Teachers and parents in Beverly Hills, incensed over what they believe is the forced retirement of a beloved principal, are preparing for a second confrontation with their school board today. And this time, they say, they want answers.
Irene Stern, who has worked in the Beverly Hills schools for almost 30 years, the last seven as principal of the Beverly Vista K-8 campus, submitted a letter Feb. 16 to the Beverly Hills Unified School District announcing her retirement. The announcement surprised faculty and staff and dismayed many parents.
Stern says she had been called to a Feb. 8 meeting with district officials who offered her a promotion to program director of the Beverly Hills Adult School. But she said it was an offer they knew she would refuse. Her passion, she said, is working with children, not adults.
"I bit my tongue because I didn't want to cry," she recalled. "It was the hardest walk from the office to my car that I've ever done."
The new assignment, she said, prompted her to end her career earlier than anticipated.
"They never said I [should] retire, but the implication was there," Stern said. "I'm disappointed, and I'm angry, but the truth of the matter is, we work at the pleasure of the board."
Even though she has never been shy about disagreeing with district policy, Stern said, "I have never refused to do anything the district says."
District Supt. Jeff Hubbard, citing confidentiality concerns, said he couldn't discuss his conversation with Stern, nor did he confirm or deny whether she had been offered a position at the adult school. But he said Stern's decision to leave was hers alone and that he was surprised to find her letter on his desk last month.
"Mrs. Stern and I have a different interpretation of events," Hubbard said of the conversation that led to her decision.
Angry parents and teachers packed a Feb. 21 school board meeting, during which they took turns berating board members and demanding answers about Stern's retirement.
"Who is responsible for the decision that has ended Irene's stellar 30-year history of dedicated service to our district?" eighth-grade English teacher Merle Bauer asked.
Linda Roberts, who has been a school district volunteer since the 1960s, said, "I am so disappointed, appalled and ashamed at the manner of your actions. One now can only hope that since I'm old -- and you obviously dislike anybody who is old, with experience or history -- that I live long enough to see that what goes around comes around. Shame on you."
Teachers from the high school showed up at the meeting to lend Stern their support.
"My concern is about a system that allows it to come to this point, that allows this mystery," said Joel Pressman, a music teacher. "There's nobody here who knows what led to this decision, and I know you've decided that legally you're not going to talk about it. I don't know that that's really good."
Some parents at the meeting, including Tom Hayostek, later speculated that the district forced Stern to retire because of her outspoken nature.
"They're ruling by example, so that no sane employee who values their paycheck is going to stand against them," Hayostek said. "Unfortunately, what you're going to have is a new person who's thankful to have a job and they're not going to challenge the decisions of the district."
Stern's supporters are angry about the timing of the change as well. A rebuilding effort on campus, which sustained major damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, should be completed within a year, and Stern had said she wanted to stay in her job long enough to see the finished product.
"They offered her a position that they \o7knew\f7 she wouldn't take," Bauer said earlier this month. "That's a very shrewd move on their part.... They obviously wanted to get rid of her."
Stern, 69, was a Beverly Vista parent before she began teaching there in the mid-1970s. She served as an assistant principal starting in 1994 and became principal in 1999. Trophies clutter her desk, and award plaques adorn the walls of her office.
But not every parent at the school is up in arms. Aviva Laufer, co-president of the district's PTA, said she trusts the district, adding that, although details about Stern's retirement may be informative, personnel issues should be kept private.
"I think it's terribly undignified to have to reveal that kind of information," said Laufer, whose child attends Beverly Vista. "I love and adore Irene ... and I also respect Jeff Hubbard."
Stern said she tried to rescind her retirement but, per district policy, Hubbard said, "Once a resignation or retirement is received
It's not known who will replace Stern after she leaves June 30, Hubbard said, but he hopes for a positive send-off.
"I think Irene has done some really terrific things for our district," Hubbard said. "I'm hoping that we really have an opportunity -- in spite of this controversy -- to really honor her."