Power to the Principal

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

But early on, Yates began to have a rough time with the new principal. Ervin replaced one of Yates's trusted assistant coaches with Craig Maura, the son of Ervin's friend, Sterling High School Principal Daisy Maura. In Ervin's second year, without checking with Yates, Madison allowed the Marlins' star player to go on a recruitment trip on school time -- rendering him ineligible to play for the rest of the season. Still, the team placed third in the district.

When Ervin evaluated Yates that year, he contended that the team "lacked discipline [and] organization." A short time later, he told Yates that Madison no longer required his coaching services.

At a hearing before an HISD administrator, other coaches, a referee and a sports writer praised Yates's discipline and organizational skills. And even Ervin admitted that disciplinary problems with team members had decreased -- to zero suspensions -- that year, and that Yates had never been reprimanded for failing to follow directives.

Finally, Yates's representative at the hearing asked Ervin point-blank why he'd removed Yates.

Ervin answered simply. "The principal," he said, "has the right to make those changes when he sees the need."

The TEA, however, ruled in Yates's favor, ordering that he be given back pay and be restored to his position at Madison. But the coach left immediately for a school more anxious to have him.

Since Yates's victory, the due-process procedures in HISD's athletic handbook have changed. (The district argued that they were already outdated when Yates was fired, and their inclusion in the handbook was a mistake.) Today, coaches can clearly be removed at the whim of the principal.

HISD teachers have lost other rights as well. At HISD's request, the TEA no longer gives de novo, or new, hearings on teachers' grievances against schools; now the agency simply reviews testimony from hearings held at the district level.

The threat of a de novo hearing encouraged the district to give teachers a fair shot at the local level. But without that incentive, says Fallon, teachers' rights have eroded considerably. Now, unless the teacher has been fired, district hearing officers can severely limit the time teachers have to present their grievances. Because HISD wanted the hearings to be less "adversarial," teachers no longer have the right to cross-examine their accusers. The less information contained in local hearing transcripts, the less TEA has to go on if a decision is appealed.

The district often doesn't take teachers' complaints seriously. Attorney Schexnayder, who represented Ervin and HISD, says the grievances against Ervin are simply a Houston Federation of Teachers tactic to recruit more members, not an effort to address injustices.

Fallon counters that the union prefers to resolve disputes informally, but that it's not always possible to get administrators like Ervin to cooperate. The school district's arrogance, she says, is one reason its expenses for outside lawyers such as Schexnayder jumped from $296,773 in 1990 to $1,488,404 in 1994. More recent figures aren't available.

As teachers' rights have eroded, principals have gained power. Since his hiring in 1994, HISD Superintendent Rod Paige has emphasized that Shared Decision Making -- the program in which teachers, parents and community leaders help run the school -- is purely advisory, thus overriding the committee's veto power over principals. "Rod," Fallon says, "came in and made the principal God."

Ervin, in particular, seems to be in a strong position. Teachers in the South District say they don't feel entirely comfortable taking their complaints to the area superintendent, Larry Alexander -- a friend of Ervin's and other area principals. Furthermore, they add, Alexander, Ervin and Paige all attend the same church. That chumminess, says Fallon, means there's no one to rein Ervin in: "The people above Warner won't just sit him down and say, look, let's be a little bit reasonable dealing with these teachers."

But despite his friends in high places, Ervin says he knows that on campus, being popular is not his job. Though some Madison teachers are fans of their principal, running his fiefdom can be a lonely occupation.

"Coming into a school as one person makes it very difficult to do a job," he says. "When I came to Madison in 1992, I came here alone."

And as he continues to walk the halls at Madison, a solitary figure keeping a vigilant eye out for untucked shirttails, Ervin makes sure that everything is in its proper, Ervin-determined place -- and that anything that's not in place vanishes from view.

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