On March 13, less than two hours before a midnight deadline, an arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association sent out, by e-mail, a decision on Elizabeth Elizondo’s appeal of the decision by the Finkl Local School Council not to renew her contract as principal.

The arbitrator found in favor of the LSC, paving the way for Susan Jensen to take over the Pilsen school when Elizondo’s contract ends March 31. The LSC, which voted not to retain Elizondo last October, picked Jensen in February; a former assistant principal at Finkl, Jensen currently is an administrator at Grey elementary, according to Finkl LSC Chair Ismael Vargas. She also is graduate of a training program known as LAUNCH (Leadership Academy: An Urban Network for Chicago), based at Northwestern University.

Elizondo’s appeal was the first case brought under a 1999 amendment to the School Reform Act that allows principals to appeal LSC decisions not to renew their contracts. The measure grew out of an attempt by schools CEO Paul Vallas to get the Legislature to give the School Board the authority to overturn such decisions.

Ruling set high bar

The hearing officer, Jay Grenig, confined his ruling to the question of whether the council’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious,” which set a high bar for overturning the decision.

In his written decision, Grenig cites the legislative debate over the law, in which a legislator described the review process as “a safety valve, in the event that a school council is indeed out of control, is making decisions based on whether the principal is willing to sign a contract to hire the brother-in-law of a council member or inflate the grades of the child of a local school council member.”

Grenig concludes that, by itself, the council’s dissatisfaction with reading scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills is enough to support their decision not to renew Elizondo’s contract. The percentage of students scoring at or above national norms at Finkl rose from 9.5 to 19.7 during Elizondo’s contract, but Grenig found that “it is not irrational for the [council] to desire even better test performances. While reasonable persons may disagree as to whether this was a wise or expedient decision, the decision was the [council’s] to make.”

‘Arbitrary and capricious’

“I wish I had known that the law was not written in such a way that it would be even remotely possible for a principal to win this,” says Elizondo. “A council could say to a principal [with test scores] in the 60s and 70s, ‘You didn’t get to 90.'”

In his report, Grenig evaluated 14 other reasons given by the council and found that it had not presented persuasive evidence to support most of them. He declared one “arbitrary and capricious,” but found that evidence supported the council on two others.

All parties concerned say that the process, which ran from Jan. 28 through Mar. 12, was enormously time-consuming, producing over 3,000 pages of transcripts.

“Arbitration prevented bureaucrats or politicians from engaging in histrionics,” says Dion Miller Perez, a parent rep.” It wouldn’t have helped their case to have gone to the press. All the action that was important took place in front of the arbitrator.”

Elizondo and her attorney say they are looking into the possibility of an appeal, although they won’t comment on possible grounds. According to the LSC’s attorney, Elaine Siegel, Elizondo would have to allege fraud or bias by the arbitrator or that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority.

Before the hearings started, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas sent a letter to the American Arbitration Association, weighing in on Elizondo’s behalf, according to the arbitrator’s report, but he then withdrew to a neutral role.

Elizondo may be working for Vallas soon. “I think I’m going to be working at Central Office,” she says, when asked about her next move. “I have a few possibilities.”

While LSC members say no parents have complained to them about their decision, two members were defeated in Finkl’s late-February elections. (The elections were held then instead of April 6 because Finkl is on a year-round schedule.)

Council members say that they are looking forward to some rest. “I still have to make it up to my wife,” says LSC Chair Vargas. “Sunday [March 12] was my wedding anniversary, and I had to be at the hearing. Not too long, but long enough … to sleep on the couch.”

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