Power to the Principal

At Madison High, Principal Warner Ervin's word is law. Teachers say that's the problem.

Nor was Ervin's first reprimand of Iocca the end of the matter. In a second memo, he instructed her to refer students with "special concerns" to their grade-level counselor. In yet a third memo, he asked Iocca to provide him with "lesson plans" and "objectives" for the group sessions -- which were, in fact, led by an outside counselor.

Iocca took the upbraids hard, and her husband wrote an angry letter to Ervin, accusing him of "incompetence, cowardice, and discriminatory practices." Soon afterward, Ervin transferred Iocca, against her wishes, to another school.

Ervin says he can't talk about Iocca's case because it's pending before the school board. But he maintains that all the employees he has transferred or fired were deficient. "I really think that if they would soul-search themselves and really tell the truth about it," he says, "the problems were there. How could I make them up? My job is too important to me to make up problems on all these individuals. Being a professional person and a Christian person, I would not do that."

The transfer hurt Iocca deeply. "I cried more behind leaving Madison," she says, "than I cried behind my mama dying."

Marion Cole-Pitre managed to irritate Ervin on his very first day at Madison, and their relationship went downhill from there.

Cole-Pitre, a longtime art teacher with a folder full of "clearly outstanding" evaluations and a thick stack of awards won by her students, is a snappy dresser. She came to Madison in 1992 -- the same year that Ervin did -- and greeted the first day of classes by wearing a natty peach-colored suit with a double-breasted jacket and a knee-length divided skirt. Ervin, she says, pulled her aside. "Ms. Cole," she remembers him saying sternly, "you are wearing shorts."

Days later, he called her to his office to tell her that he could not support her if she did not dress more professionally. Cole protested, pointing out that HISD has no dress code for teachers. Her vehemence, she says now, was her mistake.

From then on, her working life was punctuated by a series of accusations and obstacles. She alleges that Ervin assigned her to morning patrol duties, then faulted her because, while patrolling the grounds, she wasn't also standing at the door of her classroom. He wrote her up for sending unruly students to the office (Ervin says she did not follow proper procedures). He tried to evaluate her without giving the required notice, and on a teacher preparation day, refused to allow her to leave campus to buy art supplies.

The write-ups Cole found in her mailbox bothered her; she'd been teaching in HISD since 1973, and before coming to Madison had never received a single write-up, much less a series of them. She went over Ervin's head to complain about some of his treatment of her, and in some cases the South District office intervened in her favor -- which, she says, only made Ervin more angry.

In December 1994, Ervin requested permission from the district to eliminate her job. Five months later, he notified Cole that her position was being absorbed "due to enrollment" -- even though Madison's enrollment actually increased by 200 students the following year, and though Madison's feeder school, Dowling, is a fine arts magnet.

Myra Schexnayder, an attorney who represents school districts and has often defended Ervin, says Cole was intractable: "She resented any effort on the part of Mr. Ervin to give her any kind of directives at all."

For his part, Ervin says he did not retaliate against Cole. He says he was asked to eliminate four teaching positions for budget reasons, and thinks he was "pretty balanced and fair" when he chose one math, one reading, one art and one physical education teacher. "We tried not to hurt anybody," he says. "I feel really badly that she feels it was just her, because it was not."

Plenty of other teachers offer stories of retaliation by Ervin. In his first year at Madison, four teachers filed grievances against him. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, says the offenses were "minor" things like taking away teachers' state-mandated planning periods. Subsequently, one of the teachers was investigated for teaching improper subject matter, and two more were given an extra year of probation, during which new teachers are easier to fire. The fourth, music teacher Aubrey Dunham, found his choir program dissolved in mid-February 1993 -- even though the program was funded through the rest of the year. The Houston Federation of Teachers filed ethics complaints against Ervin, but the state agency slated to hear them was shut down.

No sooner did that news arrive, but another of the four complainants, band teacher Annette Thorpe, began receiving numerous write-ups -- 18 in six weeks, to be exact. The school board initially upheld Ervin's actions, but agreed to transfer Thorpe and seal the write-ups rather than have the case heard by the Texas Education Agency.

One of the next to go was head basketball coach Walter Yates, among the most respected high school coaches in the state. Yates had been the first black coach to teach in a white high school in HISD, and after 29 years of coaching, had a win-loss record of 471226. During Ervin's first year as principal at Madison, Yates coached the Madison Marlins to the district championship, and the team received an award for good sportsmanship; other high school coaches voted Yates coach of the year.

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