Director responds to no confidence vote

Priyanka Shrijay, Editor-in-Chief

After the results from a Faculty Association vote showed a sizable majority lacked confidence in Laboratory Schools Director Charlie Abelmann, he has been working with the University of Chicago and the Laboratory Schools Board of Directors to address some of the faculty’s concerns through listening sessions with other members of the Lab community, but union leaders say his efforts are not enough.

The union announced Feb. 11 that it urges “the Board of the Laboratory Schools to examine the Director’s detrimental impact on the schools.”

In a statement released by the FA, the vote claimed Dr. Abelmann damaged the relationships between families and faculty, disparaged the faculty, has failed to build the trust of the faculty, violated the collective bargaining agreement, and made disruptive and poorly planned decisions.

In the vote, 179 voted no confidence, 12 voted confidence and 22 abstained. The FA has 235 members, representing 80-85 percent of the eligible employees.

Dr. Abelmann, who has been director since July 2017, responded to the vote of no confidence with a letter to the faculty.

“There are so many ways in which Lab is a truly outstanding school,” he wrote. “At the same time, the faculty and I have a lot of work to do to rebuild our sense of trust and recommit to our shared goals.”

Dr. Abelmann added that he is working to address some of the concerns.

“I have invited FA leaders to meet on a regular basis with me and a member of Lab’s human resources team to foster a more collaborative environment,” he wrote. “Additionally, I have asked members of the All-Schools Council to work with you to gather ideas on how to begin a more fruitful dialogue on the issues.”

In a Feb. 27 letter to faculty obtained by the Midway, FA President Jim Catlett, a science teacher, expressed dissatisfaction in Dr. Abelmann’s reaction to the vote of no confidence.

“Director Abelmann has scheduled listening sessions with faculty and parents so that he can listen to our concerns. The Faculty Association understands the difficulty in sharing concerns with an administrator who has treated faculty with rudeness and disrespect,” he wrote. “What we need is for the Director to start responding to the concerns.”

Mr. Catlett added that it will take effort on Dr. Abelmann’s part to gain the confidence of the faculty.

“He needs to be more thoughtful about how he speaks to and speaks about faculty. We need him to be more transparent and honest with us. And we need him to reverse a destructive decision and hire back Dan Jones,” he wrote. “The community has given him significant feedback and it is time for him to start acting on it.”

Officials who oversee the Lab Schools responded to the vote in an email sent Feb. 12 to the Lab Schools community, obtained by the Midway, in which they acknowledged recent frustrations and challenges while expressing support for Dr. Abelmann’s leadership.

David Fithian, University of Chicago Executive Vice President, and David Kistenbroker, chair of the Laboratory Schools board of directors, wrote, “We recognize that this process can be challenging, and understand the frustration that many in the Lab community have expressed. The University and Board will remain engaged, and we support Charlie’s efforts as Lab continues to work towards a unified community.”

According to FA Vice President Sharon Housinger, FA members — including teachers, counselors and librarians from nursery through high school — met several times earlier in the quarter to discuss Lab’s atmosphere.

Ms. Housinger, a science teacher, said the faculty’s priority is the welfare of the students and upholding Lab’s values of kindness and respect.

“The faculty hopes that the results of this vote will send a strong message to the community that we will not sit by quietly while our traditions, families, students, and fellow faculty members are treated with contempt and hostility,” Ms. Housinger wrote.

According to science teacher David Derbes, a member of the FA for 30 years, the faculty has shown a clear lack of confidence in Dr. Abelmann and that future actions are now in the hands of the board.

He said, “He has done damage, and in my opinion, he will continue to do damage as long as he’s here.”