Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly paraphrased a statement from WatersToday on Pete Leki’s removal. The story has been updated to reflect the group supports the principal’s oversight of the position, not Leki’s ousting.
LINCOLN SQUARE — The founder and longtime director of Waters Elementary’s nationally recognized ecology program has been ousted from the school and some parents are fuming.
Waters Principal Peter Rutkowski said Pete Leki’s departure comes after Chicago Public Schools implemented stricter rules for the job and negotiations fell apart. But Leki said he suspects he was fired for his activism to protect the school’s garden.
Leki has been in charge of the garden and ecology program for 31 years. In 1991, Leki, then a member of Waters’ local school council, spearheaded converting a parking lot on the campus, 4540 N. Campbell Ave., into a garden with native plants.
But Leki is not a district employee. His job was supported by private fundraising from a community group, and CPS leaders want more oversight over the money collected to pay his $80,000-a-year salary.
Rutkowski announced last week he wasn’t able to “come to a mutually agreeable arrangement” to reduce Leki’s salary and gain oversight over Leki’s pay before classes start next month, so the school is going to continue the popular program without him. It’s unclear who his replacement will be.
Leki said he thought there was still a way for him to stay with the program under CPS’ new budget oversight rules, but he now thinks his activism to safeguard Waters’ garden over the years finally cost him the job.
“That’s part of what this is, when they say they want to get me under control or get the garden under control of CPS,” Leki said. “I fear this is to try to stop the independent voices of our community.
“I’m deeply grateful to all those who’ve raised up their voices with me.”
Hundreds of neighbors have signed a petition to keep Leki in the role.
“The ecology program is what really put Waters on the map,” neighbor Colleen McVeigh said. “Pete’s been at the center of it, and the garden is what led to the neighborhood becoming a destination.”
Led by Leki, students, Waters staff and neighbors have spent decades converting the sprawling swath of asphalt into gardens, compost piles, bioswales and vegetable and flowers beds, all centered around centuries-old oak trees.
Waters students in the ecology and environment program do field-based studies to explore natural areas and do restoration work, oversee recycling and conservation throughout the school and tend to the school garden, which boasts more than 130 native species.
In addition to growing that program, Leki has been a tireless advocate of protecting Waters’ green space, parents said. Most recently, he helped a group of parents and neighbors protect a 300-year-old oak tree from being torn down during construction of a $24 million annex to the campus to help address overcrowding at the popular school.
WatersToday, a volunteer-run nonprofit that raises money for the school, long paid Leki directly through money members fundraised for his role, officials said.
CPS leaders told Waters leaders last year that arrangement needed to stop and the ecology program and Leki’s salary needed more oversight from Rutkowski, who took over as principal in September.
The arrangement would have had the volunteers at WatersToday continue to raise funds for Leki’s salary, CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. But instead of handing the money directly to Leki, the volunteers would give it to Rutkowski so he could create a school budget that Waters’ school council would vote on, in accordance with district rules, Fergus said.
“It was determined that Mr. Leki’s work needed to be a CPS staff position to ensure that the school could provide the necessary oversight of the work, which includes leading field trips with students and maintaining the garden,” Fergus said.
Karen Soto, a Waters teacher and council member, said the teachers supported the change in part because they felt Leki’s salary was too high. Rutkowski proposed a 30 percent pay cut, Leki said.
“Because the compensation rate that is happening here … is mind-boggling in many ways in regards to what some of the teachers are making,” Soto said at a July 19 meeting.
Leki posted updates on his negotiations with the school on the Waters School Community Gardens website, which he runs. He urged neighbors to send letters of support and sign a petition for him to continue as ecology director.
Leki declined an offer to work directly for CPS under Rutkowski’s supervision with a 23 percent reduction to his salary, Fergus said.
Leki said he got a verbal agreement after a “face-to-face” meeting with a member of the school’s council that he’d be able to independently raise the money to make up the difference in the salary cut to allow him to continue caring for Waters’ garden.
But Rutkowski told Waters staff, parents and students in a letter last week that Leki will no longer work with the school. He promised the ecology program will continue.
“Unfortunately, after many lengthy discussions with Mr. Leki, community members and Waters parents over the past months, we have not been able to come to a mutually agreeable arrangement for the coming school year. Notably, the communications sent on behalf of the ‘Waters School Community Gardens’ throughout July, both in content and disposition, were a major barrier in coming to an arrangement and setting a solid foundation for moving forward together,” Rutkowski said in the letter.
Rutkowski referred further questions to CPS.
WatersToday President Jessie Novak and the group’s co-treasurer, Sam Kaune, said in a statement they trusted Rutkowski’s leadership and supported the move to bring Leki’s position under tighter oversight.
“We support the move to require funding allocations for the ecology program be set and approved by the LSC like the rest of the school budget,” they said in the statement. “We will continue to support the initiatives outlined by this body and are confident this change in practices will help ensure that our beautiful garden and the ecology program’s unique curriculum will continue to grow and thrive.”
Members of the school council declined to comment.
Neighbor and Waters parent Brandon Gross launched the petition two weeks ago in support of keeping Leki in his job. It had nearly 500 signatures as of Monday.
Gross use to work for Greencorps Chicago. He moved back to the neighborhood after his daughter was born because he wanted her to attend the “unique” ecology program at Waters and has volunteered to help with field trips and to maintain the garden, he said.
Upkeep for the garden and guaranteeing parent involvement isn’t easy, Gross said. The parents who have signed the petition and sent letters in support of keeping Leki show he’s an important part of the school’s ecology program and should be retained, Gross said.
“There are no other programs that connect education to ecology in the way that Pete Leki has been able to do,” Gross said at the school council’s meeting last week.
Leki said he is paid through the end of this week. He said he is trying to make sure he can care for the garden after the 31st even though he would not be paid.
“The garden won’t survive without care,” Leki said. “There’s a whole community of school families and neighbors across the street who come to tend the garden every day and on weekly work days. We have to find a transition to some new stable stewardship plan. I hope new negotiations open soon.”
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