The leaders of two teachers unions want the principal of McKinley High School to step down amid complaints that he rules by fear, retaliates against critics and behaves inappropriately with children and adults.

The local chapters of the Federation of Teachers and the Association of Educators held a news conference Tuesday and also called for the School Board to investigate Principal Esrom Pitre, who has led the school since July. They said they initially sent demands to School Board members and Superintendent Warren Drake on Friday, but that district administrators rebuffed their complaints when they tried to raise them Monday.

Angela Reams-Brown, president of the local Federation of Teachers, said employees who’ve spoken up about Pitre have come to regret it.

“All who complained  (openly) or who grieved formally were targeted by the administration,” Reams-Brown said.

McKinley faculty recently sent a survey to the school's 120-plus employees and received 35 replies. 

“The responses spoke to a widespread pattern of unfairness at the school,” Reams-Brown said.

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The unions said the survey results back their suggestion that the district's Human Resources department conduct its own “environmental survey,” similar to one conducted last year after concerns were raised about Pitre’s predecessor, interim principal James Kador. They'd like to see it done before employees leave for the summer break Thursday.

In a statement released after the news conference, school system officials said anyone with a grievance or complaint should file a formal report with HR.

“All formal allegations made will be investigated,” according to the statement. “We will continue to act in the best interest of our students, families and employees.”

Complaints raised in the survey include allegations of:

  • Inappropriate touching, hugging, body language and comments directed at teachers and students.
  • Routine use of “fear, intimidation and retaliation" to control staff.
  • “Inappropriate and illegal” employee evaluations, including “a homemade rubric not sanctioned by the state and not shared with teachers and support staff prior to evaluation.”
  • Punishing female students more harshly than male students.
  • Retaliating against staff who filed formal grievances.

The unions have historically been rivals, but of late they have worked together. Recently they worked to renew a 1-cent sales tax, increase employee salaries and curtail industrial tax exemptions, and now have banded together against Pitre.

"We are two different locals, but we both have members at that school," said Tia Mills, president of the local Association of Educators. She estimated that half the McKinley staff belonged to a union.

Reached Monday, Pitre sent a text saying he would respond to the union's complaints. He has yet to do so. He also did not respond Tuesday to an additional request for comment.

McKinley High, at 800 E. McKinley Drive, has had a different principal each of the past three years.

From 2009 to 2013, Pitre was principal at Donaldsonville High, helping to bring that small high school from an F to a B on its state-issued academic letter grade; McKinley High currently has a D.

Prior to taking over at McKinley, Pitre briefly served as executive director at a new charter school, Athlos Academy in Jefferson Parish.

He spent most of his career in higher education, including stints as a professor at colleges in Denver, Houston, New Orleans, Shreveport and, most recently, working as an associate professor of educational leadership at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Complaints grew after Pitre notified many employees in "impact" letters that they would need to seek jobs elsewhere in the school system. Pitre told The Advocate in April he was forced to lose at least 18 staff members, pointing to declining enrollment, particularly in the school's gifted program. McKinley High still has about 1,150 students, but its enrollment is down from its 2015 peak of more than 1,400 students.

According to the unions, some of the faculty and staff said Pitre had made their jobs more difficult, with some complaining specifically: 

  • “I spent this year confused and directionless, only hearing from administration when they imposed a policy that made our jobs harder to plan. Being told often that last minute changes were just the way of education. It's extremely difficult to put in a routine for students when you don't have a routine for yourself.”
  • “The administration would do frequent walk-throughs, sometimes with several people at the same time including deans, in a means to intimidate the teacher. During meetings, some teachers were talked down to or openly disrespected by administration.”
  • “I do not feel like my job is safe. I do not feel comfortable in my work environment. I feel like my principal is a tyrant!”

The survey, which union leaders said was conducted almost a month ago, was sent to the private emails of all McKinley staff. The participation rate was around 30 percent.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.