Power to the Principal

Warner Ervin, the principal of Madison High School, was patrolling the halls when he spotted a stray student. Three years before, the burly Ervin had taken over Madison with a mandate to bring the school under control -- and one aspect of that control was to stop students from roaming the halls when they ought to be in class. By now, in October 1995, the problem had been largely solved, but Ervin wasn't about to let a potential violator slide. He demanded to see the girl's hall permit.

But instead of the official, school-approved form, she produced a handwritten note that said "To Bathroom, PERMIT," and bore the signature of her yearbook teacher.

The makeshift permit wasn't good enough. Ervin escorted the student back to her classroom, where he lectured her teacher, Clarence Donnelly, on the importance of not allowing students to wander the halls. Donnelly explained that he'd already used the two hall passes he'd been rationed for that day, and that this had seemed an emergency. The girl, Donnelly says, explained to Ervin that her menstrual period had started, and blood was beginning to show on her clothes. According to Donnelly, Ervin asked whether the girl had a note from her doctor.

But the incident wasn't over -- at least, not for Donnelly, a first-year teacher still on probation. Ervin filed a report of Donnelly's failure to issue an official permit, not mentioning any extenuating circumstances. (Ervin later claimed that he didn't know about the girl's emergency.) Eventually that report became one of the justifications used to fire Donnelly.

Other incidents in the file seem equally trivial. For instance, Donnelly had allowed a student to wear a "skort," violating the school's policy against shorts, no matter how skirtlike in appearance. The teacher had turned in his final grades two hours late; though HISD officially allows a two-day grace period, the much smaller infraction still rankled Ervin. Besides that, Ervin wrote, Donnelly kept his lesson plans in the wrong place, and made calls on the phone in his classroom.

Most damning, Ervin now says, Donnelly was "failing to improve" -- though when he recommended Donnelly for termination, Ervin had yet to formally assess the teacher. By any standard, Donnelly would have had a tough time succeeding with the cards he'd been dealt: First, he never received supplies for the yearbook classes he was teaching; then, three months after school began, he was informed that Madison would not produce a yearbook that year. After a semester of improvising, he changed his yearbook classes to journalism, but then didn't receive up-to-date textbooks until April. "Basically," he says, "I got the impression I was in a holding pattern just to keep these kids in the room."

How you view Donnelly's firing depends largely on how you view Ervin -- and on how you view the role of a high school principal. Ervin and his supporters see the principal as an almost omnipotent ruler over his domain; if he wants a teacher or student out, then so be it. Over the last several years, that's become the more-or-less official view of the Houston Independent School District -- and in the eyes of HISD, Ervin is very, very good at his job. In fact, says Deputy Superintendent Faye Bryant, "He's one of the finest principals we have."

Ervin's opponents, of course, would beg to differ. According to the Houston Federation of Teachers, Ervin has been the target of more union grievances than any other principal in the district. For this story, more than a dozen parents and current and former employees complained to the Press, saying that Ervin is petty, dishonest and mean-spirited, that he harasses employees and students, and -- worst of all -- that no one does anything to stop him.

By almost all accounts, Madison was in serious trouble before Ervin took over. At the southside high school, it sometimes seemed as if the kids were the ones in charge; one teacher recalls that it often appeared as though more students were in the halls than in class. "[The school] didn't have anything to be proud of," says Iris Perkins, a former PTA president. "Madison had a very bad image and a very bad reputation. Children would walk out as soon as attendance was taken." Each morning, she says, buses stopped at Madison to pick up neighborhood kids who'd transferred to other schools.

In 1992, HISD gave Ervin a mission: Reform Madison.
The principal says he adopted a two-pronged strategy: First, get the kids in the classrooms; second, teach the kids. He assigned teachers to morning and afternoon patrol duties and directed them to stand at their doors while children were changing classes. As a security measure, he locked the school's bathrooms during class. He demanded that students follow a dress code, and imposed a rule that shirttails -- which can sometimes conceal weapons -- be tucked in. For the same reason, he imposed a "no-backpack" rule. One student remembers that he had a sixth sense about kids with mischief on their minds; if they were heading the wrong way, he'd suddenly appear and stop them.  

