Parents question sameness in Ray Elementary principal search finalists

Ray Elementary School’s deadlocked local school council listens to the audience during a recent, unsuccessful principal selection meeting at the school, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave.
Ray Elementary School’s deadlocked local school council listens to the audience during a recent, unsuccessful principal selection meeting at the school, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave.

Staff Writer

The issue of race dominated discussions during the principal search this year at Ray Elementary School. While the local school council (LSC) and principal screening committee (PSC) both stand by the colorblind approach they used to select finalists, parents kept the issue of race in the forefront of the conversations.

At the LSC’s principal candidate forum in May at the school, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., there were three eager finalists: Beth Bazer, assistant principal (AP) at Hawthorne Elementary School; Lisa Dallacqua, AP at InterAmerican Elementary School, and Eric Fay, acting AP at Jones High School. Each spoke enthusiastically about their desire to lead the school back to its glory years as a level 1 high-performing school that emphasized recess, learning through play and welcoming parent volunteers. Parents found it hard to focus on the panel of finalists due to a glaring absence: The interim principal, Antonia “Toni” Hill, did not make the cut.

During the forum and the two LSC meetings, that each lasted more than four hours but led to no selection of a principal, race played a dominant role in the extensive discussions.

Ray parent Teeneka Gueye said she was appalled by the lack of diversity on the panel. Bazer, Dallacqua and Fay are white.

“I’m really disgusted by this process and saddened by where we are,” Gueye said. “Its shameful that not one candidate of color was presented. I’m not interested in career resume-building people.”

Picking a person by color felt “draconian” so the principal screening committee didn’t do it, said PSC member Terri Roback.

“We were not allowed to consider race going into process,” Roback said. “We [didn’t] know anyone’s race except for Hill’s.”

Roback said the teachers did not want to retain Hill.

LSC member and PSC Co-Chairman Timothy May said the screening process was very exhaustive and not taken lightly.

“There were a lot of positions on all sides … understand when you are taking an objective approach you get what you get.” May said. “Perhaps there are African American and other minority candidates out there that did not apply, and that’s unfortunate.”

Although the screening committee tried to play down the race issue parents insisted that while it shouldn’t be the main issue it should be considered.

Ray parent Betsy Benito said the previous principal, Tatia Beckwith, who is white and came to CPS in 2011 as a transplant from Sycamore, Ill., displayed discriminating behavior that adversely affected her family.

“Race does matter,” Benito said. “I have biracial children and it was detrimental to have Beckwith. She was very disrespectful to parents of color.”

Ray parent Jim Poueymirou said the issue of race is real.

“It was just a smack in the face that the three final candidates looked alike and sounded alike,” Poveymirou said. “Something about that didn’t look like what we needed.”

Ray parent Karen Boyd said the outcome of the screening process felt racial because Hill, who is African American, has experience as principal of Pershing and served at Ray for a year. She thinks this makes Hill the most qualified.

“No one showed us what was on the rubric and no one told us why Hill didn’t make the cut,” Boyd said.

LSC Chairman Gordon Mayer said he regrets the fact that Hill didn’t make it to the final three and that her absence is an appropriate concern.

“I received many e-mails from parents that ran the gamut,” Mayer said. “Many of them were about Dr. Hill and why she was not a candidate.”

Mayer said, “Diversity means that everybody always ends up not getting something they want.”

Gabriel Sheridan, teacher at Ray, said she doesn’t think Hill was evaluated based on race but she’s glad the issue of race came forward in the principal selection discussions.

“The [Ray] community is affected by division and mistrust in previous leadership,” Sheridan said. “We need to work on building that trust and relationship back up.”

In 2011, then-Ray Principal Bernadette Butler retired. In May of that year, what was expected to be Ray’s principal forum for the community turned into a meet the principal forum because Beckwith was the only candidate still in the running for the position. In April 2013 Beckwith was removed from her position as principal because she misappropriated school funding that left Ray in debt to Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Hill was appointed as Ray’s interim principal. According to LSC members, Hill was able to help the school get back in good financial standing.

In May 2014 CPS notified the LSC at Ray that Beckwith’s contract had been terminated and the council could begin its search for a permanent principal. Bringing Hill, who officially resigned from her post as principal of Pershing East Elementary School in July, on as Ray’s permanent principal seemed promising but the LSC was determined to have a fair process and consider all interested candidates.

Sasha Austin-Schmidt, Latin teacher at Ray, said the school needs someone who is good for everyone.

“Students are the most important people at Ray,” Austin-Schmidt said. “I think we can thrive under an African American principal or a white principal. It’s sad that this is a race issue. To me it’s not about that.”