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Votes

Evaluate and Notify

Did School Board members violate laws governing their relationship with the superintendent?

The ongoing controversy surrounding the School Board’s May 21 decision to not renew Superintendent Rebecca Perry’s contract has moved from impassioned statements of public outrage to charges of illegal behavior — with a potential recall effort aimed at members of the five-vote majority whose actions have angered many in the city’s education community. At issue are two provisions of Virginia law that require an annual evaluation of superintendents and a requirement that School Board members be notified 30 days in advance any renegotiations of a superintendent’s contract.

In a highly unusual move this week, the city’s teachers’ union issued a terse press release accusing the School Board of illegally neglecting to evaluate Perry and then rushing to a vote on the issue without first waiting 30 days. Francis Chase, president of the Education Association of Alexandria announced that his organization’s executive board was concerned that "this decision was made in the absence of an evaluation of the superintendent’s performance and without 30-days’ notice to all members of the School Board as required by Virginia law."

"The EAA executive board believes that all personnel decisions should be made strictly on the merits and in accordance with due process of law and fundamental fairness," said a June 4 written statement. "We believe the decision on the superintendent’s contract should be revisited based upon a performance evaluation consistent with state law and School Board policy."

ACCORDING TO School Board Clerk Rosemary Webb, board members were notified by e-mail on May 16 that Chairman Arthur Peabody had added a "closed meeting" to the agenda of a May 21 meeting. Two days later, the school division issued a press release announcing that "the public meeting will be followed by a closed session meeting to discuss the superintendent’s contract." Within five days of being notified by Peabody that the board would be considering the superintendent’s contract, Peabody oversaw a vote in which a deeply divided School Board voted five to four in favor of not renewing the superintendent’s contract.

"The least they could have done is given her an evaluation before making the decision," said former School Board Chairman Mark Wilkoff. "I think they owed it to her."

Originally hired in 2001, Perry’s contract expires on June 30, 2008. The board’s decision last month to not renew her contract prompted outrage among many of the superintendent’s supporters — including a group that has now created a grassroots organization that plans to challenge members of the five-vote majority. The group, known as "AlexandriaKids.org," launched a Web site this week and may spearhead a recall effort aimed at the School Board members who they say violated the law.

"Right now the focus is to get the School Board members to revisit the decision on non-renewal," said Mimi Carter, former president of the Mount Vernon Community School PTA and current member of AlexandriaKids.org. "If that’s stymied, I would predict that a recall effort would be a second step."

VIRGINIA LAW stipulates that "whenever a superintendent’s contract is being renegotiated, all members of the school board shall be notified at least 30 days in advance of any meeting at which a vote is planned on the renegotiated contract unless the members agree unanimously to take the vote without the 30 days notice." The 30-day waiting period was instituted in 2003 by Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-39) after a dispute between School Board members who disagreed about how to handle the contract of former Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech.

"The 30-day window is to make sure that people on both sides have sufficient time to gather information," said O’Brien. "If you do it over the weekend, it’s hard to talk to all the appropriate people and have a good understanding of all the issues involved."

Another provision of the law requires that "each local school board evaluate the division superintendent annually consistent with the performance objectives set forth in Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers, Administrators and Superintendents." The current School Board, which took office last summer, has not conducted an evaluation of the superintendent since taking office. According to attorney Victor Glasberg, who is working with AlexandriaKids.org, the School Board did not meet the requirement of Virginia law.

"A recall petition is on the agenda if the School Board members don’t recognize their mistakes and take steps to correct them," said Glasberg, a prominent civil-rights attorney. "Our law firm is researching the recall process as we speak."

Peabody, who became chairman of the new School Board after last year’s citywide election, said that a decision on the superintendent’s contract did not require an evaluation. Although he admitted that the board did not use the Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria, he said that its members have been informally taking stock of Perry since being sworn in last summer.

"We’ve all been evaluating the superintendent since taking office," said Peabody. "Her contract is not tied to an evaluation."