Lüganuse municipality releases school principal over party youth meeting

Heidi Uustalu, the sacked Kiviõli school principal at the center of the controversy.
Heidi Uustalu, the sacked Kiviõli school principal at the center of the controversy. Source: SCANPIX / VIRUMAA TEATAJA

The sacking of a secondary school principal on Thursday has led to protests and opposition from teachers, parents and schoolchildren, some of whom say the development was a politically motivated stunt against a highly respected principal.

Heidi Uustalu was principal of Kiviõli Secondary School No. 1 in Ida-Viru County. Uustalu was fired by the Lüganuse rural municipality government. Uustalu had planned to hold a Reform Party youth meeting at the school, and the matter had been raised by municipal council member Enno Vinni, ERR reports. Uustalu had previously run in a local election, but her and Vinni's political views had diverged since then, according to ERR.

On Thursday morning, a meeting of the municipal government concluded that Uustalu, who had worked for 15 years as a principal, at Kiviõli Secondary School No. 1, was no longer suited to run the largest school in the municipality. 

Municipal mayor Viktor Rauam explained the decision as follows: "In fact, the story is that one head of the school, who is the head of the municipal branch, should be loyal to the employment contract. We cannot expect this at this time and we no longer have any mutual trust."

Sacking meets with backlash

However, the move presented almost immediate opposition.

Chair of the board of Trustees at the Kiviõli school Mehis Kreisman said that the firing had been unnecessary and had political motives.

"For me, this is unseemly and sneaky behavior. People had been looking for reasons to get rid of the principal, in a situation where the majority of the community is very happy with the school. I do not want to say this, but it comes with a majority vote, and this one vote manipulates members of both the municipal government and the municipal council," said Kreisman. 

The board of trustees noted that several teachers were ready to quit the school in solidarity with Uustalu.

Maris Toomel, head of Ida-Viru County's branch of the Reform Party said that the sacking was a case of political persecution, with Enno Vinni's presentation a mockery, being as it was based on allegations about a school leader which had no solid foundation.

The Estonian Principals' Association (Eesti koolijuhtide ühendus) made a public address on Thursday evening, saying Uustalu had been fired in spite of doing good work, having received national recognition for her work, and to the detriment of a harmonious atmosphere at the school.

"Heidi Uustalu has done a very good job as principal; Kiviõli Secondary School No. 1, is a nationally outstanding school and ... has made a great contribution to Estonian education, which resulted in her being awarded principal of the year in 2016," the association explains.

"Lüganuse municipality's decision today does not set an example for young people and does not support the school's peaceful and learning-oriented activities, because it has opted to act in a completely different way - irresponsibly, instead of acting calmly and in a solution-oriented manner," the association adds.

The principals' association pointed out that in recent months there have been other cases where they consider that a school head has damaged the peace and development of schools (though did not mention if these cases had been acted on or not).

"We call on the state, the public and communities to ask schoolchildren how and by what principles and for what purposes concerned parties support their schools. Raising such questions is essential - we are at the forefront of world education and our strength has been the consistent strength of every Estonian school. Unfortunately, we are now seeing a great threat to our solid education," the association went on.

Schoolchildren picketed the school on Thursday in support of Uustalu (see video below).

 Video: Sergei Stepanov

On Thursday evening, teachers at Kiviõli Secondary School No.1 announced that they would be ready to go on strike in support of the dismissed headmaster and to resign if the municipal government did not change their minds.

A recent reversed decision to fire the headteacher of a secondary school in Viimsi, just outside Tallinn, led to the resignation of that municipality's leader, Laine Randjärv (Reform).

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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