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CPS principals get merit bonuses despite layoffs

Updated: September 24, 2013 6:25AM

Chicago Public School principals have spent a painful summer distributing pink slips and cutting back art and music programs.

In spite of those 3,168 layoffs, 134 principals will be getting fatter paychecks.

For the second straight year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel doled out bonuses Thursday — ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 apiece — to principals credited with boosting academic growth.

They represent 128 elementary schools and six high schools. Thirteen lead “welcoming” schools inheriting students from shuttered schools. Ten run charter schools.

CPS is able to give with one hand and take away with the other because merit pay is bankrolled by $5 million ponied up by four philanthropic families, $2 million of it from Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.

“We have our challenges. But they do not blur or blot out the successes that are thousands of kids behind each and every one of these principals who are the point-person of accountability,” the mayor told principals assembled in the cafeteria at Piccolo Elementary School, 1040 N. Keeler.

Emanuel called CPS the “only school system I know of in the country that has this comprehensive an approach” to principal performance bonuses.

“Last year when we did this, one principal did say, ‘I can take my family on a vacation.’ So, the mayor would ask if you would do him one favor. Just spend it here locally. Take some of your spouses to the Four Seasons. That would be a personal request. Obviously, you can do whatever you want,” he said.

The “Buy Chicago” plea was not necessary with most of the principals interviewed. They plan to pump every penny of their cash bonuses back into their schools.

“I do feel guilty about receiving a money award, because that money could be used for personnel throughout the district,” said Volta Elementary School Principal Ted Johnson, calling the re-investment a way to ease that guilt.

Pasteur Elementary Principal Gerardo Trujillo said it “feels a little weird” to be receiving a $5,000 bonus at a time when so many teachers are being laid off. That’s why he plans to use the money to give his school a technology upgrade.

“We have 10-year-old computers in every classroom, so I’ll either get new computers or increase the band-width of our WiFi. It’s very slow. If we have so many students on it at one time, it crashes,” Trujillo said.

Jason Nault, principal of North Grand High School, argued that it’s “good for morale” to “recognize those doing good work,” even at a time of retrenchment.

“The fact that it’s monetary is great, but it could be anything,” including a pizza party, Nault said.

More than two years ago, Emanuel persuaded four wealthy families to pony up $5 million to bankroll merit pay for principals in a program he vowed would include training principals to a set of expectations outlined in a new “principal performance contract.”

The announcement blindsided Chicago Principals Association President Clarice Berry, who was not given advance notice of the plan and won outright rejection from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Both pointed to research and past Chicago experience indicating merit pay in education has not proven effective.

Last year, 82 principals shared $570,000 in bonus money. This year, just over $1.1 million was divided 134 ways based on what Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett called “quantifiable improvements” in the skills most essential for student success: growth in reading, math, and closing the “achievement gap” between the highest- and lowest-achieving students.

“You’re not just the instructional leader. Nope. You’re a business manager. You’re a policy maker. You’re a nurse. You’re a judge. You’re a jury. You’re a social worker. You’re a family counselor. I could go on and on and on,” said Byrd-Bennett, who spent nearly nine years as a principal.

“The excellence you’ve done is truly incredible work. We know from research and experience that the power of an effective school leader is catalytic.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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