Pearce Gets a New Principal

Is the Houston import a 'good guy' or a 'jerk'?

James Troutman
James Troutman

At first glance, former Houston principal James Troutman seems like a perfect fit to lead Pearce Middle School in Northeast Austin. Troutman is quite familiar with the challenges of working in a large urban school district. He comes to Austin from Deady Middle School in Southeast Houston, where more than 95% of students are Hispanic and economically disadvantaged and nearly 100% are considered to be "at-risk." Despite these hurdles, the seasoned educator managed to maintain an acceptable state academic rating for the school.

But when Troutman decided to leave Houston to accept the new job in Austin, some of his former staff greeted the news with a hearty "good riddance."

The new principal certainly will have his work cut out for him at Pearce, which suffers from a reputation for poor student discipline and poorer academic performance. Pearce, just off Berkman Drive in the Windsor Park neighborhood, is a mostly minority (58% Hispanic, 40% African-American) feeder school for similarly beleaguered Reagan High. More than 90% of the students are "economically disadvantaged," and nearly 30% are non-English speakers. Enrollment is shrinking (555 students projected this fall for a 1,050 capacity campus), and the Texas Education Agency has its sights on the school's "accountability" status. Pearce has been ranked "academically unacceptable" for the last three years, failing to meet 11 state standards, and should that status recur in 2007-08, the TEA can assume control of the school or order it closed.

Pearce Gets a New Principal
Photo by John Anderson

So it's not difficult to see what attracted Austin Independent School District administrators to Troutman's résumé: He did succeed in raising standardized test scores at his Houston schools. But during Troutman's three years at the helm of Deady, more than a half-dozen teachers resigned or transferred to other schools – out of frustration, they say, with the leadership of a man who ruled the school with an iron fist. Some teachers liken him to the despotic Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984. Their descriptions of Troutman are littered with words and phrases like "tyrant," "dictator," and "gestapo-like." They say he ruled by intimidation, creating a climate of fear throughout the school. And they claim he isolated opponents, dividing and conquering the school by turning teachers against one another.

By contrast, Troutman's supporters view him in an altogether different light. They describe him as a picture of "professionalism," someone who "has the students' best interest at heart at all times." They say he was less like Big Brother and more like a big brother and recount how he spent hours of his own time raising money for student field trips and organizing extracurricular activities. He only did what needed to be done to improve and maintain academic standards, they say, and in the process rubbed a few people the wrong way. "We had a lot of disgruntled employees, because he was making changes for the benefit of the school," said one Troutman supporter, who asked not to be identified because Houston Independent School District policy prohibits teachers from talking to the press without authorization. "There were teachers who were set in their ways and unwilling to change."


Cutting Corners and Teachers

However, critics say Troutman's true concern was the financial bottom line; when he first arrived at Deady, he undertook a thorough housecleaning. He replaced department heads with a cadre of teachers from his former school, Houston's Davila Elementary. Troutman not only trimmed the fat; he hacked to the bone, slashing supply budgets and skimping on extra pay for department heads, according to a list of 50 complaints submitted to a union representative. Texas Education Agency statistics show Deady's operating expenditures dropped by a cool $1 million during Troutman's time as principal – a feat his critics say was accomplished through harsh measures.

Troutman cut corners to cut costs, diminishing the quality of education in the process, some of his former teachers say. And some of the largest cuts fell on instructional costs, which, according to TEA records, dropped nearly half a million dollars from 2004 to 2006. During Troutman's tenure, the school lost some of its most-experienced and highest-paid teachers, whom Troutman replaced with first-year teachers and, in some cases, uncertified substitutes and teaching aides. TEA stats show that during his tenure as principal, the average number of years of experience for teachers at Deady dropped from 15.7 to 12.7. The number of first-year teachers tripled, and the number of teachers with one to five years' worth of experience doubled. During the same period, Deady lost eight teachers with more than 10 years of experience.

Pearce by the Numbers: Pearce students' 2006 standardized test results have improved, but they still lag behind AISD and state standards.
Pearce by the Numbers: Pearce students' 2006 standardized test results have improved, but they still lag behind AISD and state standards.

Current state certification records reflect that at least four employees listed as teachers at Deady – including one tapped by Troutman to chair the science department – have no certification whatsoever. Sources within the school confirmed that several of those listed as teaching aides were used to teach electives and graded classes. Also on Troutman's watch, sources say, the school's department heads would also sign grading sheets for teaching aides, in apparent violation of the state education code, which allows aides to teach only under the direct supervision of a certified "teacher of record."

On all of these allegations, Troutman declined to comment, saying they are a "personnel matter." He added, "These claims are so twisted and contorted that they don't even merit a response."


