By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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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.
"Corrective action can and should be presented in a constructive manner. Your behavior in this case was not, as it created a hostile and intimidating environment."
Klussmann directed her to personally meet with any staff members concerning job performance, to offer them assistance and to provide an opportunity for corrective action. "Continued mishandling of employee concerns may lead to termination," he wrote.
On March 27, 2007, Klussmann notified White by mail that the board of trustees "is not extending" her two-year contract. In a March 6, 2007, e-mail from White to Klussmann, White acknowledged that Klussmann would not give her a favorable reference for a principal's job in the Cypress Fairbanks ISD.
White began her job with HISD about two months later, on June 4, 2007.
Actually, whether or not SBISD sandbagged HISD with an unwanted employee doesn't make any difference legally.
"Very little good can happen by passing on negative information," says Houston employment attorney Joe Ahmad, of Ahmad, Zavitsanos and Anaipakos, PC. A company or executive can open themselves up for a possible defamation lawsuit if they give a negative assessment, he says.
And in law, "except in rare cases, for example, where somebody was a child molester, short of these rather extreme circumstances you don't have any obligation to tell somebody that 'Hey, by the way, they were a terrible employee,'" he says. "Nobody can sue you saying, 'Hey, why didn't you tell me they were a bad employee?'"
Cathryn White, who earns $109,200 (plus any bonuses) a year, making her the fourth-highest-paid middle school principal in HISD, may actually be a very good administrator who has just had the bad luck to land more than once in a school whose teachers and administrators don't value her talents.
Or she may be one of those pass-along educators that everyone hears about — shuffled from one school or district to another, just to get rid of them. The school district sighs with relief and never looks back.
In any case, it appears that the much-touted protection provided by background checks on public school administrators actually doesn't mean squat.
Patrick Henry and Melissa Freeman are the parents of four-year-old Emberlyn, who is part of a multiply impaired class at Rogers. Despite her age, "Emmy" has the mentality of a baby between six and 18 months old, her mom says. Their only child can't walk or stand and is pushed in a wheelchair.
Her parents had been in the habit of saying a few words to her teacher as they dropped her off at school each day. "All the parents walk in the room. We'd tell her how she was doing, if she was up during the night, any new medication," Freeman says.
But one day in February, when they checked in at the front desk for their badges, they were told White had decreed they were not allowed to take Emmy to her room anymore. They proceeded anyway and were just a couple of doors away from Emmy's room when an HISD police officer (who'd seen them come in every day) threatened to arrest them, on direction from White.
"This was right in front of students, teachers and parents. It was embarrassing and humiliating. I started to cry," Freeman says.
"I put my hands behind my back and said,'Okay, do it," Henry says.
They asked for and got a meeting with White later that day. They say White lectured them and told them the meeting was "a waste of her time." She said, "You don't need to be there telling the teacher her life story," Freeman remembers. He says their protests that they weren't doing that at all went nowhere. What infuriates them even more, Henry says, is that there was no time in the meeting when White discussed their daughter. "She doesn't have a clue who Emmy is," her dad says.
White offered them a deal: They could accompany Emmy if they promised not to talk to her teacher. A week later, White wrote them a letter thanking them for the meeting and their support of what she'd outlined they should do. She wrote that they should show respect for all the staff. "We never had any problem with anyone there but her," Henry says.
Helen Wheatley is the HFT representative who began working with Rogers in mid-January after the original HFT rep went out on medical leave. She says complaints started to surface shortly after Zeph Capo, HFT's government liaison, met with the school's teachers about political issues and Rogers teachers brought up White. Wheatley says she took this to the monthly meetings she has with regional superintendent Thornhill and told her that "something is coming down the pike and there are problems over there."
Thornhill insists that no allegations were brought to her attention at any time in or out of the HFT meetings. The only thing that ever came up, she says, was that HFT planned to do a survey.
Wheatley says the whole reason for the survey was to determine whether this was just a case of a few disgruntled teachers or a more widespread problem.
Thornhill tried to dismiss the results of the HFT survey, saying it was just a case of the union attacking the principal, Wheatley says. For her part, Wheatley says they tried to be as objective as possible and opened up the survey to everyone, not just union members.
