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McKinley Principal Esrom Pitre

Leaders of two teacher unions are going public with their complaints about the principal at McKinley High, saying he rules by fear, retaliates against those who criticize him and behaves inappropriately with both children and adults.

The local chapters of the Federation of Teachers and the Association of Educators said they decided to make their complaints public after having no luck with their request for an immediate investigation by the school system into employee accusations against Principal Esrom Pitre.

Teacher union leaders said East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Warren Drake declined on Monday their request for an immediate investigation into Pitre's conduct as principal.

They've scheduled a news conference for 3 p.m. Tuesday to go into more detail about what teachers are experiencing at McKinley.

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Afraid to report violations through normal channels, faculty concerned about Pitre’s leadership recently conducted their own partial and anonymous survey to which 35 of the school's 120-plus staff members responded.

The unions want the Human Resources department to go further and do an “environmental survey” of all the staff at the school, something the department did in spring 2018 after concerns were raised about Pitre’s predecessor, interim principal James Kador. And they want it done before employees leave for summer break on Thursday.

The unions sent a demand letter Friday to Drake and School Board members. Drake responded Monday afternoon in an email to Tia Mills, president of the local Association of Educators.

“We do not condone any wrongdoings of any kind at any school so if an employee has a grievance, please ask them to follow the policy of the EBRP school board,” Drake wrote.

Drake also said the accusations lack names and specifics.

Angela Reams-Brown, president of the local Federation of Teachers, said a few McKinley High employees have indeed lodged grievances that have gone nowhere. She said she called Drake later Monday but the superintendent would not agree to the unions’ core demand.

Reams-Brown said Drake told her he met with Pitre in person Monday and asked Pitre about the concerns. According to Reams-Brown, Pitre informed the superintendent that he was commissioning his own independent survey of the school.

Reams-Brown said Drake left open the possibility of doing an environmental survey in August at the start of the new school year, but she said that's too late.

“There’s still time,” she said.

Pitre took over McKinley High, which is located at 800 E. McKinley Drive, last July. He is the school’s third principal in three years. He had not responded to a request for comment on the complaints by the teachers unions as of Monday evening.

From 2009 to 2013, Pitre served as principal 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.

Pitre’s leadership came into question recently after many employees at McKinley High received “impact” letters telling them they had to look for other jobs in the school system, double the number of impacted employees of any other school in the parish.

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.

Impacted staff, however, have raised concerns that Pitre abused the process to run off staff he's had run-ins with and is using questionable criteria to decide who should stay or go.

Here are areas of concern raised about Pitre found in the partial survey of McKinley High staff:

  • 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.”
  • Interfering with “state-mandated” class time and standards.
  • Creating and quickly abandoning “policies, schedules and activities” and doing so “with little notice or preparation.”
  • Punishing female students more harshly than boys.
  • Retaliating against staff who filed formal grievances.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.