When Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas pulled a grandfather clause out from under 160 assistant principals, Principal James Breashears of Robeson High School jumped at the chance to infuse new blood into his leadership team.

“I think this new policy is great,” says Breashears, who became principal of the Englewood school in 1995. “I have two assistant principals, and I elected to replace both of them. It is not that they are bad people, but I need more energy. I need people who recognize good teaching techniques, folks who know what good reading and writing methods look like, people who are innovative. We are moving into a different era that requires different ways to help students achieve.”

Breashears is among 157 principals who inherited assistant principals as a result of 1993 negotiations between the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union. Historically, assistant principals had held their positions as long as they liked, regardless of changes in a school’s top leadership. In 1993, however, the teachers union agreed to term limits—henceforth, newly selected assistants (and head teachers) would serve for the same period of time as the principals who selected them. However, individuals who were assistant principals on Sept. 1 of that year were grandfathered into their jobs.

By 1997, 160 of those longtime assistants were still in the system, according to Cozette Buckney, chief of staff to Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. However, their tenure became tenuous in 1995, when the Illinois General Assembly removed assistant principals from the teachers’ bargaining unit.

Last month, Vallas took advantage of the Legislature’s action by permitting all principals to choose their own assistants, who will continue to serve coterminously with their principals. If a principal retires, does not receive a new contract or is ousted by the local school council, a new principal will have three months to decide whether to retain the school’s assistant principals.

Advocates of local control applauded the move. “In the spirit of school reform, principals should be able to choose their staff,” says Anthony Bryk, an education professor at the University of Chicago. “In the long term, this policy helps build a unified administrative team. The local school council chooses the principal, the principal chooses the assistant principal. The whole process is self-guided.”

Breashears adds, “This new policy means that it is in the best interest of the assistant to help principals be successful.” He says he knows of one school where the assistant principals “were outright saboteurs. They openly tried to oust their principal so they could take his place.”

Not all approve

However, some principals, as well as many assistant principals, disapproved, especially since many assistants will lose money as a result of another change Vallas made. Starting now, assistant principals will work a 44-week year—principals work 52 weeks, most teachers, 40—but not be eligible for overtime.

“What happens to people who are intelligent, are experienced and have been real assets to their schools?” questions Inez G. Walton, principal of Morgan Elementary in Auburn Gresham. “What if I retire? Our school has been really involved in Direct Instruction for a year now, and my assistants are really knowledgeable about the program. If a new principal comes in and gets rid of my assistant principals, I think my kids would suffer because there would be a disruption in what they are used to doing.”

“I was lucky that I have two people who I brought on board when the previous assistant principals retired,” says Linda Pierzchalski, principal of Bogan High School in Ashburn, noting that the previous principal had had a hard time working with the veterans, too. “The disadvantage is that my assistants will lose money. I am just lucky that they have opted to stay.”

Vallas gave assistant principals until May 30 to decide whether they wanted to retain their jobs— their principals’ willing—or return to teaching in their schools. In the future, assistant principals will not have a guaranteed fallback because they are not part of the teachers union. Principals lost tenure and seniority rights in 1989, after the Chicago School Reform Act was passed.

Buckney says the new policy is aimed at supporting principals, who are accountable for what goes on in their schools.

Noting that a new board policy requires principals to have had some previous administrative experience, Bryk says the assistant principal position will become more of a stepping stone.

As one board insider notes, “This position is so shaky now that no one would be bothered with it unless they were serious about becoming principals themselves and getting that administrative experience.”

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