She also says the teachers only went to the school board when it was clear Thornhill wasn't going to do anything, even weeks after the March survey. "Then the parents got involved," says Wheatley. "There were multiple opportunities for her [Thornhill] to get in and really do some intervention. And that was all the teachers wanted to say. They wanted her to get in, realize that there was a problem and say, 'This is what I'm going to do.'"
Thornhill announced she was going to commission her own survey, which was done by Organizational Health, a Dallas company, on May 19. Results were supposed to be released to the teachers at a retreat this past Monday or Tuesday (June 1 and 2), but Uhl said they wouldn't be released to anyone else till Wednesday.
But whether those results are more favorable to White or not, Wheatley says it doesn't matter.
"It was bogus. They made them come in little small groups, Gifted and Talented Department and second-grade teachers. And she [White] stood there, right there, while they filled out the survey. Now how objective can it possibly be if she's going to sit there and stand over the teachers while they fill out the form? She coded the surveys. If you were in the Gifted and Talented program, you had to write that on the top of your survey. This way she could identify what group of teachers was saying this, that, or the other about her. Everybody said, 'Helen, this is just bogus.'"
Some of the teachers say they refused to fill out the coding. But others didn't think to do that, and some say they hesitated to fill it out honestly, afraid of the repercussions.
Before Cathryn White, the head spot at Rogers was held by interim principal LaMyrle Ituah (six months); before Ituah there was principal Nancy Manley (six years); and before that there was principal Linda Andersson (two years). No one says being the principal of an urban school is easy, particularly one with the diverse demands of Rogers.
But the others, several of whom went on to be promoted to higher-level jobs, didn't seem to have problems getting along with a staff that includes a lot of teachers and teaching assistants who have been at Rogers for years and had a strong hand in helping it reach its acclaimed status.
In the comments section of the survey, several teachers cited morale problems, and wrote of how they were afraid to come to work, worried that they might become the next target. Others cited a lack of support from White on disciplinary issues and on issues involving complaints from parents. Since Christmas, teachers haven't been allowed to send misbehaving students to the office. "I used to enjoy coming to work, but now you have to walk on eggshells," one wrote.
Teachers say White is too tough on beginning teachers, too quick to put them on a "growth plan" which, instead of being a development aid, becomes a fast track to dismissal. One wrote that White believes everything is fine at Rogers because people do not talk to her. "As teachers we avoid the office." This teacher also wrote that if employees attempt to talk with White, they have to make an appointment at White's convenience, which means they often start as late as five or six o'clock after school.
Wheatley says that as far as HFT was concerned, "It didn't make any difference to us if she got glowing reports or she got bad reports." If the report was good, "Then we could say, 'Okay there is an isolated situation. There's only a handful of teachers that have a problem.' And then we're going to have to deal with it as a handful of problem teachers.
"But it wasn't. It was a schoolwide problem, and it became quite apparent in the results we got back from the survey."
Employment attorney Ahmad says employers often don't say bad things because they don't hold anything against a person personally, or they may want the employee to find a job somewhere else and get them off their backs.
Speaking hypothetically, Ahmad says, "There are some regulations that apply with respect to school districts in terms of checking references, criminal background and stuff like that. But as a practical matter you're not really responsible for having a bad principal just because they did a bad job somewhere else."
So someone who may not be a very good administrator or teacher can continue to be passed from district to district without anyone being held accountable?
"Assuming you can find a district that will hire you, if you can make a real good first impression or are real good in interviews, yeah," Ahmad says. "As long as you can make a good presentation in an interview, the fact that you can't do your job doesn't really matter."
Teachers spend most of their lives flying under the radar, keeping their own counsel to hold on to their jobs. If they appear before a school board, they want it to be because they or their kids are being recognized for something good, not as a last-ditch, desperate effort to try to correct something they see as wrong.
Something has gone wrong at T.H. Rogers. And whatever it is, it deserves far more unbiased and independent attention and concern than HISD and its regional supervisor have shown to date.
Hey, and the next time you hand out a survey, keep the person it's about out of the room.