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Union resorts to code of silence to stifle questions about principal

Some of the smartest, hardest-working and most caring people I know are public school principals.

That said, education reformers have complained for years that the Los Angeles school district’s bureaucracy either ignores complaints about bad principals or shuffles crummy principals off to other schools. “The dance of the lemons,” it’s called.

A recent e-mail from the union representing administrators in Los Angeles schools offers disturbing insight into why principals who have no business being on campus sometimes continue to reign.

My Oct. 2 column discussed a kindergartner’s troubles with Anna Feig, the principal at Woodland Hills Elementary School. Some parents and teachers praised Feig as a strong leader who “runs a tight ship,” while others called her a tyrant who they say intimidates and retaliates against those who cross her.

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Two days later, Mike O’Sullivan, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) e-mailed his colleagues, calling that column “a piece of journalistic garbage that unfairly trashed the reputation and character of one of our outstanding elementary principals.” Attached to his missive was a copy of a letter to the editor of The Times by the union’s administrator, Dan Basalone, who said I had “demeaned one of our finest principals” and recommended that “no administrator agree to any interviews” with me.

O’Sullivan didn’t return my calls and Basalone hung up on me after I insisted that we talk on the record.

If I were a principal, I’d be embarrassed that the supposed leaders of a professional organization would defend someone without an investigation, let alone declare her among the district’s finest.

In the days after that column, School Me’s blog exploded with comments so voluminous and vehement that it is inconceivable that the union bossmen were unaware that the principal in question is controversial.

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Since then, I’ve received dozens of e-mails and talked to dozens of pleasant, decent-sounding people who, without a trace of irony, describe Feig as, among many other things: “a monster,” “extraordinarily rude,” “a bully,” “beastly,” “one of the nastiest persons I’ve ever met” and “a despot” who is “as close to pure evil as I’ve ever seen” and “belongs in prison for her treatment of these children.”

Parents and teachers, current and former, report filing complaints almost from the moment she arrived at the West Valley school a decade back. They advised high-level administrators about an array of concerns, including their belief that the principal plays fast and loose with the permit process determining whether some students can attend the school. At least one critic wrote to the district questioning the ethics and legality of the way the school counts tardies and absences to avoid losing attendance money.

When I talked to Feig for my previous column, she dismissed her critics, mainly as parents who didn’t want to hear the truth about their children or wanted to run the school themselves.

She did not return calls for this column. A woman in the school’s office said Feig would not talk to me on advice of the AALA.

Many parents are convinced that cowardice and cronyism within the district explain why Feig hasn’t been removed.

District 1 Supt. Jean Brown has been in her position for only 18 months. She says that since she’s been there, all complaints against any administrator have been recorded, referred, investigated, and that parents receive a response. The associated administrators group, she said, has a role in any discussion of discipline. No principals have been fired during her tenure. But in many cases, “They have received training, mentoring, coaching.... Changing behaviors and leadership skills is something we take very seriously,” she said, adding that confidentiality considerations preclude her from discussing any individual, including Feig.

In our hastily aborted chat, Basalone said, “It’s not your job as a journalist to do her evaluation.”

Thank God for that. But I do feel a moral obligation to pass on a small sampling of what I’ve heard to whoever is responsible for that task.

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Siri Maness said that she pulled her kindergartner out of Woodland Hills this year -- after four days -- because, she says, Feig insisted that the student has anger management issues. Maness claims the principal rudely threatened to suspend the child and then pointedly reminded her that the school asks each parent to donate at least $400 per child per year. Apparently because of AALA’s advice to Feig, I couldn’t discuss this matter with her.

A common complaint of parents I talked to is that Feig issues snap medical and psychological diagnoses of children (her husband’s a pediatrician, after all) and essentially demands that some students seek prescriptions for such hyperactivity medication as Ritalin -- a pill college students abuse to boost their concentration and test-taking ability.

Rossina Gil, for one, had a conference with the principal and her son’s kindergarten teacher earlier this year about Feig’s belief that the boy should be on medication -- something other professionals recommended against, she says. The teacher, Gil says, reported that the boy was “right where he should be in class.”

Gil says she’ll never forget Feig’s response: Imagine how much better he could do if he took the meds. Feig, again, wouldn’t return my calls.

Woodland Hills’ test scores are among the highest in the district. Parents, current and former, say that Feig acts like a college recruiter, encouraging smart public and private school students to apply to her school. They say they’ve contacted the district alleging that the principal tries her best to get rid of students who might hurt the school’s test scores, either by making their lives miserable or, when possible, finding a reason to pull their permits -- pawning at least some low-achievers off on other principals.

Jay Fernandez, a firefighter, says that in 1999 he and other parents formed a group to look into, among other things, what they perceived to be a disproportionate number of minority students who had had their permits yanked. The district, he says, assigned a civil rights investigator to the case but refused to tell parents the outcome.

Karen Hunt says her two children had nightmares because Feig made them feel like second-class citizens when they didn’t do well on the standardized tests. Four years ago, when one son tested as highly gifted, Feig took him in front of the class and announced that he was an example of someone who really wasn’t very smart but could do well on tests if he applied himself, the boy told his mother.

Jennifer Tidstrand says that a few years ago she called the district after several run-ins, including one in which Feig “hauled her son into a hallway and made him cry.” Tidstrand was promised her concerns would be kept confidential. She says that within days, however, Feig wanted to know why she had reported her to the district. Feig, again, wouldn’t talk to me about any of this, apparently on the advice of AALA.

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“The happiest day for both me and my son was the day he left” the school, says Michael Smith.

Jorge Solorzano says he and his wife moved to Woodland Hills specifically for the school’s test scores and moved again specifically to get away from the principal.

“For years,” says Richard Kzemien, “LAUSD has remained deaf to the numerous pleas coming from the community to have her removed. The system’s relentless insensitivity to this problem is one more example of just how serious an overhaul LAUSD really needs.”

Most parents, including some of Feig’s critics, love the school. And plenty defend Feig, saying she treats their children well and that they’ve never witnessed her alleged misbehavior. Fair enough.

But what about those callers and blog commenters who acknowledge but shrug off Feig’s “ruthlessness” as if it were a necessary evil, tell teachers who disagree with Feig’s behavior to “LEAVE” and suggest that parents who object to the humiliation of 5- to 10-year-old children are raising “frail wusses”?

To those Feig stalwarts who complain that I’ve paid too much attention to a “vocal minority,” I offer a vegetable parable. Last month millions of people enjoyed the health benefits of California spinach. Should this paper have ignored the relative handful who keeled over retching or dead from E. coli?

Basalone -- who didn’t bother to contact the kindergartner’s parents or, from what I can tell, anyone but Feig before writing his letter -- maligned all Times reporters, saying we’re “wolves in sheep’s clothing and can’t be trusted.”

O’Sullivan blustered: “Mr. Sipchen has an agenda that is inimical to our purposes and he deserves to be shunned by anyone he contacts.”

Such buffoonish rhetorical thuggery is particularly ill-advised. Most principals probably recognize, after all, that it’s not in their best interests as public servants to spurn those of us who serve as surrogates for taxpaying parents.

As for our conflicting purposes, that’s the single point O’Sullivan got right. My “agenda” is to play a small role in assuring that children get a good education.

This union’s purpose is ... what?

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To discuss this column and to read the Oct. 2 column on Woodland Hills Elementary School, go to latimes.com/schoolme. Bob Sipchen can be reached at bob.sipchen@latimes.com.


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