NEAR WEST SIDE — The principal at one of the city's top elementary schools, Andrew Jackson Language Academy, said Monday he would step down at the end of his term.
Mathew Ditto's announcement came at the same meeting in which he acknowledged he didn't get required approval from the Local School Council before buying new laptops for teachers this summer, but he denied the decision was connected to the purchase.
He simply said it will be time for a change when his current contract ends in July 2015.
"There is nothing really prompting it," he said. "It's the end of nine years at the school, and I think its time for me to move on."
At a quickly called LSC meeting Monday, Ditto admitted he used $30,000 in school funds left over from last year toward buying 33 Dell laptops for teachers, without telling the LSC or getting its permission.
"It was very perplexing for us as a council that we didn't know about it," council chairwoman Angela Bryant said. "Thirty-thousand dollars is a significant expenditure. We are quite concerned."
Ditto acknowledged the "error" in protocol, but later said CPS gave him the go-ahead on the computer purchase over the summer, without specifying the need to OK it with the LSC.
A CPS spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the computer purchase.
Ditto was hired as the school's principal in 2007 after working for a year at the school under the previous principal. He is in the middle of his second four-year contract, which paid him $125,000 last year. The lottery-admission school at 1340 W. Harrison St. is one of the toughest to get a student into and has long posted some of the top test scores in the city.
In August, Ditto was one of 134 principals to win a $5,000 bonus from CPS for "excellent" performance — money he then donated to the school. Ditto has also been an advocate of a corporate-based training program for students called The Leader in Me, implemented at Andrew Jackson last year.
But at an LSC meeting late last month, Ditto surprised parents and council members when he indicated he might resign, sources at the meeting said, when they asked to get budget and other materials 48 hours in advance of council meetings. He said then that he was under too many demands, including immense pressure and daily scrutiny from his higher-ups at CPS, the sources said.
Monday's meeting was called specifically to address the computer purchase and Ditto's comments about possibly resigning, according to an agenda. Many parents were unaware of the meeting, although a fathers group sent out an email Sunday urging parents to attend "one of the most, if not the most, important meetings" at the school.
At the meeting, Ditto announced that "I will not be seeking a third term at Andrew Jackson." He said he would serve the remainder of his contract.
In response to questions from LSC members about the computer purchase, Ditto said although CPS pushed for all teachers to have computers last year, he wasn't "forced" by the district to buy them. But he said there was an "urgency" to the purchase because during the last week of school he realized "there were funds on the budget lines, and they needed to be expended. And one of the things that the school desperately needs is to have working technology."
But LSC members said they were frustrated they hadn't been told of the need for the computers, and then never were asked to approve their purchase, even though the LSC met over the summer. At least one member said they were given different answers when they inquired where the money had come from and were still unsure.
Parent LSC member Liz Gardner said she was most upset about being kept in the dark.
"The need wasn't communicated to the LSC, and I don't think it was communicated to the teachers, also," she said. "And I think that raises a big concern for me."
Parent member Jim Ryan raised frustrations about the budgeting process, which he called "very confusing" because the LSC isn't given enough information or explanation on a timely basis of where money is coming from and or being used for.
Parent Kevin Lopez, who was at the meeting, stressed that he had concerns that the new laptops might not meet teacher needs. He noted that parents raised money in 2011 to buy computers, and at that time they did a thorough needs assessment.
"Purchasing technology for technology's sake can be dangerous," he said.
Lopez later said that many teachers actually wanted tablet computers, which some feel are better for one-on-one teaching.
"If they’re not touch-screen, we just wasted a lot of money,” said Lopez, who nevertheless said Ditto would be missed at the school.
Ditto promised "the error in terms of protocol won't happen again."
Several people said the school should look into forming a technology committee that would help assess the school's needs.
Bryant said Ditto's exit would not compromise Andrew Jackson’s progress.
“We’re a school that communicates. We know that we can have conflict and we resolve it,” she said. “Part of the success of the school is our ability to fight and make up and do what’s best for the students.”