Mike Pisani has just over a month left at the principal of Stoner Prairie Elementary School.
The news that he would be leaving the school after five years, announced in January, was not a surprise for a group of parents who have been complaining for a few years about him. They claimed he was not responsive to complaints and a poor communicator and behavior was spiraling out of control.
While their complaints began as far back as 2015, including in front of the school board in public meetings at the time, the only changes until this year were the district hiring a pair of coaches for Pisani with a goal of improving the situation at the school. But after parents brought their concerns to the board again – this time through an October email – action was taken within two months.
Though the board was not directly involved in the action last fall, board president Noah Roberts told the Press, Roberts expressed concerns over the situation when responding to the initial email, emails and other documents obtained through an open records request in December show.
The documents, which include one note of positive feedback from a Stoner Prairie staffer, sheds light on the process that led to Pisani’s departure and the history of complaints. Those have focused especially on behavioral incidents among students since 2015, when the district as a whole began changing its discipline system.
Superintendent Dean Gorrell, who is responsible for personnel decisions, offered praise for Pisani in a recent interview with the Press but declined to comment further.
“I’m very grateful to Mike for his work there,” Gorrell said.
Pisani, who announced Monday he will take over as the principal at Lodi Elementary School next year, declined to comment for this story beyond a statement attached to the Press’ records request, which touted the school’s test scores and focused on the school’s ongoing improvement efforts.
Stoner Prairie has the highest percentage of minority students among the elementary schools in the district and includes the second-highest percentage of students considered economically disadvantaged. It received the highest score on state report cards of any VASD attendance-area elementary school for the 2016-17 school year.
On the 2016-17 parent perception survey, 80 percent of respondents said they were “proud” of the school and that they would recommend the school to a friend. Those numbers were below the ones received by the district’s other attendance-area elementaries, however.
The district has since hired Tammy Thompson Kapp, who has spent the past six years at Lapham Elementary School in Madison, to succeed Pisani. Before her hire, the parents who had spoken with the Press expressed optimism about the school’s future.
“I think it’s time for a change, and I hope we’re headed in the right direction,” parent Lesley Steffin told the Press in February.
The bulk of what the parent group sent to school board members in October focused on student behavior.
A timeline of concerns included in the email pinpoints 2014-15 as when it “became glaringly evident that there was a serious behavior problem at Stoner Prairie.” It cited students destroying property, roaming hallways, fighting and abusing teachers.
Toward the end of that school year, more than 100 people attended a school board meeting to question the discipline at the school and in the district as a whole as it transitioned to a new behavioral model.
That same year, administrators decided to hire a behavioral specialist at Stoner Prairie, and while things briefly improved, according to the timeline, that specialist left for personal reasons after 10 days and “the situation reverted to complete chaos the day after he left.”
The issues were enough to cause more than 20 families to leave the school either for a private option or a charter within the district over the last four years, former PTO president and current substitute teacher Maureen Hilquist said. Among those exits were two in the same week in spring 2017 as the issues continued – she said both girls left because of bullying.
Parent survey data from the 2016-17 school year show 53 percent of respondents said the school did a “good job at managing discipline,” compared with 91, 86 and 61 percent at the other three attendance-area elementaries.
But teacher Janelle Kenny-Johnson, in her first year at the school this year, wrote to Gorrell that she was “both shocked and disappointed” to read an email that had been critical of Pisani’s tenure. Kenny-Johnson pointed to times when Pisani stepped in to lead classrooms while a teacher dealt with problematic behavior by a student.
“I have first-hand witnessed nothing but support from Mr. Pisani and the staff that has been put in place,” she wrote. “When you review that email, I ask that you kindly know that this school, the administrator, the staff cares about these kids and are working incredibly hard to create a strong community.”
The parents had a different view of the 2017-18 year.
“Just six weeks into the current school year, behavioral incidents at school were even worse than in previous years,” Hilquist wrote in the email to the board.
By the 2016-17 school year, the email states, academic concerns began to manifest, as well.
At that point, parents “realized that students weren’t getting any meaningful homework, there were no requirements even for students to read each night, and children’s work products were not being shared with parents.”
On the most recent parent perception survey available, for the 2016-17 school year, 65 percent of respondents from Stoner Prairie said academic expectations were “just right,” with 27 percent saying “too low” – the latter tied for the highest of any of the attendance-area elementaries.
The year before, Pisani had made the decision to end the 24-year-old PALs (Partners Actively Learning) program at the school as the school and district pushed for more consistency among programming, at the same time some of the program’s founders were retiring from teaching. That choice, anticipated for at least a month before it was announced, angered many parents who supported the multi-age classrooms.
