District 161 superintendent has been on leave since Oct. 18

Craig Doster, the superintendent of Flossmoor School District 161 for the last six years, has been on a leave of absence since Oct. 18, the day after Board of Education members received a letter from community residents demanding his immediate removal.

Board members received the letter, reportedly signed by 400 District 161 residents, at their Oct. 17 meeting. Staff members learned the next morning that Doster is on a leave of absence and that Frances LaBella, District 161’s assistant superintendent for business, is coordinating operations while he is gone.

LaBella told the Homewood-Flossmoor Chronicle on Thursday that Doster is on temporary leave but said she did not know when he would return to his duties with the district.

Board President Stephen Paredes Thursday confirmed Doster’s temporary leave of absence and said it will be discussed when the board meets next week. The board will hold its monthly committee meeting at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 at the district administration center, 41 E. Elmwood Drive in Chicago Heights. That session will be followed by a special school board meeting.

Doster’s leave of absence raises further questions about his future in District 161. He has a contract through the end of the 2017-18 school year. However, the school board could opt to buy out the rest of his contract, similar to the action taken by the Homewood-Flossmoor High School Board of Education in June, when it removed Principal Ryan Pitcock from his position.

Such a buyout would be costly, said David Dreyfuss, a former District 161 board president. He estimated that the cost of ending Doster’s relationship with District 161 could go as high as $1 million.

“He’s got a year-and-a-half left on his contract and he’d have to receive his salary for that time – you can’t just fire him,” said Dreyfuss, who was on the District 161 board for 13 years and served as president for six years.

“Then you’ve got to hire an interim superintendent and start working with a search firm to find a permanent replacement. And there might be legal costs. In the end, you’d be paying two-and-a-half salaries instead of just one. How is that going to be beneficial to the district?”

According to the letter presented to the board Oct. 17, District 161 immediately needs to address “a drastic decline of test scores,” improve an achievement gap among low income students and improve overall academic performance in the district.

Under Doster’s leadership, “student performance on standardized tests continues to fall and meaningful academic improvement across the district has been unattainable,” the letter states. “Currently multiple grade levels and schools within the district fail to meet national averages for growth. Likewise, unacceptable achievement gaps exist for various subgroups including low income students.”

The letter further states that Doster “has failed to improve test scores, failed to serve low income students, failed to introduce a curriculum that adequately reduces the high achievement gap for subgroups and failed to serve high learners who positively impact test scores.”

Board members should take action to remove the superintendent no later than Nov. 1, the letter states.

Dreyfuss said he has a “gut feeling” that the school board will act to remove Doster from his contract, probably in a 5-2 vote. He has called the board “dysfunctional” and says the board majority is following the lead of a group of “anti-Doster” residents in District 161.

“I’ve heard that 400 people signed that letter,” Dreyfuss said. “Now if those 400 people want to pick up the costs of removing the superintendent, that’s fine with me. But I’m a taxpayer.  I don’t want to get stuck with $1 million in costs because people don’t like the superintendent.”

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