One month into the new school year the director of special education at Riverside Elementary School District 96 has taken a paid personal leave of absence. Mary Polk began her leave on Sept. 24 for an indefinite period.
Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis sent an email to staff on Sept. 23 informing them of Polk’s impending leave of absence saying that Polk took a leave of absence for personal reasons.
But the leave of absence appears to also be the result of district officials dissatisfied over Polk’s performance.
“It had to do with some issues with the way she handled some of the cases, the IEPs [Individual Education Plans crafted individually for special education students],” said District 96 board member Randy Brockway. “It’s performance related.”
Other district administrators have not responded to telephone calls and emails from the Landmark requesting comment on Polk’s leave of absence. Attempts to reach Polk were unsuccessful.
On Tuesday night the school board convened a special meeting, which was held in closed session, to discuss next steps. Following that meeting, district officials stated that they would make a public statement on Oct. 4.
Parents were not notified of the leave of absence, which upset some parents who say that they did not know of the move until they read about it on the Landmark’s website on Sept. 27.
Polk was hired by former District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson in 2006 as the district’s first director of special education. She came from Oak Park and River Forest High School, where she began her career as a special education teacher in 1981 and rose to be the support services chairperson.
A resident of North Riverside, Polk grew up in Riverside and attended Central School and L.J. Hauser Junior High School. When she was hired by District 96 she described her new position as her dream job.
Although Polk was praised by some as caring and compassionate others saw her as an ineffective administrator. Some parents of special education students have grumbled about Polk over years, but have been reluctant to speak on the record.
“In general, her not being in that position can’t be a bad thing,” said one parent of a District 96 student who asked to remain anonymous because her child is receiving special services.
Some were more generous.
“I know Dr. Polk comes with a lot of accolades,” said Mary Komperda, a leader in the Riverside Area Inclusion Network (RAIN), a group of special education parents. “I know that she’s got a really big heart for all those kids, and I know that she has a lot going on in her personal life.”
Mary Lang Judy, another parent active in RAIN, had been one of Polk’s few strong supporters, but was less so this year. She made a careful comment to the Landmark when she was told that Polk had taken a leave of absence.
“It’s a tough year of transition in the district, and this is one more hurdle for us,” Judy said. “Coming off last year this is a lot of change.”
Last spring Polk, like all other district administrators other than Sharma-Lewis, was signed to a one-year contract. Her contract expires on June 30, 2014. Last year Polk had an annual salary of $124,485.45. The district has not yet provided her salary for this year despite a request from the Landmark for that figure.