Accusations and Rancor as Elite School’s Leader Departs
A longtime principal at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School abruptly retired after a battle with the head of the school involving its program dealing with race.
The end of the school year at Fieldston Lower, one of two elementary divisions at the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School, is usually a time of celebration: class picnics on the school’s bucolic 18-acre campus in the Bronx, the fifth-grade graduation in the gym.
But this year, these events were overshadowed when, on June 1, two weeks before classes ended, the head of the school, Jessica L. Bagby, issued a terse announcement that George Burns, the longtime principal of Fieldston Lower, was retiring.
The news shook many parents and staff members. Mr. Burns had worked there for 18 years and had given no indication that he planned to retire. Almost no one believed that his departure was entirely voluntary.
Some angry parents wrote to Ms. Bagby, demanding an explanation. In a heated meeting, staff members at Fieldston Lower told her and Caryn Seidman-Becker, the chairwoman of Fieldston’s board, that their trust in them was shattered. Sixteen teachers signed a letter to the board demanding that Ms. Seidman-Becker be removed as chairwoman — during her tenure, they wrote, “we have witnessed an erosion of trust and transparency as changes in board practice and turnover in administration at every level have rocked our school” — and that Mr. Burns be reinstated.
Ms. Seidman-Becker and Ms. Bagby, who assumed her position a year ago, declined to discuss with staff members or parents why Mr. Burns had left. And so, in the absence of information, some supplied their own theory — that Ms. Seidman-Becker and some board members want to change the direction of Fieldston, which was founded in the late 19th century by Felix Adler as a free school serving poor children and is now one of New York City’s top private schools.
In that largely white and wealthy world, Ethical Culture Fieldston is the most politically liberal of the schools, with an explicit mission to mold students into “ethical individuals who aim to make the world more humane and just.” Its Conversations About Race program, which is mandatory for all fourth and fifth graders, is among the most aggressive attempts by an independent school in New York to confront racial issues.
Mr. Burns, in particular, had made it his goal for Fieldston Lower to reflect the city’s diversity. He had championed Conversations About Race, which has gained national acclaim but has proved controversial among some parents. As part of the program, children are divided into groups by race to discuss their experiences.
In an interview, Ms. Bagby said the school was not backing away from its commitment to diversity and to tackling racial issues. While neither she nor Sarah Danzig Simon, the assistant head of school for institutional advancement, would directly address why Mr. Burns had left, it is clear, based on documents and interviews, that he and Ms. Bagby had a falling out shortly after the beginning of last school year. The dispute comes down to a meeting between them on Oct. 20, of which they have given radically different accounts, and which was later investigated by a member of the school’s board.
Mr. Burns’s version is encapsulated in a bias report he filed in December with the school’s human resources director. At the time, Mr. Burns shared the report with his former assistant, Rama Ndiaye, and she provided it to The New York Times.
According to that account, during the meeting Ms. Bagby mentioned that two parents had contacted her with concerns about the Conversations About Race program. She then asked Mr. Burns, “You know what the problem here is?” When he asked what it was, he wrote, she said something that sounded to him like “the scientists.” He was confused and asked her to repeat herself. At that point she said, apparently referring to the parents who had complained, “It’s the Zionists — the Jews.”
Mr. Burns wrote that he was stunned and told her that there were plenty of Jewish families who supported the program and families of different backgrounds who opposed it. Mr. Burns said she then made an additional comment about “this group of Jewish parents” who were complaining about the program.
In Mr. Burns’s telling, he emailed Ms. Bagby the next morning saying he was disturbed by her comment and wanted to discuss it further. They did not talk until their regularly scheduled meeting the next week, at which he told her that he found the remark as offensive as if she had said, “The problem in the school is the colored people.” He wrote that she ultimately offered a kind of apology — saying, “Well, I’m sorry if that’s what it sounded like to you, but I didn’t mean it that way” — but that he found it belated and unsatisfying.
Ms. Bagby said in the interview that, in the Oct. 20 meeting, she had not used the words Mr. Burns attributed to her, and that she had instead said something considerably more nuanced. “I said to him at the time, ‘We have a problem in that some members of our community who identify themselves as Jewish, and some who even might identify themselves — self-identify — as Zionists, do not feel embraced by this program,’” she said. “That was the substance of the conversation.”
Ms. Bagby also gave a different account of their subsequent meeting. She said she had denied making the comment and had tried to remind him of the context of the conversation, but that “he absolutely was recalcitrant.”
“He has willfully misrepresented me, period,” she said.
