Why does school-board member Elma Warrick want Principal Audrey Bullard's hide?

Principal Skinner 

Why does school-board member Elma Warrick want Principal Audrey Bullard's hide?

When Christine Taylor-Butler told Kansas City, Missouri, School Board member Elma Warrick that she had recently enrolled her kids in public schools after a long, expensive stint in private schools, she assumed Warrick would be pleased. After all, Warrick has repeatedly urged Kansas Citians to give the embattled district a chance.

Instead, when Taylor-Butler said that she'd enrolled her youngest daughter, Olivia, at Chick Elementary School, Warrick scowled and spoke derisively of Chick's principal, Audrey Bullard: "That principal needs to learn she can't do whatever she wants."

Taylor-Butler was shocked. She says that Chick, an African-themed school, measures up to the best private schools she herself attended before she was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Test scores at Chick have exceeded the goals that state education bureaucrats set for elementary schools by nearly 300 percent. When she enrolled Olivia in summer-school classes this year, the girl was reading at a kindergarten level. "Now she reads at the level of a normal third-grader," Taylor-Butler says. "And she can't wait to get to school every morning."

Warrick's comments disturbed her. "She was just so sarcastic," Taylor-Butler says. Warrick's attitude reminded her why she'd put her children in private schools to begin with. "It seemed like the same old petty, personal politics that have nothing to do with what's best for kids."

But Taylor-Butler is new to the district; she didn't realize that petty, personal politics is the Kansas City School Board's stock in trade. Backbiting and vendettas threaten to drag the board back into a familiar place -- a civil courtroom -- just as one of its most talented educators is demonstrating that the beleaguered school district can improve.

Warrick is not only bad-mouthing one of the city's best principals but also reportedly telling people that Bullard should be axed. "She told me she wanted Audrey Bullard fired," says Ajamu Webster, president of the Black United Front, a politically active group that has championed African-themed education in the district.

Warrick didn't answer phone calls from the Pitch. Bullard, meanwhile, filed suit against Warrick and the school district after she was demoted from her additional duties as principal of an African-themed middle school following her criticisms of Warrick in a newspaper article.

The quarrel started in the spring of 2002, when Bullard spoke out at a contentious school-board meeting at which board members had agreed to delay a decision on the creation of the new African-themed middle school. After that meeting, Warrick, who was the focus of a court-ordered investigation of patronage and micromanagement by board members ("Secret Warrick," June 13, 2002), led a heated discussion about the principal in a closed session in which she called on Superintendent Bernard Taylor to discipline Bullard for insubordination, sources tell the Pitch.

When the new middle school opened at the start of the 2002-03 school year, Bullard used a district credit card to buy window air-conditioning units for the outdated building. District administrators officially reprimanded her for not following district protocol for such purchases.

Last December, Bullard criticized Warrick and other board members in a Kansas City Call report on tensions surrounding the naming of the new middle school. Bullard told the Call that parents of the school's children, in their quest to name it after African-American scholar Dr. John Henrik Clarke, had followed procedures outlined for them by school officials. Then she accused Warrick and several of her colleagues of changing the rules to undermine the parents' efforts. (Warrick has denied the allegation.)

Less than two weeks later, Bullard received an official "admonition" from Stacia Brown, one of the district's executive directors, for creating "needless controversy and conflict" by continuing to "flout board policy." In this instance, Bullard had spoken to the press without first obtaining permission from the district's communication office.

Brown also questioned Bullard's ability to direct two schools at the same time -- though Bullard had done it successfully before. She'd previously headed the African-themed Ladd Elementary School at the same time that she maintained high achievement levels at Chick. During Bullard's tenure there, Governor Bob Holden had honored Ladd as one of the state's most improved schools.

The day after receiving Brown's letter, Bullard was informed by Superintendent Taylor that she was relieved of her duties as principal of the middle school.

Parents like Taylor-Butler were outraged by the action. While the rest of the district struggles to increase parental involvement, Taylor-Butler points out, Bullard's supporters at the African-themed schools are among the most active. "At Chick, they welcome parents to come in anytime," she says. "I go there to relax. I feel guilty if I don't visit the school."

But that same hospitality isn't coming from board members, who have repeatedly clashed with parents who support African-centered education. The parents have in turn resorted to picketing board members' houses and bringing board meetings to a halt. When a group of parents tried to speak at a meeting this past spring, board members left the auditorium at 1211 McGee and reconvened in an adjacent room. Parents could see the meeting on closed-circuit TV but not participate.

To Taylor-Butler, the whole debacle seems trifling and contrary to the district's mission of providing high-quality education to kids. If it weren't for Bullard and the environment she's created at Chick, Taylor-Butler says she would be looking into private schools again.

"I know families who are moving out of the district, and when their kids graduate, they're moving back," Taylor-Butler says. "And the only way to get them back is to act like children are the primary focus. And all this petty, personal politics stuff, we've got to leave that behind."

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