The Woodland District 50 school board voted again last week to hire a principal for Woodland Intermediate School after the chosen candidate initially rejected the district’s offer.
The school board had originally approved the hiring of current Barrington 220 Elementary School Principal Derek Straight on May 24 following a lengthy discussion about staff diversity and the district’s hiring process, during which school board member Terry Hall said she was “hugely disappointed” in the lack of diversity among the potential hires presented for the board’s approval.
Woodland, the largest elementary district in Lake County with 5,700 students, is in the midst of hiring 27 new teachers in an effort to lower class sizes for the coming school year, as well as finding a new principal for the school that houses fourth and fifth grade.
Straight initially rejected the district’s job offer but later reconsidered, district spokeswoman Carolyn Waller Gordon said. The school board voted Thursday to reaffirm the choice on the recommendation of its legal counsel in a meeting that was attended by a handful of parents and teachers who spoke about the importance of staff diversity.
When asked Monday about his decision to accept the offer after initially rejecting it, Straight said in a written statement, “I have always believed in the importance of developing relationships with families with intentional actions that foster the education of the whole child. Having given myself time to reflect, I am positive and optimistic about being the new principal and I look forward to developing those connections with Woodland families and community organizations that support all of our Woodland students.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Hall said she was disappointed that the board was being presented with “another white male” for the Woodland Intermediate School principal position.
“We keep talking about how we want to get the best,” Hall said. “We also want them to be minorities. The best for us right now is to get some Hispanic and black teachers in our classrooms. Our students do not have any role models, any mentors, any leaders that look like them. This is what we hear over and over.”
School board President Carla Little said she agreed with Hall, though she said she’s “not as passionate” about it. However, Little said, she “definitely see(s) her points.”
Overall, the district has doubled the number of minorities it has hired this year over previous years, according to Martha Gutierrez, the district’s director of human resources.
The timing of board members in raising this issue was poor since Straight was at the meeting, teachers union President Sharon Anday said. He left before the meeting was over, raising concerns for her that he wouldn’t accept the position if offered.
“We insulted someone whose from a really great school, and we look stupid to people,” Anday said.
Anday had heard from multiple teachers and administrators while the meeting was underway, and came over to the meeting to express their concerns. Staff was already discussing protesting, she said.
“This is the first time in a very long time that administration and staff have vetted someone and chosen them, and then the board didn’t approve it,” she said. “He was hands down everyone’s No. 1 choice.”
The school board delegates hiring decisions to its superintendent, board member Chris Schrantz said. While the school board can discuss the process, Schrantz said he worries going down the “wrong path” in getting too involved in the actual hiring process.
The district had 38 candidates apply for the Woodland Intermediate principal’s job, and 17 of those met the criteria laid out in the job posting, Gutierrez said. Among those 17 were two African Americans and five Hispanics.
The 17 candidates were narrowed down to a field of seven, which included one African American and two Hispanics, who were invited for a second interview and to complete a writing assessment, Gutierrez said.
An interview panel made up of 17 teachers, parents and staff interviewed the final three candidates, she said. All three of the final candidates were white.
The panel did not have any black parents, teachers or administrators on it, an administrator said in response to a question from the board. The panel was open to any parents, and no black parents had asked to participate.
“This is exactly how institutional bias is perpetuated,” Hall said. “You diffuse the responsibility among a large group. They select the next group and it’s nobody’s fault. It’s not because of anything specific. It just somehow continues.”
Hall said the board had made it “explicitly plain” that it wanted to use the opportunity to help its staff reflect its student body demographically, a goal outlined in the district’s strategic plan.
The panel provides input to the administration, but does not make the final call, Associate Superintendent of Education Lori Casey said.
Little said she had some questions about what constituted “highly qualified,” and why the district is “always ending up in the same place.”
“I hate to even ask the question, because it gives the appearance that we don’t value white males, and that’s not the point here,” Little said. “I just want to make that very clear. We do.”
The hiring process was a long one that involved “a lot of digging, a lot of making sure we have the right people,” Casey said. The district did focus groups and surveys, and had conversations with the school board.
“Your direction was very clear, and we certainly, certainly considered that as we looked at our candidates,” she said.
The candidate picked for Woodland Intermediate has “qualifications that were astronomical” and a strong background in literacy instruction, which is needed by both staff and students, Anday said.