The School Board met in closed session to discuss a matter that many community members felt was a done deal: the extension of school superintendent Rebecca L. Perry’s contract until June 30, 2008. In response to rumors that the board was going to take this action, parents wrote letters and spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting before the 7-2 vote.
“I find myself at a loss as to how the School Board can consider retaining Mrs. Perry without even asking her to recompete for her job,” said Bruce Falk. “Aside from the pathetic drunk driving incident, in itself a colossal and criminal lapse of judgment, issues abound regarding Mrs. Perry’s performance that call into question her suitability for the position. For example, her policy of principal swapping within the District, while successful as a short-term patch to problems, is ultimately self defeating. Furthermore, this sort of policy can give the community no faith in the long-term stability of senior school administration.”
Controversy has swirled around Perry since she was arrested and subsequently pled guilty to drunk driving in April. As a result of that incident, the School Board shortened her contract to expire in June, 2005, and required her to attend counseling and to speak about the incident to community groups and make a financial contribution to the T.C. Williams all-night graduation party.
As a result of her guilty plea, the court required her to attend the city’s Alcohol Safety Action Program and suspended her license for one year. She is currently driving on a restricted license, which allows her to drive to work and to work-related functions.
“Ms. Perry’s decision to drink and drive was a serious lapse in judgment,” said Mark Wilkoff, board chair, in April. “Serious consequences should follow. At the same time, it is also clear that Ms. Perry has been a tremendous asset to the Alexandria City Public Schools. This is what made our decision so difficult .… The board does not condone drinking and driving. Clearly, it is wrong. The board believes that Ms. Perry has faced and must face serious consequences for her actions last Friday morning. Accordingly, our agreement to retain Ms. Perry as superintendent will contain the following conditions.” He then enumerated the conditions described above.
IN DECIDING to extend Perry’s contract to June, 2008, Wilkoff said in a statement, “Tonight the School Board extended the superintendent’s contract through June, 2008. Over the last three and a half years we have made significant strides in the education of Alexandria students … Rebecca Perry has been at the forefront … We have a lot at stake over the next few years. We recognize that there are those who disagree with our decision. We believe, however, in making its decision the board put the interests of our students as paramount. A change in leadership at this point would most likely impede the forward progress we have made over the last three and-a-half years. In extending her contract through June, 2008, the board believes Ms. Perry is the right person for Alexandria. She is the right person to lead us through the construction of the new T. C. Williams High School and the right person to lead us in our quest for academic achievement for all.”
Vice Chair Mollie Danforth also defended the decision to extend Perry’s contract. “In hindsight, the situation has been mishandled by many people,” Danforth said. "Now it’s time to move forward and focus on the city’s children.
“We really never meant the one-year reduction in her contract as a punishment. I don’t know if she attended counseling and, very early on, we decided that asking her to speak to community groups was just not a good idea. I understand that there are those who are going to question what we did then and what we have done now. I hope that this incident motivates people to run for School Board. We need more good candidates.
“I think that we took the actions we did at the time because you have to reach compromises to move forward. We probably could have handled it better than we did,” she said.
Board members Gwendolyn Lewis and Kenneth Foran cast the dissenting votes. “I voted against the extension of Mrs. Perry’s contract because I do not believe that it sends the right message to our students and because I do not believe that it is right to tie the hands of a new School Board, which will be elected in May 2006 for two years. They have the right to conduct a search and select their own superintendent,” Lewis said.
Foran is concerned about the board’s credibility. “We said we were punishing her by shortening her contract just over six months ago,” he said. “Now we are extending it two years beyond what it was originally. This board has zero credibility and no integrity. The community has a right to be disappointed in our behavior tonight,” he said.
THE NEW CONTRACT gives Perry a base salary of $189,744, beginning in July, 2005. In addition she will receive wage increases “applicable to all employees of the ACPS” for each fiscal year of her contract. The school system will pay $10,000 per year toward a tax-sheltered annuity of Perry’s choice. She will also receive a car allowance of $650 per month with mileage reimbursement for out-of-city travel on ACPS business. The board will pay the employer and employee share of costs for the superintendent’s membership in the Virginia Retirement System and for group life insurance. The board will also pay the total premium for health insurance for Perry’s family. She will also be entitled to 20 calendar days of vacation exclusive of legal holidays and will accrue 15 days of sick leave annually. She will also have four days of personal leave each year.
The board will review Perry’s application for continuing education costs and will allow a reasonable amount of leave and reimburse reasonable expenses actually incurred for membership and participation in activities relevant to her job.
“FOR SOME UNKNOWN reason the School Board is scared to lose Mrs. Perry,” said Margaret Ticer Janowsky. “Can’t they see that it is Mrs. Perry herself that is causing turmoil in our community?”
Lori Arrasmith Quill also opposed retaining Perry. “The construction of T. C. Williams is not a reason to keep Mrs. Perry,” she said. “As an architect that designs institutional buildings, I question the reasoning behind such statements. ACPS has construction specialists to manage this project.”
Lee Quill, a longtime supporter of the public school system, was shocked by the board’s decision. “In Alexandria we expect honesty and integrity in our elected officials and openness in government on all issues of importance to the city and its electorate,” he said. “I believe we have reached a point with this elected School Board that the integrity of what they say and the closed manner in which they govern no longer meets the basic principles of democracy that citizens of our city demand or expect.”