Dr. Michael Beyer has overseen the three-campus Ogden school for three years and spearheaded the merger of the elementary school with Jenner Academy in the Cabrini-Green area. Credit: courtesy Michael Beyer

With the merger of Ogden and Jenner elementary schools underway, Chicago Public Schools earlier this month removed the well-respected principal of the former from his post of three years. Dr. Michael Beyer, who’s worked for the district since 2003 and has earned accolades as a principal, was accused by the Chicago Board of Education’s inspector general of falsifying attendance records across Ogden’s three K-12 campuses comprising some 1,900 students. Now Beyer is suing the school district claiming he hasn’t been given a fair chance to defend himself.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) delivered its findings to CPS in a heavily redacted report dated June 29, 2018. It claimed that investigators identified “75 instances where students were temporarily unenrolled and re-enrolled within the same school year,” over the course of Beyer’s tenure. The OIG claimed that Beyer and other school staff improperly directed parents to unenroll students who had to travel abroad with family or had other reasons to miss school for long stretches so as not to have to mark the students as absent.

However, the report provides no evidence that staff did this in an effort to fudge attendance numbers. At one point, Beyer is briefly quoted in an apparent admission of improperly handling some students’ attendance records: “When confronted with emails showing that he condoned or encouraged the practice, Beyer admitted ‘Clearly, I did break the policy,’ and that he ‘messed up.'” (Beyer’s lawyers contest that their client admitted to any wrongdoing.)

For reasons the district hasn’t made clear, Beyer wasn’t removed from his position at Ogden until November 1. This was the date when he first learned of the report, according to a lawsuit he filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County two weeks ago. Beyer, whose removal from the school was met with vehement protests from Ogden parents and the local school council, is now claiming that the district has violated due process by calling a suspension hearing without allowing him to examine evidence against him and without making it clear what rules would be used to determine disciplinary actions against him.

All of this comes as the merger of Ogden Elementary in the Gold Coast with Jenner Academy in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood enters its first year. The merger effectively closes Jenner and consolidates its students with Ogden students across two buildings. This is the school closure that sociologist and education activist Eve Ewing recently described to the Reader as “really interesting because no one even calls it a school closing . . . because it was a community-driven process.”

Beyer was integral to the process, along with Jenner principal Robert Croston, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. Though some parents and CPS insiders were reportedly against the consolidation of the schools, the two principals worked to ensure that the merger was transparent and acceptable to most students and parents in both schools’ communities.

When asked why they waited four months to begin disciplinary proceedings against Beyer, thereby disrupting the school year during a highly scrutinized period at Ogden, CPS communications director Michael Passman provided only a general statement:

“Based on the facts of this case, the district is in agreement with the Inspector General’s assessment that removing Principal Beyer is appropriate and necessary. A highly qualified Acting Principal will be supporting the school in the days ahead, and the district is committed to providing all necessary supports to ensure the merger of the Jenner and Ogden communities continues to be successful.”

Beyer couldn’t speak on the record. One of his attorneys, Eric Schmitt, reached by phone Monday, said that the goal of the lawsuit is to see Beyer “restored to his position as principal at Ogden.”

Schmitt said Beyer’s alleged admission of guilt as presented by the OIG’s report was a quote taken out of context, and that his client never told any parents they had to unenroll their students. Rather, he said, the decisions to unenroll were made by families who didn’t want their children to accrue truancy records with CPS while in school abroad.

Beyer’s lawsuit was filed the day before CPS was to hold a “pre-suspension hearing,” an administrative procedure where a hearing officer would decide whether he’d be suspended with or without pay, and whether there would be further consideration regarding his retention. This hearing was overseen not by a neutral third party but by Mary Ernesti, who also works as director of employee engagement at CPS. Beyer was told he could bring a lawyer to the hearing, but his lawyers’ advance requests for information on the evidence that would be presented during the hearing went unanswered.

“What we’re asking for is due process and a part of due process is knowing what the accusations against him are,” said Schmitt, who added that the legal team has still not seen the unredacted OIG report after again requesting it at the first of three scheduled pre-suspension hearing dates.

All of this reflects poorly on CPS, Schmitt suggested. “It’s similar to what happened in Washington last week with the Jim Acosta case,” he said. “The White House suspended his press pass and when pressed they had no standard or rules he was alleged to have breached.”

Beyer is bringing his suit in conjunction with some members of the Ogden local school council, which voted just last August to extend Beyer’s contract through 2023—under Illinois law, LSCs, composed of teachers, parents, and community representatives, are supposed to have final say over the hiring and firing of principals unless CPS finds principals to have commited irredeemable and egregious violations of district policies.

The day before filing the complaint, Ogden’s LSC passed a resolution decrying the OIG’s report as “highly suspect” and “lacking substantiation.” It noted that Beyer’s efforts to curb students’ absences were ignored and criticized the OIG for “having failed to interview the families noted in the report, thereby preventing an accurate understanding of the complex needs of a school that commonly serves and supports international families, many of whom have dual citizenship and requirements to work abroad for periods of the year.” Sources with knowledge of the Ogden community interviewed by the Reader said that some families go abroad for diplomatic, humanitarian, or corporate work for months at a time, enrolling their students at foreign schools or temporarily homeschooling.

The November 14 hearing was, according to Schmitt, a troubling glimpse into the apparent lack of due process procedures in district termination proceedings against principals, who don’t enjoy union protections. “They’re required under Illinois law to issue rules for these sort of pre-suspension hearings and they don’t even have [such rules],” he said. “I think it shows that perhaps they haven’t been pressed on the issue before.”

Schmitt said that CPS attorneys haven’t presented any evidence against Beyer aside from the redacted OIG report for the hearing officer to consider thus far, but that several witnesses, including parents who unenrolled their kids from Ogden due to travels outside the country, have testified in support of Beyer. The hearing will continue on December 6 and 11. After that, the Cook County Circuit Court judge handling Beyer’s lawsuit will examine the hearing officer’s conclusions and determine whether due process rules were actually followed. Ogden meanwhile is being overseen by acting principal Rebecca Bancroft, who’s been serving as assistant principal at Back of the Yards High School and has had no prior involvement in the Ogden-Jenner merger.   v

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Beyer is suing CPS in conjunction with the Ogden local school council. Only some members of the LSC are joining the suit.”