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City principals prepared to file class-action grievance over PIPs

The Baltimore City administrators union is preparing to file a class-action grievance against the school system in response to Interim CEO Tisha Edwards' plan that has 61 principals facing disciplinary action if they don't do more to prevent students from missing 20 or more days of school this year.

Union President Jimmy Gittings and the executive board of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association (PSASA) addressed Edwards and members of the city school board at a meeting Tuesday evening.

What started as a protest of using performance improvement plans (PIPs) to improve year-end attendance numbers, ended with a personal and emotional back-and-forth between Gittings and Edwards on the issue of who should be responsible for getting students to school.

“We are all very concerned about the unfair and arbitrary decision to put 61 principals on PIPs for chronic [absenteeism]," said Gittings, who was joined by dozens of administrators in the audience.

You can read more about Edwards plan to place principals on PIPs here.

This week, a city councilwoman introduced a resolution asking the school board to reconsider using the PIPs and launch a citywide campaign to improve attendance.

Gittings told the board that principals were invested in helping to get students to school, but that the district failed to take into consideration several barriers that administrators face.

For example, he pointed out that Pre-K students who aren't obligated to come to school are counted in schools' attendance numbers for elementary grades, and high school grades include students who only legally have to attend school until they are 16 years old.

Gittings also pointed to the fact that principals had support staff, like social workers, who work on attendance issues that have been let go because of budget cuts from the district.

He went on to list ways that the district office has failed to support principals, such as flawed student record systems, unanswered emails, and unclear policies and inconsistent communication about attendance.

He also said he took issue with the fact that the use of the PIPs — which can affect year-end evaluations and pay raises — comes with only three months left in the school year. 

He added that the union was preparing to file a class-action grievance for the 61 principals affected.

Edwards fired back at Gittings saying that "we are all on PIPs, because we have not done what we needed to do for children in this city.”

She said that she was also accountable for children not getting to school. This year is the fourth year in a row the district is on track to have about 25 percent of its students miss 10 percent of the school year.

Edwards ordered central office staff, including principals' supervisors, to stand up at the board meeting if they were informed they too were going to be held accountable for attendance. 

“No one in this district is absolved of taking responsibility," she said.

Edwards also took issue with Gittings' stance had previously said that parents are ultimately responsible for getting their children to school.

She said the district also holds parents responsible, and that the district has referred more than 500 parents to truancy court. “I have more parents in truancy court than I have principals on PIPs," Edwards said.

She added: “Just because its hard doesn’t mean we’re not responsible.”

She called the PIPs public contracts for principals that are intended to show students that “someone respects them enough to ask them ‘why aren’t’ you coming to school?’

She went on to call out a principal who had a student from their school in the media recently saying that she didnt attend school because she didn't feel safe.

While that principal wasn't leading the school at the time the student was referring to, Edwards used the example to point out that the school's climate had nothing to do with her parents.

Edwards told Gittings that if he didn't want the district to use PIPs, he should negotiate them out of the PSASA contract. She said the district has offered that option in the past, but he chose not to take it.

The two engaged in a back-and-forth about being truthful and taking conversations out of context before being interrupted by David Stone, vice chair of the school board, who was running the meeting.

Stone encouraged the two to talk — Edwards said she met with the union for three hours on the PIPs matter — to clarify any misunderstandings about the goal of PIPs.

“In a school system of 85,000 students where 22,000 are not coming to school…it’s all hands on deck," Stone said. "This school board is very committed to assuring students come to school. I’m happy to hear that the principals are as committed to this as we are.”

He said the board was informed that the PIPs were not about the chronic absenteeism rates themselves, but rather principals not doing what they were supposed to in terms of taking accurate attendance and giving chronically absent students district-mandated support.

That summary drew groans from the audience of principals. (Note: The principals placed on PIPs were ones that had a high percentage of students considered "at-risk" for being chronically absent this year. Principals could come off the PIPs if they reduced that number, or demonstrate they tried to.)

The discussion ended with Student Commissioner Cody Dorsey speaking up to say that he believed attendance was everyone's responsibility, from the parent to the principal.

“There’s a missing link of communication between the schools and the parents," Dorsey said.

He added that he had spoken with principals to gather more information about why the PIPs were so contested.

“The issue is not the PIP, the issue is the timing," Dorsey said. "We have a leadership transition in place, and these PIPs play a role in the evaluation process.”

(Note: Edwards signed a contract to serve as Interim CEO until June 30. Gregory Thornton, who penned a letter to city principals the week they received the PIPs, will start his post July 1.)

Dorsey's comments were cut off, but not before some principals in the audience clapped and voiced their agreement. 

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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