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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Union resorts to code of silence to stifle questions about principal

October 30, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Some of the smartest, hardest-working and most caring people I know are public school principals.

That said, education reformers have complained for years that the Los Angeles school district's bureaucracy either ignores complaints about bad principals or shuffles crummy principals off to other schools. "The dance of the lemons," it's called.

A recent e-mail from the union representing administrators in Los Angeles schools offers disturbing insight into why principals who have no business being on campus sometimes continue to reign.

My Oct. 2 column discussed a kindergartner's troubles with Anna Feig, the principal at Woodland Hills Elementary School. Some parents and teachers praised Feig as a strong leader who "runs a tight ship," while others called her a tyrant who they say intimidates and retaliates against those who cross her.

Two days later, Mike O'Sullivan, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) e-mailed his colleagues, calling that column "a piece of journalistic garbage that unfairly trashed the reputation and character of one of our outstanding elementary principals." Attached to his missive was a copy of a letter to the editor of The Times by the union's administrator, Dan Basalone, who said I had "demeaned one of our finest principals" and recommended that "no administrator agree to any interviews" with me.

O'Sullivan didn't return my calls and Basalone hung up on me after I insisted that we talk on the record.

If I were a principal, I'd be embarrassed that the supposed leaders of a professional organization would defend someone without an investigation, let alone declare her among the district's finest.

In the days after that column, School Me's blog exploded with comments so voluminous and vehement that it is inconceivable that the union bossmen were unaware that the principal in question is controversial.

Since then, I've received dozens of e-mails and talked to dozens of pleasant, decent-sounding people who, without a trace of irony, describe Feig as, among many other things: "a monster," "extraordinarily rude," "a bully," "beastly," "one of the nastiest persons I've ever met" and "a despot" who is "as close to pure evil as I've ever seen" and "belongs in prison for her treatment of these children."

Parents and teachers, current and former, report filing complaints almost from the moment she arrived at the West Valley school a decade back. They advised high-level administrators about an array of concerns, including their belief that the principal plays fast and loose with the permit process determining whether some students can attend the school. At least one critic wrote to the district questioning the ethics and legality of the way the school counts tardies and absences to avoid losing attendance money.

When I talked to Feig for my previous column, she dismissed her critics, mainly as parents who didn't want to hear the truth about their children or wanted to run the school themselves.

She did not return calls for this column. A woman in the school's office said Feig would not talk to me on advice of the AALA.

Many parents are convinced that cowardice and cronyism within the district explain why Feig hasn't been removed.

District 1 Supt. Jean Brown has been in her position for only 18 months. She says that since she's been there, all complaints against any administrator have been recorded, referred, investigated, and that parents receive a response. The associated administrators group, she said, has a role in any discussion of discipline. No principals have been fired during her tenure. But in many cases, "They have received training, mentoring, coaching.... Changing behaviors and leadership skills is something we take very seriously," she said, adding that confidentiality considerations preclude her from discussing any individual, including Feig.

In our hastily aborted chat, Basalone said, "It's not your job as a journalist to do her evaluation."

Thank God for that. But I do feel a moral obligation to pass on a small sampling of what I've heard to whoever is responsible for that task.

Siri Maness said that she pulled her kindergartner out of Woodland Hills this year -- after four days -- because, she says, Feig insisted that the student has anger management issues. Maness claims the principal rudely threatened to suspend the child and then pointedly reminded her that the school asks each parent to donate at least $400 per child per year. Apparently because of AALA's advice to Feig, I couldn't discuss this matter with her.

A common complaint of parents I talked to is that Feig issues snap medical and psychological diagnoses of children (her husband's a pediatrician, after all) and essentially demands that some students seek prescriptions for such hyperactivity medication as Ritalin -- a pill college students abuse to boost their concentration and test-taking ability.

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