infractions,” she said. “Is that normal to just pull a teacher from the classroom? I haven’t seen anybody point to a specific decision tree so that, as a parent, I have some understanding of the process because we were left completely in the dark and that’s hard on our kids.”

In response to Roderweiss’ concerns, Siegfried pointed to a board policy that governs employee suspensions, but the policy doesn’t satisfy the detail Roderweiss was requesting.

Fogg said she and her coworker, who rounded out the three-person fifth-grade teaching team at Beye, were never consulted about who would be replacing McAndrew. She and others at the school want the district to seriously review how exiting administrators can hold so much sway over new hires when they won’t be in place to hold those employees accountable.

“The morale was extremely low up until the very last day of school,” said Cassandra Miller, a Beye parent who helped Roderweiss draft the petition. “It just seemed like none of the parents were really being heard or acknowledged about how this was impacting their children. I think the damage this has done to the kids is really long-lasting. It really had a significant emotional impact on the kids, especially in Patrick’s homeroom, who were given no information about whether he was even safe.”

Siegfried said the district has tapped Oak Park equity, diversity and inclusion consultant Reesheda Graham Washington “to support our goal of creating a positive culture and climate” at Beye.

“She has spent the past two months conducting several listening sessions with staff and families — some individually and some in group settings,” Siegfried said. “We anticipate that her findings and recommendations will be shared this summer; we are currently looking at dates for a follow-up community meeting.”

The whole situation has left parents like Roderweiss, who said she’s never felt the need to get this involved in Beye affairs, grasping for an explanation.

“How did we go from this incredibly stable school to completely tumultuous in a year and what does that mean going forward?” she said. “Do teachers feel supported? Many haven’t spoken up.

“How can we make our school teacher-centered again? Teachers being valued is the most important thing in a school because they have direct contact with our children. If teachers are happy and supported, then they will be their best selves and that is what we need for our kids.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that outgoing Beye Principal Jennifer Schemidt requested the transfer of the fifth grade teacher who ended up getting reassigned to Beye. Another principal made the request. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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