Documents: Principal ran Antioch school with 'fear and intimidation'

 
 
Updated 12/21/2015 6:37 AM
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  • Emails and other documents acquired by the Daily Herald under the Freedom of Information Act indicate Antioch Upper Grade School employees thought Principal Mike Zarco "runs the building with fear and intimidation." He resigned in early November.

      Emails and other documents acquired by the Daily Herald under the Freedom of Information Act indicate Antioch Upper Grade School employees thought Principal Mike Zarco "runs the building with fear and intimidation." He resigned in early November. Russell Lissau | Staff Photographer

  • Former Antioch Upper Grade School Principal Mike Zarco had been criticized by staffers during his brief tenure, which ended when he resigned in November.

      Former Antioch Upper Grade School Principal Mike Zarco had been criticized by staffers during his brief tenure, which ended when he resigned in November. GILBERT R. BOUCHER II | Staff Photographer

Antioch Upper Grade School employees accused Principal Mike Zarco of being "cruel and unfair" and of mistreating them, district documents revealed, prompting an internal investigation that preceded Zarco's resignation in November.

"Many employees conveyed that Mr. Zarco 'runs the building with fear and intimidation and will do whatever it takes to get rid of someone he doesn't like,'" a memo from the Antioch Elementary District 34 human resources department said. "It is apparent that some staff has the perception that he is mean, biased, unprofessional and dishonest."

The documents also revealed Zarco was placed on paid administrative leave just days before he quit. District 34 officials didn't mention Zarco had been placed on leave or was being investigated when they announced his resignation in a statement on the district's website.

The statement attributed Zarco's departure to "personal reasons related to medical issues." No further explanation was ever given.

The Daily Herald acquired the documents, which included emails between Zarco and administrators, through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The Daily Herald took several steps to locate Zarco for comment, including by phone and through the district, but was unsuccessful.

'Cruel and unfair'

Mike Zarco
Mike Zarco

Zarco became the Upper Grade School's principal in July 2014. He previously had worked at Lincoln Middle School in Berwyn, Granger Middle School in Aurora, Morton East High School in Cicero and Mead Junior High in Elk Grove Village, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Zarco received a one-year contract for the 2014-15 term and a second one-year contract in June 2015, District 34 documents indicate. He was paid $108,500 the first year and his annual salary increased to $112,883 the second year.

During his first year in Antioch, employees complained to District 34 officials about Zarco's demeanor, the documents indicate.

"Many employees have come forward, either in person or through email, expressing their concern about the way Mr. Zarco treats staff and the lack of professionalism he displays when dealing with school issues," a June 15 memo from the human resources department read. "Numerous employees went so far as to say that Mr. Zarco is cruel and unfair and has personally mistreated them or a peer at one point during the school year."

Cheree Molitor, a representative for the Upper Grade School teachers union, didn't respond to an interview request.

In addition to the complaints from school employees, an online petition calling for the District 34 board to fire Zarco was launched anonymously. The petition criticized Zarco's professionalism and demeanor with parents, students and staffers.

The petition drew the attention of District 34 officials and parents. Some people expressed support for Zarco.

"My child appreciated your energy and interest in them and I have had only good experiences this year," one parent wrote in an email to Zarco.

However, one parent who emailed Superintendent Jay Marino about the petition wasn't a Zarco fan.

"My question to you all is what as a Superintendent and School Board are you planning to do about him?" the parent wrote. "At this time I do not wish my kids to have to endure any time spent with him."

Behavior questioned

On June 3, Zarco met with district administrators about his "professionalism, behavior and character," according to the memo from human resources.

During the meeting, Zarco responded to the complaints by saying the "vast majority" of the people complaining were former employees who'd recently been let go. Zarco also said the Upper Grade School had been "toxic" for years. He insisted he was making tough decisions and holding people accountable, the memo read.

Although acknowledging most of Zarco's comments were accurate, officials were critical of his behavior.

"It is apparent that some staff has the perception that he is mean, biased, unprofessional and dishonest," the memo read. "Mr. Zarco needs to reflect on his actions and address the concerns some staff have shared, so that they can see he has 'heard' their concerns and is capable of affecting change."

Officials concluded the memo by suggesting Zarco "hit the 'reset' button and reflect over the summer on how he can change the perception ... and gain the confidence of the staff so that he does not have these same perception issues next year."

Placed on leave

But the cloud over Zarco's head didn't dissipate. On Oct. 27 -- two months into the new term -- Zarco was placed on administrative leave by District 34 administrators.

"After the 2015-16 school year began, it became clear there was still some negative sentiment remaining from the prior year," Marino told the Daily Herald. "The administration asked Mr. Zarco to take leave to allow it to investigate any open concerns."

Zarco was initially told to report to the District 34 office, but on Nov. 6 he was banned from all district buildings.

"Please refrain from being on the property of any D34 facilities until further notice," Marino told Zarco in an email.

Marino also ordered Zarco to avoid communicating with "staff, parents or other stakeholders" and to remove personal items from his office.

Zarco resigned the next day.

"I have decided that after much thought, I am willing to resign from my position as principal of Antioch Upper Grade School due to personal, medical reasons pending a separation agreement," Zarco wrote in an email to Marino.

The school board formally accepted Zarco's resignation Nov. 10. Assistant Principal Joseph Koeune was asked to step in as interim principal for the rest of the school year.

As part of the separation agreement, the board agreed to pay Zarco a lump sum of roughly $47,513 after his departure. That total was before any tax deductions or federal withholdings, and it included payment for unused vacation days, documents indicate.

School board President Tamara Neumann declined to comment on the allegations against Zarco or his resignation, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues.

Marino noted the district's investigation didn't substantiate any significant concerns about Zarco's behavior.

Even so, Zarco's resignation was "in his and the district's best overall interests," Marino said.

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