Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Hatchet Principal

The "Hatchet Man" in the parlance of the business world is a manager brought in for the specific purpose of mass firings of staff. As a manager in the hotel business before becoming a school teacher I was aware of these people. A hotel would bring such a person in with the full support for him/her to "do what had to be done."

Management gives the Hatchet Man the necessary time to flush a significant number of staff out the door. Then, after enough of the bloodletting has occurred (not too difficult if the union is sluggish and bureaucratic, or indifferent), the management finally concedes to the union complaints. "Ya," they say, "the guy was no good." So, they can him. But, the damage is done - mission accomplished. He goes off and finds another hotel looking for a hatchet guy. After all, that's his specialty and there's always enough demand. Meanwhile the management and union get to pretend they were the good guys after all, they got rid of him- didn't they?

In the parlance of the NYC Department of Education we have the "Closer Principal." It's a title anointed to those who have a reputation for belligerent staff relations. When it was announced we would get Lottie Almonte, the blogosphere was a buzz with speculation. Death Watch for Murry Bergtraum was published on Ed Notes Online. She had a reputation coming out of Brooklyn schools for far less than collaboration and veracity in staff relations.

I contacted the United Federation Teachers Brooklyn Borough office which confirmed the worst of what we were hearing. We had just managed to remove a troublesome principal, Andrea Lewis. The response from our Manhattan UFT Borough Office was to wait and see if we can play nice. Furthermore, our principal's boss, Marisol Bradbury, is reported to have had the same management style when she was principal. Given her aloof style, compared to other superintendents, it's no surprise. So, complaints up the chain of command are futile. They only signal that the principal is doing her job.

The Bloodletting - The aftermath of 2012-2013

After the first year, over 51 staff members left, mostly voluntary in the form of transfers, hastened retirements and voluntary excess. This out of about 170 total staff in the building. No complaints from the Department of Education, not even UFT headquarters. Every instructional Assistant Principal, every secretary, every guidance counselor and dozens of teachers at the top of their game, including our staff developers and Broad Science Prize winner - GONE! With this I gave her the name "Lottie Neutron", as the neutron bomb kills people but leaves buildings in tact.

The school's Learning Environment Survey, with 100% of the staff participating, says it all with regard to our Closer Principal's leadership with the majority of staff saying they don't trust her nor think she's competent. Now the trust question was removed from this year's survey. The results won't be available until the fall. It's a safe bet the numbers will be worse for the school's administration.

The school is named for a former President of the NYC Board of Education - Murry Bergtraum. The family is still prominent in city politics. Closing the school would mean the name would have to change. The school, one of the best in the city from the 1970s-1990s, took a nose dive when it become a dumping ground for the Bloomberg/Klein educational policy (2001-present) of closing large schools and sending kids whose parents have no plans to get them into a new small school.

Finally, we are in the shrink-down phase. The name Murry Bergtraum will remain outside on the wall but it will now be a campus hosting 4 schools. To make this happen the DoE had to gut staff. Keep in mind we also had a large percentage of senior staff in the building. We were an expensive lot. Union dues are the same for brand new teachers as they are for veterans, so the UFT has no automatic incentive to protect senior staff. Voluntary retirement is preferred, as ATRs (unassigned, fully benefited teachers who roam as substitutes- there is a no layoff clause in the contract) are a political headache for both the DoE and UFT.

On the Horizon
Just as the Hatchet Man's performance is not based upon employee satisfaction or retention -nor customer satisfaction really, the Closer Principal's performance won't be based as most principals' will be, i.e. on student test scores. For she comes for a specific purpose- to clear the decks and make room.

A high number of "Ineffective" ratings for staff this spring should also garner another wave of bloodletting. With minions of the principal in the form of brand new Assistant Principals of questionable experience or credentials to lead seasoned educators, seeing the glass half empty when they come to observe a lesson, citing dissent as unprofessional, punishing teachers for not staying beyond contractual time for meetings, using canned phrases in post-observation reports to teachers, referring to web sites for staff that request help, not making themselves available to model lessons, and you see there's no plan to develop the staff. They become the Closer Principal's Goon Squad.

The students suffer as much as the staff. The school has been in a state of programming and security chaos for the last year and a half. Special education violation abound and reports have been filed with New York State by whistle-blowing staff members. Does all of this pass muster with Chancellor Farina, who said she wanted to see more "joy" in the schools? Nothing but silence from her thus far.

Will this pass muster with a mayor who has a Progressive brand? If the teachers' union doesn't pressure the mayor to do away with these bully principals what incentive does the mayor have? School closings re supposed to be on the outs. So, what about the league of closer style principals out there? How do you change the culture of a bureaucracy that valued teacher bashing the last 12 years?

The majority of the staff at this point would welcome a shut down of the school. The misery is that palpable. Such is the work of the "Closer." What place does the Closer have in a de Blasio educational policy?

Lastly, I get no personal satisfaction exposing anyone's failings in public, and no less for Lottie. On a personal level she has been mostly friendly. But, her professional role has caused staff and students much harm at our school. It's my obligation to note it for the record in the hopes that someday an enlightened chancellor and union president will take notice.

John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School


Anonymous said...

Amen, and then some.

Anonymous said...

Different school, same issues.