By most accounts, Ervin's crackdowns brought the hallways under control. Academic improvement proved more elusive: Though the school's TAAS reading scores have improved significantly during his tenure, its math scores have plummeted, placing Madison near the bottom of the high school rankings. Still, the number of students passing all three subjects -- reading, math and writing -- has increased from 22 to 35 percent. Based on the school's test scores, attendance and dropout rate, the Texas Education Agency deems Madison "acceptable" -- the same rank it awards most HISD high schools.

Ervin and his backers point to other accomplishments at Madison. The principal, they note, has introduced advanced placement courses, finagled a magnet program in meteorology and space science (a financial plum), and increased participation in extracurricular activities. Under Ervin, Madison has built a new, larger library. And last year, Madison won a $250,000 grant from General Electric to prepare students for college.

Naturally, Ervin's authoritarian stance doesn't endear him to the school's teenage students. But sometimes, his quest for an orderly school has run afoul even of parents. Annette Eggleston says Ervin went over the line with her son Justin, a kid with little history of disciplinary trouble who appeared at school one day in 1996 sporting a short haircut with a little loop design shaved into his temple. Ervin decided this was a "gang haircut" and ordered Justin not to return to school until he'd gotten rid of it. (Though Ervin won't discuss cases involving individual students, he says that, in general, designs carved in the hair are "threatening and intimidating to youngsters.")

Annette and Justin Eggleston both deny that the haircut had anything to do with a gang, and there's little evidence otherwise. In fact, HISD Police Sergeant Richard Berrera, of the Gang Intervention Unit, says he does not classify any particular haircut as a sign of gang membership. "[Kids] put designs in their hair and in their fades," he says. "But it's not just gangs. A lot of good kids wear it."

For help, Annette Eggleston says she went to HISD's central administration, and that Director of School Operations Carrie McAfee called Ervin with instructions to allow Justin back in school. (McAfee denies calling Ervin for any disciplinary reason, and did not recall Eggleston; but Eggleston displays a worn business card of McAfee's as proof of their meeting.) Justin returned to school, but a week later, Eggleston was called to Madison to collect her son, who was in handcuffs. Again, she says, the haircut was the problem. She withdrew Justin from the school.

Another parents, who asks to be identified only as Sharon, is even more incensed about the treatment of her daughter, nicknamed Sleepy. In 1996, Sharon complained to Ervin that she'd heard a rumor that older female basketball players were engaging in sex acts on the school's roof; Sharon was worried that these students might influence Sleepy, then a freshman athlete.

But instead of investigating the other girls right away, Sharon says, Ervin first turned on Sleepy, an honors student who says she was indeed questioning her sexuality. He told Sharon to have Sleepy psychologically evaluated. Sharon complied, checking Sleepy into Spring Shadows Glen for two days.

Sleepy received a clean bill of psychological health, but Ervin then refused to allow her to return to school, and suspended her for the alleged sexual harassment of another female student -- which Sleepy denies. Another student, Elena Stephens, says that Ervin had tried to get her to trump up charges that Sleepy harassed her, but that she refused to go along.

Once again, Ervin says he can't comment on a case involving an individual student.

Sleepy was not allowed to return to Madison. Ervin explains that the student was not living within the school's neighborhood boundaries; Sharon says otherwise.

Sleepy wasn't the only person who left Madison after the incident. Beverly Iocca, a substance abuse monitor, had worked at the school since 1988; she had a good record and a reputation for being tough but fair with students. But she says she displeased Ervin when he asked her to report other employees' infractions and she refused. She returned to school in '96 to find that she no longer had a private office where she could discuss students' problems with drugs and alcohol. That, she says, is when she should have seen the writing on the wall.  

Iocca sponsored a weekly group rap session for students who wanted to talk about their problems. Sleepy participated in the group, and one day, she confided to the others that she was "not heterosexual."

After Sharon complained to Ervin about the antics supposedly taking place on Madison's roof, an assistant principal told him about Sleepy's statement to the group. Afterward, Ervin called Iocca into his office and told her Sharon was angry with her. In his follow-up memo to Iocca, he wrote that "a parent was very upset and felt that some of her daughter's problems resulted from topics you allowed the students to openly discuss in your sessions."

But in point of fact, Sharon says she never complained about Iocca -- she didn't even know about the rap sessions.

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.

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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