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PRINCIPALS BE HANGED!THE LATEST POWER STRUGGLE AT A TEMPE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL FEATURES CHARGES OF RACISM AND PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT

The subject was Halloween cookies, but at Rover Elementary School in Tempe, even that can cause a fight.

No, not between kids on the playground. This one took place between the parents and the principal in the school library.

In late October, a group of mothers who volunteer at the school met with principal Sharon Bryant to propose bringing treats to their children's classes.

Bryant told the group of parents that district policy didn't allow a party, but that they could bring in goodies after school.

The way parent Sherry Strausser remembers it, she and the other parents didn't believe the Tempe Elementary District had such a rule.

The way the principal remembers it, "they wanted their party and they were very aggressive."

The principal admits she lost her temper and shouted at the parents.
"She took her planning book, threw it on the table and stomped out of the room," Strausser recalls. "She said: `You parents are the problem. You're ruining the school.'"

As the principal left the room, Strausser says, one parent leaned over to a friend and said: "What a bitch." A district official who happened to be at the meeting called police, and people on both sides of the dispute say the parent was cited for alleged disorderly conduct. (However, the city prosecutor's office declined prosecution.)

That a meeting about cookies and school holidays deteriorated into a police complaint underscores the power struggle raging at Rover Elementary that, some say, has placed the teachers and pupils in the middle.

Currently, the buzz words at the south Tempe school are "racism," "golden classes" and "Gang of Ten."

"`Racism' sounds great in the press, but that isn't it," says parent Jackie Day, one of those at the cookie meeting. She, Strausser and the other parents who have battled Bryant have been labeled the "Gang of Ten" and "racists" by their detractors. Day particularly resents being called "racist," she says, because she has five adopted children, all of whom are Hispanic or black.

Some other parents, however, say their children have been taunted by other children for their skin color or religion. And some parents agree with the principal that the "Gang of Ten" is mainly upset because Bryant has tried to set up special programs for the district's "at-risk" population of poor and/or minority pupils.

That does appear to be one of the issues the anti-Bryant faction is upset about. "She seemed to be targeting the whole school to an at-risk population," Strausser says of Bryant.

Whether the current allegations can be believed, the school seems to have a political history more turbulent than any of the other 22 schools in the Tempe Elementary District.

One parent calls Rover a "graveyard for principals." In the past 14 years, four have left because of "community dissatisfaction," says district superintendent Agustin Orci.

Bryant makes it five. Saying her resignation was forced by a clique of parents who harassed her, she'll step down at the end of the school year for a nonteaching job in the district office.

Parent Pam Poteet, a member of the so-called "Gang of Ten," says the issue is simple: Sharon Bryant doesn't want to communicate with parents.

"She does what she wants to," Poteet says. "She does not tell parents what she is doing. We like to contribute to the school. We do it a lot. The question is: Do we as a neighborhood have a right to have certain expectations for our school and have input?"

That's not the way some teachers look at it. But they're not necessarily strong backers of embattled principal Bryant.

"My opinion on Rover has always been that Sharon Bryant is a very bright and creative woman who is a very poor manager," says Penny Kotterman, former president of the district's teachers union.

Parents in the district "tend to be very, very involved," says Kotterman, who now works in the district office. "In fact, they like to have more than normal control on what goes on in their school." Kotterman describes the Rover parents--not just the ones whom others call the "Gang of Ten"--as "a very vocal group."

"If they are dissatisfied with the way your children perform in your classroom, they're not afraid to tell you what you should be doing," says Kotterman. "In this particular situation, if you did what Sharon wanted, you were protected. If you didn't, you were allowed to be eaten alive by the public. That staff is very definitely caught in the middle."

Principal Bryant, however, blames the group of ten parents--she calls it "a neighborhood clique"--for being "discriminatory." She says they pushed her out of her job because of the school programs she started to help minority and low-income children. "There's a lack of concern," she says, "for those with financial or academic needs."

Last month, Bryant complained in a letter to federal education officials of a "segregated environment for our third graders" based on race and "socioeconomic" status. Bryant said parent requests forced the district to "overrule" staff decisions that had attempted to create "a more balanced class."

"As our minority population has increased from about 6 percent three years ago to over 20 percent this year," she wrote, "parent requests have become more of a problem."

Bryant summed up the situation this way in her letter: "As a result of parent requests, one class is 39 percent minority with seven students needing special education. The other class is 22 percent minority and one special education student. All minorities and special education students in the [latter] class have `acceptable' neighborhood addresses."

Bryant referred to the latter classroom as the "golden class"--as do some of the school's teachers.

Bryant's boss doesn't agree with her complaints. "I think there are erroneous allegations that the community is ripe with racism," says superintendent Orci. "I do not agree with the principal's assertions that there is segregation in that school."

And if there is, it's Bryant's fault, says Orci, because the principal has the authority to approve or deny classroom changes.

Parent Jackie Day, of the anti-Bryant faction, says that if Bryant really believed parents asked for classroom transfers to create all-white classrooms, "why didn't she just tell them to take a flying leap?" Day's son Marcos is one of the Hispanic children in the "golden class."

"We do know that none of us made a teacher request based on race," Day says. "We did make teacher requests based on competency. And if the classrooms aren't balanced, that's Bryant's fault. That's poor administration."

However, parent Michelle Young, a supporter of Bryant's, disagrees. She says she and other parents believe the environment at the school--even in the playgrounds--is not only racist but anti-Semitic. Last month, she asked the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League to investigate her allegations. One mother, according to Young, has told investigators that her children were called "rappers," "niggers" and "porch monkeys" by Rover classmates. The district disputes Young's allegations, but has allowed the probes to be conducted, says superintendent Orci.

Parents on both sides apparently agree that Bryant has been an innovator. But Pam Poteet, of the anti-Bryant faction, contends that the principal has been grandstanding. "To me, it sounded like somebody who wanted to do something innovative or new and make a name for herself," Poteet says.

Others wish parents like Poteet would butt out.
"If there's a communication problem, it's probably because you've got parents running in cursing at the principal," says parent Robert Miller, who's sympathetic to the principal. "That doesn't help communication."

Parent Donita Barr, a Bryant supporter, says she's so tired of all the uproar that she and her family are thinking of moving to another district.

"I see some of these things they are complaining about and they don't even make sense," says Barr, referring to the anti-Bryant faction. "I say: `Get a life. Get a job.'"

"If there's a communication problem, it's probably because you've got parents running in cursing at the principal.

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Ellen Grant