Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. on Tuesday suggested a petition from the city principals' union asserting it has no confidence in his leadership was a distraction, saying the school system needs to focus on getting students through the pandemic.

Officials from the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the union representing 650 Philadelphia principals and other administrators, recently circulated a petition declaring it had lost faith in Hite, whom it accused of leadership failures in several key areas. The message came from CASA leadership and was not subject to a vote from principals.

It was an unprecedented step from a union whose members are traditionally slow to criticize the school system publicly.

“There are going to be lots of things that I do as a leader that individuals disagree with,” Hite said at a news briefing about a district equity coalition Tuesday. “I respect those disagreements. I respect our principals, because they’re doing significant work on a daily basis in our schools.”

Hite will meet with principals in a town-hall meeting Tuesday but the focus will be on the work, not on the petition, he said.

“I think we need to stay focused," Hite said. "I think we are dealing with COVID, we’re dealing with trauma that our families are experiencing. We don’t need to be disrupted around things that people disagree with.”

CASA president Robin Cooper has blasted Hite for what she says is a failure to keep students safe, educate them adequately, or practice good fiscal stewardship. The union leadership’s petition has nearly 2,000 signatures.

Behind the scenes, a group of principals is upset over the petition, which was not put to a vote. It was presented as a done deal, and members were asked to drum up support for the petition in their circles. The petition, one principal said, “does not prioritize the best interest of students. Instead, this act of cowardice places blame on one individual and does not place accountability on us — the managers of our own school communities — the principals.”

The principal, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said they believe Hite has made some missteps, but generally, they support him, and “right now, I don’t want anything to take away from my kids getting a great virtual education.”

The timing of the petition, on the eve of principals reporting back to school buildings after months of working from home, was also a worry, the principal said. Cooper said the district was needlessly risking principals' health by requiring them to work from buildings not yet ready for students, during a pandemic.

“Gratitude should be expressed for our jobs instead of concerns being brought up about reentering our buildings," the principal said.

Hite spoke Tuesday after a news conference about the formal launch of the district’s equity coalition, “an organization-wide effort to uproot systems and policies of inequities in our schools."

The coalition, made up of teachers, students, staff, and others from around the district, will first conduct an “equity audit," then make recommendations to Hite, with practical and policy changes expected to take effect next school year. Among the areas of possible change are admissions policies for the district’s magnet schools, where Black students and other children of color are generally underrepresented.

April Brown, the principal of Waring Elementary in Fairmount and leader of the professional learning subcommittee, said the work would be more than just lip service.

“Simply put, the lives of each and every child and adult connected to the School District of Philadelphia depend on the work of the equity coalition,” said Brown, adding that “intent is meaningless without result.”

The committee aims to build “an army of equity champions across our district,” said Estelle Acquah, a special projects director working on antiracism. Acquah said the system would soon launch an Equity Partners Fellowship, identifying up to 20 teachers, central office staff, and high school students who would engage in a year of study, coaching, and experiential learning around race and equity.

For too long, Hite said, the system has provided opportunities to some but not to all children.

“We want to disrupt and eliminate all of those systems which have disadvantaged some individuals by not providing access to those types of opportunities based on where they live and who they were, or who their parents are,” the superintendent said.