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Guest Column: How do we continue to destroy our school district?
By David Stocker
There are people whose hearts are broken over Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield’s departure as superintendent of Rockford Public School District 205. For others, pressing for her dismissal had mainly to do with her willingness to dismantle successful programs in our district. Her baffling process included degrading parents, teachers and principals, and steering public funding to pet projects, crony consultants and private corporate interests: Evans Newton, Pearson, Camelot (thankfully, not), SPI/Diamond Security, a selection of charter vendors and more.
Sheffield managed skillfully to reveal different parts of her persona and her agenda to different groups of people. She made backroom deals on one side of town, sent nice glossy promos that appealed to parents on the other side, and shared Broad Superintendents Academy collegial perspectives with her cabinet and inner chamber of handlers about their opportunities in reform and privatization. Under pressure, she opened the wounds of historic racism for opportunists on both sides. What became of our change agent? …She-fled.
The harm came to all those taken in by her, and was especially painful to those who trusted in her message: “It’s all about the children.” In her wake, a few people are shouting. Many in District 205 are still afraid to speak up. Lots of people with something to hide are urging that we move rapidly on. No one has taken responsibility for bringing her here or the damage she caused, although it has been interesting to see who runs for cover as the pond is drained.
Remember back when the only concerns we thought we had with our superintendent were nagging lack of certification and alleged DUI problems? The months of intrigue, summary firings, threats, closures, deception and financial manipulations placed lives of children, parents and educators in upheaval. “It’s all about the children.” Post-Sheffield, we appear now to be in a least-best-solution mode as we play a risky game of principal’s roulette.
Three weeks ago, Executive Director of Schools Earl Hernandez escorted Ann Rundall out of her principal’s office at Haskell Year Round Academy and confiscated her computer. Ann spent days in the infamous “rubber room” downtown, reading…while 205 officials disconnected her from the community she has for seven years painstakingly built at Haskell. She has since been given nominal administrative assignments at other schools, walking the halls or writing referrals… but is barred from returning to the Haskell campus. Three weeks into this, Rundall has been given no reason yet as to her removal as principal. However, behind the scenes, district officials have allegedly let it be known she is accused of racial discrimination.
Rundall’s treatment is very much like the treatment received by a handful of other principals and accused staff in the past months. Some were perceived as obstacles to Sheffield’s initiatives…AND yet it is so unlike anything I associate with building community or educating children…I AM AMAZED. In this churn, I barely recognize our community. The destiny of Haskell is like the canary in the coal mine. The Board of Education (BOE) has, with full awareness, made a decision to destroy a successful school.
A community suffering
from collective amnesia
Starting 18 months ago, Sheffield shifted control of Title 1 funds to downtown, rescinding the site-based allocations. At the same time, the discipline code was revoked, and Rockford Police Department security was removed from middle and high schools. Barely accountable rent-a-cops appeared. (1), (2), (3)
Principals were put on notice by the superintendent that they would be penalized for writing referrals or for sending chronically disruptive kids to the next logical facility at Page Park (4). Largely because of the loss of two crucial Title 1 staff who dealt directly with individual discipline problem children, Haskell saw their AYP progress slip. Sure, because “It’s all about the children…”
The benefit of year-round programs, especially for lower-income students, is undisputed (5). Indeed, we have our own local proof in Haskell. In accordance with the Visualize 2015 Strategic Plan, and modeled on Rundall’s success, Teresa Harvey started 205’s second year-round program at Lewis Lemon. After barely seven months, it was inexplicably canceled. Through the winter months, Haskell school, all its children and staff became pawns in a tug-of-war over where the Year Round Academy would be housed and who would lead it. Incredibly, Ann was not the favorite in spite of her years of service, leadership and pioneering of year-round schooling in Rockford.
As one set of falsehoods was discredited, more were fabricated.
A parent-led “save-Haskell’ campaign shed light on the illogic and detriment of repurposing Haskell to non-year-round. Ann was accused of initiating a petition to save Haskell. The allegation was disproven and dropped, but the damage was done. Harvey is now the choice to replace Ann at Haskell. In Rundall’s absence, Harvey has already made a site visit to Haskell, met with staff and offered critiques. This game of principal’s roulette has created the worst possible outcome for the children of 205 and assures the end of Haskell. No doubt, these contrived circumstances will drive up charter enrollment, pleasing some.
The back story contains further complexity. One BOE member’s sister is a Haskell staff member (10). Would the close relations of family members present a conflict of interest in BOE votes? If an individual staff presses a complaint against her supervisor, should not the BOE member (sister) recuse herself from voting?
To accept the dismissal of Ann Rundall, this community will have to put on blinders, rewrite history and take itself through the odd mental gymnastics of imagining that Ann’s turnaround of Haskell either did not happen, or that it was an accident… that the stunning improvements and the success of students was not attributable to her creativity, the team she assembled, her engagement of parents, her advocacy, and love of all children, especially those who come to our schools from hardship, from low income, broken homes and violent neighborhoods.
The BOE will need to determine why anyone would make false accusations against Ann Rundall. The damage is mainly done. It is uncertain Rundall would accept reinstatement if it were offered. The team is broken. Outstanding Haskell teachers are looking for the exits, as daily indignities unfold. Who gains from putting stable school communities arbitrarily at risk by dismissing respected principals?
Entreaties on behalf of Ann Rundall are falling on deaf ears. Across the district, there is the eerie silence of cowardice and complicity. What will be done by those who have connected the dots, who know Ann Rundall and who see what is happening? District leadership is entrusted with acting in the best interests of children, and in support of education. Ann Rundall exemplifies wisdom, patience and compassion, and is one of the most successful leaders working in 205. We will soon see the content of character the BOE reflects.
What is our future when a few despairing people make it their purpose to drive out a beloved principal who is certainly among the most qualified to interpret and address issues of inequality in our schools…and whose unstoppable work over decades has been to bring an end to racism in Rockford? A tremendous injustice is being committed. The board needs to make decisions based on what is right for children. In the words of one pastor who has volunteered extensively at Haskell, “The way Ann has been treated and the damage that is being done to the children of Haskell are truly shameful.”
David Stocker is volunteer artistic director of The Rainplayer, a Mayan story at Montessori Magnet. David is a District 205 watcher in the tradition of the late Russ Milano. He also collects rain in barrels. Readers can find music by his band, One Drum, at www.rambutanrecords.com.
(4) How the Title 1 funds may have been diverted and used by Sheffield is currently being investigated by the community. This includes Freedom of Information Act requests regarding 50 McIntosh students on a charter bus, travel costs, admissions at Great America and hotel accommodations in Atlanta for a week last month.
(5) Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, (Little, Brown, & Co, 2008) Ch 9; p.258.
From the June 1-7, 2011 issue