Meetings between parents and Pisani throughout the 2017 school year, detailed in the timeline, show parents were concerned with a lack of focus on math facts, spelling tests and making the science fair no longer mandatory. Some parents and teachers asked for Pisani’s termination, according to the timeline.
In his statement with the records request, Pisani pointed to the school’s successes.
“Our school has a strong academic record, especially when compared to other schools in our region,” he noted in that response. “In fact, we outperformed over 70 percent of Dane County elementary schools on the 2016-17 Statewide School Report Card.
“We also strive to grow and improve at every opportunity. This is why our Continuous Improvement Team reviews staff and family feedback and is working with our Building Implementation Teams to find areas where we can grow.”
Parents also contended Pisani routinely did not communicate what he should have.
Two days before the email to the board, PTO president Aaron Zimmer expressed displeasure with how Pisani had summarized a meeting in an email and suggested the principal might have lost the trust of his staff and the parents.
“Trust is a common thread that seems to keep popping up in discussions,” Zimmer wrote. “Once broken, it is very difficult to rebuild it between a leader and their followers. Not impossible, but very difficult and takes a lot of time and patience.”
Parent Jessica Maher also told the Press that some incidents at the school, including lockdown situations involving threats, “have been either downplayed or not communicated entirely.” She also cited times when “hate language” was used at the school and not communicated to families, when she would’ve liked that to be a “community conversation,” since, she believed, the children would hear about it, anyway.
She hopes to see that change with new administration to help foster conversation within her own and among other families.
“(I want) things that will help families support conversations that align with things that are happening at school,” Maher said. “I want to have the tools and know what’s happening to support those conversations.”
The delayed announcement of his departure itself was part of the pattern of poor communication, some parents said. It came nearly a month after school board member Meredith Stier Christensen called him a “lame duck” in a December email to Gorrell.
During the time between the decision and announcement, rumors spread that he would be fired, resigning or even receiving a promotion within the district, according to emails acquired in the request, and went to the point of students discussing what they were hearing.
Stier Christensen’s email brought up that perception.
“His unwillingness to be forthright is damaging the school’s morale and ability to come together,” she wrote. “MP is also damaging our credibility by saying he’s staying. We are being described as ineffective at best and deceptive at worst. Those criticisms are directed to both the superintendent and the board.”
Pisani’s exit comes as the district is changing its complaints procedure.
The new procedure, expected to be voted on at the board’s next meeting, has not been directly connected with the years of complaints from parents about Pisani, which parents said were routinely brushed aside. It outlines steps parents can take when they have concerns, including who they should approach first and at what point to move to the next highest authority.
In Pisani’s case, Hilquist wrote to the board that the parents had been “dismissed” when discussing the issues with Pisani and Gorrell in the past, as recently as last summer.
“Dr. Gorrell has been made thoroughly aware, over the course of the past four years, that principal Mike Pisani is failing Stoner Prairie, but he has consistently refused to consider Mr. Pisani’s termination,” Hilquist wrote in October. “We ask you, the members of the school board, to step in now to help our school.”
Roberts said while the email made the board aware of the parents’ concerns, the board left the ultimate decisions to Gorrell in his role “overseeing and supervising” staff.
“The Board of Education’s role regarding personnel matters extends to that of our oversight and evaluation of the district administrator,” Roberts wrote in an email to the Press. “Additionally, because of the interests at stake and out of respect for our employees, we do not generally discuss personnel matters in public.”
While the parents were not satisfied with the responses they had received from district officials for the more than two years they had registered complaints, the school board’s actions last fall drew praise.
“They had no idea what was going on day-to-day,” Steffin told the Press. “As soon as they found out, they stepped up.”
The emails show Roberts responded to Hilquist’s October email within 24 hours. He separately asked Gorrell to set up a closed session on the topic for the board’s next meeting “to obtain a fuller picture of the issues raised in the email so we are not solely relying on the viewpoints expressed in the email to inform us of the situation at Stoner Prairie.”
Those discussions were limited for legal reasons, but in November Roberts wrote that the issues were “discussed generally at a recent board meeting” and that Gorrell and the administrative team were working on them.
“Please know that our superintendent is taking your concerns very seriously and is addressing these issues,” Roberts wrote to Hilquist.
Hilquist said she is optimistic for the school’s future, now that the parents’ concerns have been addressed.
“We love Stoner Prairie and believe it has limitless potential under the right leadership,” Hilquist said.