Schoolhouse Rocked

Angry parents, scared teachers, a flurry of resignations—what, exactly, has been going on at the esteemed Kinkaid School?
Schoolhouse Rocked
CLASS WAR: An angry e-mail turned one of Houston’s most prestigious private schools into a political battleground.
Illustration by Jason Raish

Though it’s not clear when Hugh E. “Skip” McGee III’s beef with the Kinkaid School began, by the time he started writing his November 11, 2009, letter to its board of trustees, he was plainly livid. The immediate cause for his anger, as he pointed out, was an aborted pep rally five days earlier. The private school’s football team had unexpectedly qualified for the division championship game against crosstown rivals Houston Episcopal, and team moms had organized a spirited send-off. Among the activities planned was a skit in which Kinkaid gridders, including McGee’s son, the senior quarterback, would impersonate Episcopal cheerleaders, complete with wigs, makeup, and big balloon breasts. But shortly before the rally, longtime school principal Mickey Saltman rethought his earlier approval of the skit. Worried it would reinforce negative gender stereotypes, he dispatched a teacher and a student to tell the players to cut it, robbing them of what McGee called “the punchline to the pep rally.” When they showed up onstage to cheer in wigs anyhow, Saltman stopped the proceedings. According to McGee, the boys were humiliated, and the moms were furious at what they considered an overly sensitive reaction to a harmless bit of fun. The next night, Episcopal beat Kinkaid 52–7.

But McGee’s five-page letter was titled “The Tipping Point,” and he was upset about more than a pep rally. He wrote at length about the two people Saltman had sent to stop the skit. He started with the student, identifying him by name. Andrew Edison, the school’s governing council president and emcee of the pep rally, had “previous issues with football players,” wrote McGee, and though he didn’t give specifics, many at Kinkaid knew that McGee’s son had lost the presidential race to Edison the previous spring. Then McGee turned to the teacher, Leslie Lovett. He said that the previous year, as his son’s eleventh-grade history instructor, Lovett had referred to investment bankers as “sleazeballs”—McGee is an investment banker at Barclays Capital—and had suggested, among other things, that homecoming could be celebrated at a girls’ field hockey game instead of a football game.

That bled into his larger concern. Lovett was the head of the upper school’s diversity committee, a group that, to McGee’s mind, had too much sway over Kinkaid. “In our rush to be ‘politically correct,’” he wrote, “we have become obsessed about pacifying even the most extreme of views—even if they are far from representative of the core values and character of Kinkaid families and alumni. By standing for everything, we actually stand for nothing.” Then, in a paragraph of rhetorical questions illustrating how far the school had strayed, he asked this: “Why is a married, heterosexual coach considered an oddity at Kinkaid?” He closed by suggesting that Lovett be fired, Saltman be encouraged to retire, and the school’s headmaster, Don North, consider moving on. (McGee declined to be interviewed for this article through a spokesperson at Barclays Capital, who said McGee considered the matter private.)

Other parents had also been incensed by the cancellation of the skit, and a number had contacted the school to complain, many of them echoing McGee’s vow to “take back control of the Kinkaid School.” But McGee is no ordinary parent, nor just any i-banker. He’s the head of Barclays’ global investments banking division; two years ago, the Daily Beast website suggested he was the highest-paid banker on Wall Street (Barclays has consistently denied the $25 million salary figure cited in the article). And he didn’t send his letter to just the school. He copied other parents, who forwarded it on, and it quickly left the confines of the Kinkaid community. By month’s end it had shown up on snarky Wall Street gossip blog DealBreaker, followed by Gawker and New York magazine’s Daily Intel, all of which roundly harangued McGee and the school (sample headline: “Barclays Executive Attacks Hateful Feminist Teacher for Making His Practically Adult Son Cry”). But the letter also showed up in friendlier venues, like the UK’s Daily Telegraph and the New York Post , which titled its December 2, 2009, story “Banker Strikes Back Against Liberal School.” None of the coverage was welcomed by Kinkaid. Elite private schools prefer stories about National Merit finalists and sports victories. Conflict within the family is best kept in-house.

The school was essentially on lockdown when I went to visit one Sunday a few weeks later. That morning the Houston Chronicle had run a front-page story under the headline “Kinkaid Controversy: Prep School Pyrotechnics.” And in the afternoon, Kinkaid’s acclaimed drama department was putting on The Laramie Project, an award-winning play about how the Wyoming town dealt with the gay-bashing murder of college student Matthew Shepard. Headmaster North, in the wake of the uproar, had hired extra security, and an audience discussion scheduled afterward had been canceled. But the performance remained open to the public; Kinkaid’s theater company actually sells season tickets.

I’d left a message with North’s secretary on Friday afternoon asking if I could attend but hadn’t heard back. When I arrived at the school in a steady rain, a guard waved me past the security kiosk and into the parking lot. I bought a ticket and roamed the lobby looking for North. He found me first. “I’m sorry,” he said as we shook hands. “No press is allowed. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

McGee’s letter had exposed a rift that the school didn’t want outsiders to see. Over the next fifteen months Kinkaid would do a good job of tamping down press interest but have a harder time getting the dust to settle on campus. The school’s board of trustees promised a period of reflection and undertook an extensive survey to gauge the community’s take on the concerns raised by McGee and like-minded parents. But the dialogue was marked by resignations and recriminations. What began as an angry letter from a disgruntled parent turned into a struggle over the most basic ways in which the school defines itself.

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