By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Dr. Cathryn White came to T.H. Rogers two years ago, and whatever good will she initially generated, what with being the new principal and then having to take maternity leave to give birth to twins at age 49, seems to have pretty well dissipated by now, at least among a not-insignificant number of teachers at the pre-K-through-8th-grade school.
In fact, it has gone so far that on May 14, about 20 faculty members — afraid for their careers and futures, but determined all the same — appeared before the Houston Independent School District Board and asked that White be fired.
The board was mum, in keeping with its usual policy not to enter into a debate during the public comments section of its meeting. But days afterward, only one trustee had followed up with any of these teachers, Board President Lawrence Marshall. Clearly, no one wanted to wade into this particular briar patch right before the end of the school year.
As the teachers who spoke to the Houston Press see it (none wanted their names used, saying they feared retribution), White is an arrogant, controlling taskmaster who calls unnecessary meetings that she herself is then always late for — unless she cancels them at the last minute. They say she rules through a combination of intimidation and public reprimands, with the help of some of her assistant principals and others who spy on teachers she wants out of Rogers. They say she has no respect for teachers and her communication skills are minimal. She is often absent from the school — she goes to every in-service available, they say — and operates what some call "a ghost administration."
They charge that she ignores the campus-based Shared Decision Making Committee, composed of teachers, parents and community leaders, which, according to its commission, is supposed to be right in the middle of planning and decision making for the school. The group did not receive a copy of the 2007-8 school budget at all from White despite repeated requests, and the next year didn't receive it till April, when, one teacher says, determinations had already been made. "Both school years there were no opportunities to make decisions on discretionary funds."
White has shown no sensitivity for the special mix that is Rogers — a Blue Ribbon school that blends three student populations — Gifted and Talented, deaf, and multiply impaired, teachers and parents say. She has especially targeted the elementary teachers — two GT teachers were let go this year.
In an online survey done by the Houston Federation of Teachers in March, 56 percent of those who responded say White failed to meet minimum standards in providing instructional leadership. Forty-four percent say she interrupts their classes. Another 67 percent cited her for too much paperwork and noninstructional duties.
Sixty-three percent say she doesn't benefit from constructive criticism, 57 percent say she does not encourage faculty input, 55 percent say she doesn't implement faculty suggestions, 74 percent say she doesn't consult teachers before implementing new programs and 69 percent say she doesn't use power fairly.
Asked if they planned to return to Rogers next year, 53 percent of the 74 respondents (out of about 250 teachers and aides) said yes.
That left 5 percent who said "no," 33 percent who said, "Maybe, if someone intervened to help improve staff relations," and 8 percent who said, "Not even if you gave me [Superintendent Abe] Saavedra's bonus." (A little HFT humor there.)
Even the teachers who haven't been criticized by White say they've been increasingly upset by how she treats other educators at the school.
White declined a request from the Press for an interview. HISD spokesman Norm Uhl confirmed that an investigation is now underway, headed by Regional Superintendent of the West Region Barbara Thornhill. Thornhill initially also declined to respond to any Press questions, but finally did answer some — after ordering up a survey of her own at Rogers that she says "had more validity than the HFT survey."
In her response to the Press, Thornhill denied reports that she is a personal friend of White's and said that when White, who'd been most recently a principal at Spring Forest Middle School in Spring Branch ISD, interviewed for the job, all her references were satisfactory and that she was "under contract to SBISD and in good standing when she left."
But when asked about this last week, the Spring Branch district wrote, "Spring Branch ISD has no record of being contacted by HISD for a reference on Dr. White."
And Thornhill's comments don't match up with documents and e-mails from SBISD in 2006 and 2007 that show a series of complaints about White's emotionalism and her inability to "separate friendship from professional relationships." As one administrator put it: "She just gets cross with people and things that are said and just can't get over it. Then she spins and spins on it mentally." The portrait of her that emerges is one of an administrator who hounds her employees, demanding that they show up at her beck and call on a moment's notice, and sees the slightest lapse as an egregious wrong.
In fact, as early as January 2006, SBISD Superintendent Duncan F. Klussmann threatened to fire White over her handling of an employee matter. According to a letter Klussmann wrote, White either e-mailed or left documentation about the administrative assistant on her desk. In doing so, he wrote to her, "you escalated the situation to leave me no choice but to move your administrative assistant to another site.