Payback for Troublemakers

The trouble with Troutman started when teachers protested the changes he implemented, said Jon Dansby, an English teacher and formerly a counselor at Deady. Troutman singled out certain teachers as troublemakers, Dansby said, and then would shift their classes around constantly. Dansby had his class switched five times in one year. Moreover, Troutman would stack low-performing students and those with disciplinary problems in classes of teachers he didn't like. Then, Dansby said, he would use students' low test scores as an opportunity to dish out more punishment.

In education circles, Dansby is widely known as the teacher who blew the whistle on a 2001 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills cheating scandal by administrators in HISD, even appearing on Bill Moyers Journal to discuss the issue. Dansby believes Troutman targeted him from the start. He said Troutman asked one teacher in his cluster essentially to serve as a mole to report any bad-mouthing from Dansby. (That claim has been confirmed to the Chronicle by the teacher, who requested anonymity.) When the designated spy refused, he, too, landed on Troutman's hit list.

Pearce Middle School enrollment of racial/ethnic groups
Pearce Middle School enrollment of racial/ethnic groups

One day, while the teacher was out interviewing for another job, Troutman confiscated his classroom computer based on a false complaint that a student had seen pornography on the teacher's computer screen and displayed on the classroom projector. Instead of trying to verify the complaint with other students, Troutman had the HISD inspector general examine every file on the computer. For several months the targeted teacher had to do without a computer – even though it served as an instructional component in the classroom – while the inspector scanned the computer's hard drive, eventually finding nothing.

Dansby says it was commonplace for Trout­man to act on unsubstantiated student claims and that he would even reward students – many of whom were themselves chronic discipline problems – for writing up teachers. Troutman asked the school's art teacher, Allen Roberson, to resign based on one such complaint and then replaced him with a permanent substitute. "He seems to believe that I have anger-management issues, and it's possible he even believes that I am a danger to the students," Roberson said in a written explanation to his colleagues. "Let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. If this wasn't such a serious charge, it would almost be laughable. ... Mr. Troutman has chosen to believe the wildly exaggerated claims of a handful of problem students, bent on revenge, over anything that I have had to say." The practice got so out of hand, Dansby said, that the moment a teacher yelled at a student out of frustration, the student would write down what the teacher had said and then walk out of the classroom to deliver it to the principal's office, with the expectation that Troutman would believe the student over the teacher.


Double-Edged Sword

It may be that Troutman has a sense of humor about his perceived Orwellian persona – or perhaps he has embraced it: He once joked at a faculty meeting, "Big Brother is watching." Reportedly, no one laughed.

In Troutman's defense, one supporter said that despite inconveniences caused by his actions, Troutman never did anything without good reason. "I'm not exactly sure his reasoning behind everything," she allowed. "But, if it made sense to the administration, then we should support them." The teacher, a union steward for the school, rejected charges that children were used to spy on teachers. "If teachers are saying that," she stated, "then it would be completely hearsay or rumors." She added that no one filed grievances about these incidents, or at least none were ever brought to her attention. "No one wanted to put things in writing. Now that he's gone, why are they willing to come forward?"

Pearce Gets a New Principal

Teachers did, however, submit grievances as a group to another union representative. Most of the grievances were either handled quietly, or teachers were willing to accept transfers, one teacher said. Many were afraid to file formal grievances, or didn't see any use in it, said Dansby. The district nearly always finds for the administration, he said, and he believes the union is as corrupt or more so than the district. "Teachers tend to be a rather timid lot in general," he said. "Most of the time, they just take their licks and keep their heads down."

Despite Dansby's negative experiences with Troutman, he believes Troutman could change his ways in Austin. "He could be a good principal, if he were in an honest school," he said. "[Troutman is] unlike all these other crooked principals. They're not very smart or very talented. Troutman has talent. He can be a jerk or a good guy."

Here in Austin, meanwhile, Pam Hall, AISD's executive director of human resources, said administrators were impressed by Troutman's résumé – although predictably that impression is largely derived from Troutman's performance in the state's "accountability" rankings based on standardized-test scores. "We found him an attractive candidate in terms of his track record," she said, citing his success at Deady and, before that, Davila Elementary. "He has shown he is able to take schools to 'recognized' status." Hall added that although it is public information, the district doesn't ask for records of grievances from other districts during the hiring process.

Because AISD is plagued by a high turnover of principals, the district is often forced to hire from outside, said Louis Malfaro, president of the teacher-and-staff union Education Austin. "I have noted that the district seems to make outside hires, and there are risks with that. You have to go with what's on paper," he said. "There are few principals that don't have some kind of controversy." Malfaro recalled that he once got a call from a union rep in another district, complaining about a principal recently hired by AISD but later found the principal to be quite cooperative.

Yet if what Houston teachers are saying about Troutman is true, it is cause for concern, Malfaro said. "Pearce is one of our most challenging schools, and we want our teachers to have a supportive environment," he said. "It's always bothersome to me when someone who has a reputation as an ass-kicker comes to the district."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin public schools, Austin ISD, Pearce Middle School, James Troutman, Houston ISD

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