Ms. Bagby said that after the second conversation she had immediately notified Ms. Seidman-Becker and, somewhat later, the human resources director, Joan Walrond. Ms. Ndiaye said that Mr. Burns had also reached out to Ms. Seidman-Becker to discuss the incident, but that he told Ms. Ndiaye that Ms. Seidman-Becker had been dismissive and essentially suggested that he drop it. At that point, Ms. Ndiaye said, he decided to file the report with Ms. Walrond.
Ms. Seidman-Becker did not respond to phone calls and declined requests for an interview through a spokesman for the school, Farrell Sklerov.
Mr. Burns, whose wife and children are Jewish, declined to comment, referring a reporter to the school’s announcement of his retirement. (His son, Alexander Burns, is a reporter for The Times.)
Subsequent to Mr. Burns’s bias report, an investigation was conducted, at Ms. Seidman-Becker’s request, by Orin Snyder, a member of the board’s executive committee, and his law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
A 10-page memorandum produced as part of the investigation, dated Feb. 21, dismisses Mr. Burns’s accusations, saying that he “either embellished the relevant events to create a picture of bias or is grossly misinterpreting what happened.” A copy of the memorandum was sent anonymously to The Times.
In its final paragraphs, the memorandum suggests that it is Mr. Burns, not Ms. Bagby, who is guilty of bias, saying that he used “heated and overly belligerent language” in speaking about Ms. Bagby and asserting that, according to Ms. Walrond, “there have been several complaints against Mr. Burns from women at E.C.F.S., which involved his behavior, language and attitude concerning women.”
Mr. Sklerov would not say whether such complaints were part of the reason that Mr. Burns had left, and Ms. Bagby said she was “not a part of those conversations.”
Ms. Walrond declined to comment. (On Tuesday the school announced she was leaving Fieldston, immediately, to become the human resources director at the Dalton School in Manhattan.)
While Mr. Burns was respected by much of the staff and by many parents, some found him difficult. This year he clashed with a couple whose son was accused of making a racist comment to a classmate and had to read a letter of apology in front of the entire fifth grade. In an email, the father said Mr. Burns had publicly humiliated his son and was becoming “a Gestapo of the political left.”
Ms. Ndiaye called the assertion that Mr. Burns was biased against women ridiculous, saying, for instance, that he had been extremely supportive of staff members who needed flexibility to care for children. Fourteen of the 16 teachers who signed the letter to the board calling for his reinstatement were women, and Fieldston Lower’s two assistant principals are women.
Ms. Ndiaye is still employed by the school, though she said she felt her position was tenuous because of her close relationship with Mr. Burns.
In explaining why she decided to come forward, Ms. Ndiaye said she thought the school was not living up to the mission of ethical education set by its founder.
The firestorm has hit what has been the most stable of Fieldston’s four divisions, as well as the most racially diverse. Although the school would not provide current racial data on each of its divisions, in 2011 it told The Times that 50 percent of the kindergartners at Fieldston Lower were minorities, while 36 percent were at Ethical Culture, Fieldston’s other, larger elementary division, on Central Park West in Manhattan. (Both elementary divisions feed into Fieldston Middle and Fieldston Upper, which share the Bronx campus with Fieldston Lower.)
Tuition at each of Fieldston’s divisions is $47,000 per year, and roughly one in five students receives some financial aid, according to the school.
Ms. Ndiaye, along with several teachers and parents, said Mr. Burns had created a culture at Fieldston Lower in which all parents were treated equally, regardless of race or financial situation. They said his sudden exit created an unsettling sense that the culture might be changing.
Katie Michel, a parent with two children at Fieldston, said that, on the Monday after the announcement of Mr. Burns’s retirement, she and other parents had joined a group of teachers who were protesting his departure at a board meeting on campus. She said a father who was black and whom she did not know told the others that no matter what terrible things were happening in the world, he had always felt happy and secure dropping his daughter off at Fieldston Lower.
“That got taken away from me Thursday,” she recalled him as saying, referring to the day when Mr. Burns’s retirement was announced. She added, “That was heartbreaking to me.”
Others have pointed to what they see as signs that the administration’s approach to diversity is changing. On June 1, the same day that Ms. Bagby announced Mr. Burns’s retirement, she announced that she was changing the title of the school’s director of progressive and multicultural education — who oversaw the Conversations About Race program — to assistant head of school for ethical education and social impact, a move that some parents feared reflected a shift away from race. Ms. Bagby said that was not the case, and that she had simply wanted to elevate the position and to accurately reflect its responsibilities. The school has also said it is bringing in an outside consultant to evaluate the racial discussion program, a move Fieldston says is aimed at assessing how it is meeting its goals.
Ms. Bagby said that in the end people would have to judge her on her actions, “as opposed to connecting dots and false narratives, which is what’s going on here.”
“George has done pioneering work, but because George leaves doesn’t mean the institution changes its deeply held values,” she said. “That’s just stunning to imagine.”