Are Local Principals Being Judged Fairly?

One woman’s story

Dodie Plaisance, a highly praised former Jefferson Parish principal, has dedicated most of her life to educating children and got kicked in the behind for the effort.

 She is an example of education reform gone wrong.

Plaisance joined a growing number of victimized educators last year when she was booted out of her school for not meeting a Jefferson Parish School Board policy that mandated meeting an inflexible student performance growth target, called an SPS in reform lingo.

Despite glowing reviews from a prestigious national education program and immediate supervisors and evidence of improvements in a challenging school, Plaisance was terminated on short notice. She had only four weeks to find a new position. Making matters worse, she says the system office cut email access during new employment negotiations. She also received notices that insurance coverage was on the verge of termination.

“It was the worst experience I have had in my life,” Plaisance says.

 She was one of 17 principals that Jefferson Parish Superintendent James Meza terminated last year. The majority were dismissed for not meeting growth targets. Others were let go because their schools were merged into other schools.

 Because of her stellar background, Plaisance was one of the lucky ones, even though she lost $9,000 in annual pay. She snared an assistant principal position at John Ehret High School.

Others lost thousands of dollars in wages and future retirement benefits that they have worked to earn over the years. The stigma of termination – memorialized in the media – tarnished their credentials and left them feeling like pariahs. Many ended up either taking retirement voluntarily or being forced into it because they couldn’t get new positions.

Maria Landry, principal of John Ehret High School, said she had difficulty getting approval to hire Plaisance. The beginning of the fall term was at her door, but request after request to the central office went unanswered. “It was almost like a silent treatment,” Landry says.

“We couldn’t get a straight answer. We had to be persistent.”

Even though the situation was “uncomfortable,” Landry says, “I have no regrets at all. Dodie is awesome.”

The disregard for Plaisance’s 24-years of service in Jefferson Parish schools is the most disturbing part about her story. Booting her to the curb without so much as a thank you note defies good sense, not to mention good manners.

Plaisance, along with 11 others, is suing the school board for lost wages. Six of the group landed other employment, but the other half didn’t. In addition to Jefferson schools losing dedicated educators, taxpayers could end up footing a substantial legal bill. The courts so far have taken a dim view of the strong-arm tactics that have been used by state officials to adopt education initiatives, so the Jefferson school board could face equal reprimand.

The policy that led to Plaisance’s termination sounds reasonable in theory. The policy, adopted in March 2011 and clarified in October ’11, says that principals whose schools don’t meet a state determined improvement target within three consecutive years will be replaced. The policy is tied to a state accountability system instituted about a decade ago that’s aimed at improving Louisiana’s schools. Student test scores drive the system, and principals and teachers are increasingly evaluated on student performance. Considering the dismal state of education in Louisiana, such accountability was long overdue, and test scores have shown such reforms are beginning to work.

However, as always, the devil is in the details. In Plaisance’s case, the decision to replace principals who don’t meet improvement goals was adopted only a year before she was terminated. She had been principal of Myrtle C. Thibodeaux Elementary School since 2008. Her contract didn’t include the SPS requirement, nor did the evaluation rubric her supervisors used to determine whether she should be rehired.

Nonetheless, meeting the growth target was applied retroactively. Thibodeaux’s performance increased more than 10 percent during her tenure but never in a single year as was required by the new policy. In short, she was held accountable for a do-or-die requirement that was unstated for most of her employment as principal.

The policy also includes a provision that says a principal’s contract can be extended if “compelling evidence” warrants it. Plaisance had realms of “compelling evidence” but she says no one asked to see it. In the year she was given to make her target, for example, she says two teachers were out on extended sick leave, and despite pleas for replacements, she had to use substitutes. Even more problematic, over 30 percent of the school’s students leave or arrive throughout the school year. These mitigating circumstances were not considered, and she wasn’t given a chance to present the progress that had been made.

The lawsuit alleges that she wasn’t given the 120 days notice that school board policy dictates. The lawsuit also alleges that the policy wasn’t applied in an equal manner. Principals whose SPS failures were pronounced were retained over principals who had SPS scores closer to the target, attorney Ron Wilson says. A spokeswoman for the Jefferson school system said that officials wouldn’t comment on the allegations because of “pending litigation.”

Only a judge can decide whether the procedural and fairness allegations are valid, but in the bigger picture, those charges aren’t the most troubling.

Plaisance’s record trail paints a portrait of an educator of the highest caliber who could’ve been lost to the profession. A regional assistant superintendent gave her “exemplary” ratings for “vision” “school management” and “professional ethics”. One gave “exemplary” for positive community relations in a low-income neighborhood.

Carolyn Van Norton, a regional assistant superintendent who evaluated Plaisance in 2011, wrote that she’s “extremely organized” and “communicates expectations to students and teachers.” Plaisance “will continue to grow into a leader of leaders,” Van Norton wrote.

A reviewer for the TAP program, a teacher effectiveness program supported by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, gave her a “distinguished” rating as a principal because she scored above the 90 percentile for effectiveness. The reviewer wrote that she “implemented TAP with fidelity to meet the needs of students.”

Even more telling, one of Plaisance’s regional assistant superintendents says: “I was amazed at what they did at that school.”