While Spokane schools are pushing for more parental involvement, Madison Elementary is embroiled in a bitter dispute over how active its parents should be.
On one side are more than 35 parents who think principal Shari Kirihara is an autocrat who undermines their organizing efforts and disregards their views.
They want her out.
The group of disgruntled parents raised the stakes in the 4-year-old conflict earlier this month by sending a 200-page complaint to the Spokane School Board. The critics are supported by several former staff members who moved to get away from Kirihara.
On the other side are Kirihara’s supporters: many parents of the 410 students at Madison, most staff and Spokane School District 81 administrators. They characterize the feud as character assassination by a handful of troublemakers.
District administrators reviewed Kirihara’s performance this spring and decided to keep her at Madison. They are now investigating the new complaints.
The decision to keep Kirihara is a slap in the face, her foes say.
“If you have one parent who is a griper, maybe two or three … you can dismiss it,” said parent Jeanette Faulkner. “When you have 40, there is something. The whole world can’t be crazy and the district right.”
Kirihara says the conflict is the kind of thing that happens in “the normal course of public school operations …”
“This is a contrived issue, not a school issue but rather a personal disagreement between a disillusioned parent and myself,” she said in a two-page written statement. She refused to talk about specific complaints.
Kirihara hinted at legal action to stop “unfounded personal attacks on my abilities and experience as an educator.” Her salary is $64,000 per year.
While the two sides in the dispute trade acidic memos and accusations, the school suffers. Both sides say faculty morale is down, students are confused and other parents shy away from getting involved.
“It’s hard to send your child into that atmosphere to learn,” said Faulkner.
The turmoil at the school tucked into the northeast corner of Franklin Park contrasts starkly with Superintendent Gary Livingston’s call for parent participation. The district spent $145,000 last year promoting greater parent involvement in school decisions.
“Rather than discussing learning improvements, we are engaged in a personality attack,” said Associate Superintendent Cynthia Lambarth. “I don’t think that’s to the benefit of students.”
Some parents have complained about Kirihara to district administrators since she was transferred to Madison from Finch Elementary in 1992. They say their concerns are being ignored.
Lambarth said “literally hundreds of staff hours” were spent researching the complaints, which were found to be largely baseless.
In the parents’ formal complaint, they outlined dozens of problems with Kirihara. Many involve perceptions, such as parents feeling the principal was rude. Some parents complained she was too curt during an open house when she read from a prepared script, got off the stage quickly and didn’t mingle.
But school administrators say several new complaints are serious enough to warrant investigation, including incidents where Kirihara, 50, is said to have verbally harassed students.
Lambarth refused to say whether Kirihara had been issued a letter of reprimand for her conduct at Madison.
The school board last week proposed independent mediation to investigate the situation, offering names of education and law professors and a labor relations specialist. But the parents’ group rejected the offer because the district would be paying a mediator and that, they said, could unfairly influence the outcome.
“It’s looking pretty bleak at this point,” said Patti Schibel, author of the complaint and Kirihara’s chief critic. “We have been fighting this four years.”
Group members say they will continue pushing the district until Kirihara is removed. Parents passed their complaints to legislators and the state school superintendent’s Office of Professional Practices.
Supporters point to Madison’s high test scores as proof the principal is doing her job. Test scores have risen steadily since she arrived at the school.
“We ask ourselves, do our kids attend the same school as theirs?” said parent Pam Rudisill.
Frustrated parents say test scores are not everything. They feel Kirihara intentionally slowed their efforts to form an advisory committee this spring. The principal once temporarily canceled a parent newsletter.
One parent said Kirihara ignored a January 1996 complaint about a teacher leaving a bruise on her son’s arm.
“There is never an answer for parents,” said Nancy McLaughlin, outgoing PTO president and critic of Kirihara.
Others complain about how their children are treated by Kirihara. She is said to have called a student “the best little liar she had ever seen,” according to a parent. “I know it sounds bizarre, but I’ve heard her voice yelling (at students),” said parent Denise Anderson.
Disgruntled parents say they are not public school terrorists, just frustrated.
Several Madison parents with older students praised the approach taken at Glover Middle School. Principal Phil Newsum held night meetings to tell parents about discipline policies and hear complaints.
At least eight former Madison teachers agree with the parents, according to Sharon Juul, who now teaches at Willard Elementary. She says she and seven others left because of the “hostile environment” caused by Kirihara’s management style.
But 24 current Madison teachers and staff members signed a letter endorsing Kirihara.
Incoming PTO president Mari Haworth backs the principal, but admitted damage has been done by the controversy. One parent changed her telephone number after receiving harassing calls. Others pulled their kids out of Madison to send them elsewhere.
“It makes the teachers less comfortable with parents, more suspicious,” said McLaughlin, who also received an anonymous telephone call. “I’m sure it keeps some parents away.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo