Parents of Bellview Elementary students met with Superintendent Juli Di Chiro Tuesday night to hear explanation regarding recommendation that the district lay off the school's principal, Christine McCollom. Another administrator drew lots to determine who would be let go, Di Chiro says.

About 50 parents of Bellview Elementary School students met Tuesday night with Superintendent Juli Di Chiro to hear her explain why she has recommended that the district lay off the school's principal, Christine McCollom, as part of a third round of budget cuts.

Several parents said they left the two-hour meeting at Ashland Middle School feeling worse about the decision than when they came.

"I feel like it was a personal decision on the part of Juli that can not be backed up with facts or good sense or reason," said Kimberly Bruhn, who has three children at Bellview.

Some parents said they felt uneasy when they learned more about how McCollom was selected to lose her job at the end of this school year.

The school board is scheduled to vote on whether to lay off McCollom at its May 11 meeting. If she is let go, McCollom will likely be replaced by senior administrator Michelle Zundel, whose current position as director of education would then be eliminated.

Administrator drew lots

Di Chiro revealed that after she made the decision to recommend that the district lay off McCollom — and she told McCollom about her decision — she found out that there was language in the principal's contract that required the superintendent to "draw lots" between administrators that had the same amount of seniority, to determine who would be let go in a lay-off situation.

"I take full responsibility for not reading that," Di Chiro said of the contract. "That was a mistake."

McCollom and Walker Elementary School Principal Patricia Michiels were hired on the same day in 2006 and have equal amounts of experience in the district.

After finding out about the language in the principals' contracts, Di Chiro said she and Samuel Bogdanove, the district's director of student services, went in her office to draw the lot, on either April 20 or 21. Neither Di Chiro nor Bogdanove could remember the exact day the drawing took place, they both said during separate interviews.

The principals' names had been written on "identical pieces of paper that were folded in identical ways," Di Chiro said.

The two pieces of paper were sitting on Di Chiro's desk when Bogdanove walked into the room, he said. He drew a name and it read "Christine," he said. That meant that McCollom would be let go, Di Chiro told the parents Tuesday.

Bogdanove said Wednesday morning that he didn't recall whether Di Chiro had explained to him — before the drawing — that the name he drew would be the principal that would be let go.

"Honestly I don't remember how that whole process went, but it wouldn't have made a difference in terms of how things went," he said.

When asked why it wouldn't have made a difference, Bogdanove said, "That's generally how that works. The name you draw is the person who is let go."

Occasionally during lay-offs, if two district employees have the same amount of seniority, administrators will draw lots to see who goes, Di Chiro said. Bogdanove agreed "that it does happen," but he said, "It's the first time I've ever been involved with it."

He was selected to be the administrator to draw the lot because he was the only one in the district office at the time, he said.

After he drew the name, he said he inspected the other piece of paper and it read "Patricia."

Parents uneasy

Rod Petrone, who has two children at Bellview, questioned the fairness of the drawing at the meeting.

"The process for selection doesn't seem very transparent to me," he told Di Chiro.

"It's not very transparent," Di Chiro responded, "and it's the same system I've used in the past."

Petrone, who brought up the matter several times at the meeting, said he was unnerved by the way the lot was drawn.

"It doesn't seem right to me. I just get the feeling that maybe it's some inside shell game," he said.

Di Chiro discusses drawing

After the meeting, when asked why she didn't invite community members to witness the drawing of the lot, Di Chiro said, "It's a personnel issue. It's not a public issue."

How would she respond to parents who felt like the drawing might have been unfair?

"If they want to question my integrity, then they can do that. But I think that my record shows my integrity," Di Chiro said.

When asked whether she had thought about what she would do if Michiel's name had been picked, Di Chiro said, "I'm just glad it didn't come out that way."

Asked the same question again, Di Chiro said, "It didn't happen so let's just leave it at that."

When probed further, she said, "I don't think 'what if' entered into the situation. I would have considered that but it didn't come up."

Questioning decision

Trying to understand the basis for Di Chiro's initial decision to lay off Bellview's principal, several parents, including Julee Abel, who has two children at Bellview, asked Di Chiro if her decision was at all based on the fact that McCollom is several months pregnant.

Di Chiro's decision had nothing to do with McCollom's pregnancy, she said. "If anything, it made it even harder to do it," she said.

When someone in the crowd suggested that McCollom might have grounds for a lawsuit, if her pregnancy influenced Di Chiro's decision, Di Chiro said, "Actually she doesn't have that option."

"You have to leave on good terms with the school district that hired you, if you want to get hired anywhere else," Di Chiro said.

Di Chiro said her initial decision to let McCollom go was a tough one to make.

"It was an extremely difficult — but in my mind, unavoidable — decision to make," she said.

Because the layoff is a personnel issue, Di Chiro can't discuss the specifics of her decision, she said.

Although McCollom and Michiels have both been with the district for the same amount of time, Michiels previously served as an administrator for three years in the Medford School District. McCollom had not served as an administrator prior to taking the job at Bellview.

Although many of the parents were upset at the meeting, Kim Lockett, who has one child at Bellview, said it was important to keep the students in mind.

"I'm not happy with this change, but we obviously set the tone for our children," she said. "We want to have as excellent of a school next year as we have had in the past."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.