Sunday, December 28, 2008
In Yorktown, Principal John F. Sullivan is Thrown Out
From the desk of Betsy Combier: the removal of Mr. Sullivan and the reading of the reasons given shows that the rubberization process is random and arbitrary, and needs to be changed. Mr. Sullivan is so popular that the 1,300 students at Yorktown High School walked out when he was fired.
Principal’s Fast Ouster a Mystery
By JOSEPH BERGER, NY TIMES, April 6, 2008
THIS is a story about principals and principles where a lot more than spelling is at stake.
With all the agony that schools put themselves through searching for strong principals, an education tenderfoot might think it would take some very grave grounds to dismiss one in midyear. But the superintendent and the school board of this town in northern Westchester, which has evolved from countryside to suburb in two generations, have dismissed John F. Sullivan, the principal of its high school, mostly for the following reasons, according to a letter he received from the superintendent:
¶He took a cellphone call during a staff meeting; the caller turned out to be his wife.
¶He did now show up for one school district cabinet meeting.
¶He did not complete nine of more than 100 teacher evaluations.
The superintendent, Ralph Napolitano, did not accuse Mr. Sullivan of stealing the bake sale money or slamming a mischief-maker against a wall or letting the SAT scores plummet. Nevertheless, the superintendent ordered Mr. Sullivan off school property and had the locks changed on his doors.
Mr. Sullivan was so popular with the school’s 1,300 students that they walked out en masse when they learned he had been suspended on Valentine’s Day. His dismissal — it became official Wednesday in a unanimous vote by the school board — is particularly perplexing because the board had essentially begged Mr. Sullivan to come out of retirement in 2004 to run its troubled high school, first as a consultant and then as a probationary principal. After he turned around falling attendance and lax discipline, the board asked him in 2006 to become superintendent, a job he turned down as too taxing.
He recommended that Dr. Napolitano become the superintendent. Mr. Sullivan’s supporters, suggesting that no good deed goes unpunished, noted that it was Dr. Napolitano who turned around and suspended him.
Mr. Sullivan, 66, is a principal from central casting. In an age where some administrators think nothing of running their schools in chinos and sandals, he wears a suit and tie. He is said by parents to be both firm and tender. He insists on orderly hallways, penalizes class cutters and shows up for assemblies to make sure students are respectful to guests, yet he greets students when they arrive and urges them to confide any problems.
So why fire him? In a brief telephone interview a few days before the board’s vote, Dr. Napolitano, 57, said: “I need you to understand that this is a personnel matter that is pending, and I’m not able to discuss that with you.”
David S. Shaw, a lawyer for the school district, said the reasons given for the suspension met the standards required for a probationary principal, which are not as difficult to defend as those for tenured educators.
But many parents here, including Patricia Faigle, a former teacher and former school board member, say they think the conflict is “a personal issue, not a personnel issue.” Ms. Faigle sees the dispute as stemming from two strong personalities, one of whom was in the superior rank of authority but felt threatened by the stature, self-assurance and experience (38 years as principal) of his subordinate.
Another possible explanation comes from Mr. Sullivan, who said in an interview and in a statement to a local paper that Dr. Napolitano, after becoming superintendent in January 2007, immediately had his eye on a favorite candidate to fill the high school job. Mr. Sullivan said Dr. Napolitano invited him to lunch and bluntly asked how long he planned to remain, adding, “When you’re ready to go, I have a good Christian man ready to replace you.” Dr. Napolitano would not comment on whether he made that remark.
Mr. Sullivan said he thinks that once Dr. Napolitano “realized I was going to stay for a couple of years, he seemed to be on my throat for everything.”
To many parents, the charges against Mr. Sullivan seem Captain Queeg-like in their pettiness, accusing him of the academic equivalent of stealing strawberries when weightier issues should be determinant. The correspondence between Mr. Sullivan and Dr. Napolitano suggests a fixation on having Mr. Sullivan get formal permission from him for extended lunch breaks and days off, with little mention of academic management.
“What they are charging him with does not warrant dismissing him so suddenly in the middle of a school year,” said Miriam Curtin, a parent of one current high school student and one graduate. “If he had done something horrendous, people would understand.”
Mr. Sullivan, who happens to be president of the Empire State Supervisors and Administrators Association, the union for 3,200 administrators, acknowledges that there was one time he crossed Dr. Napolitano, by challenging his veracity. He questioned why Dr. Napolitano told the high school faculty he was requesting $150,000 in state aid to renovate a special education classroom when Mr. Sullivan contended that earlier professional estimates put the figure at $50,000.
At the moment, the high school is being run by two assistant principals, a joint venture that is a recipe for creeping instability.
Mr. Sullivan, like his pugilist near-namesake, is a fighter, but he is upset that the charges have led some people to surmise he must have done something more sinister that the board cannot talk about. Such speculation blemishes his reputation.
“I see myself as being finished,” he said. “But bringing this kind of abuse to the public eye may prevent it from happening again.”