Weeks after a Suffolk Superior Court judge found that Boston Public Schools officials wrongfully terminated her, a former principal is speaking out, saying she was the victim of politically connected parents and teachers.
“The parents didn’t want special education students in the classrooms and the teachers didn’t either so they started to campaign,” said Jenna Cramer, who served as principal of the Kilmer K-8 School in West Roxbury for five years. “The culture is such that any teacher or parent who disagrees with what’s going on in school will go to the mayor or superintendent.”
Cramer’s interview with The Boston Globe provides a rare peek into the life of a BPS principal and some potential insight into why so many principals leave. Very few former embattled Boston principals have publicly described the particular challenges that accompany the high stakes, high pressure job of leading a city school.
According to a recent Globe review, more than half of all principals at the start of the 2015-16 school year are no longer in their posts. During those five years, the Kilmer has gone through three principals, including Cramer, and welcomed a fourth principal this summer.
Cramer’s departure from BPS in 2018 has been almost as turbulent as her time leading the Kilmer. She appealed her termination to an arbitrator, who ruled last year that the BPS lacked good cause to get rid of her and ordered the system to reinstate her.
The BPS then filed a largely unsuccessful appeal in Suffolk Superior Court. Last month, Judge Susan Sullivan affirmed the arbitrator’s decision that BPS lacked good cause in firing Cramer. But she overturned the portion of the arbitrator’s decision ordering Cramer back on the city payroll, noting her contract expired in 2019. The judge remanded the case back to the arbitrator to calculate back wages for Cramer, who is being represented by Matthew Fogelman.
Boston school officials declined comment for this story.
Leading a higher-performing school, like the Kilmer, is usually considered a plum assignment in the BPS. Principals at these schools often inherit an army of parents eager to fund-raise and volunteer, and a student population that largely shows up each day ready to learn.
But the Kilmer has increasingly earned a reputation as a community splintered by infighting. Aside from Cramer’s improper firing, one of her successors found herself the subject of sensationalized anonymous postings on a local news website, and this past spring the school’s admission rate to the exam schools dropped significantly, raising concerns.
Long viewed as a symbol of middle-class privilege, the Kilmer pulls many of its students from West Roxbury, a neighborhood where politics is baked into the psyche of many residents. It is home to a large number of public servants — police officers, firefighters, and educators — and has many of the highest voter turnout rates in the city.
More than half of the Kilmer’s 450 students are white — more than three times the district average — and up until this year, roughly three-quarters of the school’s applicants to the exam schools typically scored a seat.
According to Cramer, parents worried the inclusion of students with disabilities would distract teachers’ attention away from their own children, jeopardizing their academic progress and consequently their chances of getting into the highly competitive exam schools, especially Boston Latin School. The Kilmer is one of the biggest pipelines into Latin.
She said the central offices, under the leadership of Tommy Chang, the former superintendent, offered her little support in helping her navigate the concerns of staff and families — aside from telling her to be “the inclusion cheerleader.” She said she took a variety of steps to build support for inclusion, such as establishing a task force of teachers and parents and providing teacher training.
The fight turned bitterly personal, Cramer said, as her detractors decided to attack her professional character in hopes that her removal would also end inclusion. Over her final two years on the job, Cramer said she repeatedly faced unsubstantiated claims.
“It was so hostile,” said Cramer, who grew up in Dorchester and graduated from Boston Technical High School in Roxbury. “I was literally an open target. Every day I knew there could be an allegation that had no validity to it.”
Cramer, who was initially appointed as principal in 2012 by former superintendent Carol Johnson, faced her first allegation three years later, as she was rolling out inclusion at the school. A complaint had been filed that she got tipsy at a school holiday concert. The event was held at the Irish Social Club in West Roxbury because the school, which operates in two small buildings, lacked the appropriate space.
The School Department launched an investigation, interviewing teachers and parents, but came up empty. They didn’t find any eyewitnesses, and video footage of the concert, for which Cramer served as master of ceremonies, didn’t support the claim, according to the judge’s ruling. But the investigation damaged her reputation and her ability to lead, Cramer said.
“They told every teacher they had concerns. They said enough to destroy my name and never cleared it up,” Cramer said. “To me that seemed like they were opening the door, here you all have full range to target her.”
The school’s atmosphere remained a pressure cooker. When Cramer went on a medical leave in 2017, some staff members went into her office and threw her personal items into the trash, according to the judge’s ruling. Cramer also removed furniture — purchased by a colleague’s husband — from a meeting room that was being converted into a classroom. Cramer temporarily stored the furniture in her garage, so it wouldn’t be thrown out.
That prompted Cramer’s supervisor to comb through the school’s financial records and claim she had misspent student activity funds and federal grants.
Her supervisor also took issue with Cramer’s inability to complete teacher performance reviews — a process that got disrupted because she was on medical leave. (Cramer herself received uneven reviews her last two years on the job, according to the judge’s ruling.)
School officials used the financial review and performance evaluations as part of their basis for termination, but it ultimately didn’t hold up under scrutiny in two separate legal arenas.
Cramer said she is glad to be putting the case behind her and is looking forward to working with students again.
“The only reason I got up and went to work every day is because I believed in doing what’s best for all students,” she said, “and at some point I didn’t get the support to do that.”