The Alexandria School Board may be divided on a number of issues, with diametrically opposed viewpoints on everything from the availability of honors classes to the future of Superintendent Rebecca Perry. Yet late Tuesday evening, the board’s members had a promising moment of unity. Fulfilling a mandate to pass a motion extending meetings past 11 p.m., School Board members voted unanimously to extend the meeting toward the witching hour.
But the unanimity ended there.
In their last session before summer recess — a meeting that stretched on past 1 a.m. — board members decided to stand by their controversial May 21 decision to not renew Perry’s contract. The original decision created a firestorm of opposition after four board members said they were not consulted before Chairman Arthur Peabody confronted Perry in a May 9 meeting informing her that a majority of board members had expressed on interest in nonrenewal. The controversy later grew into a legal dispute when the city’s teacher’s union accused the board of violating the laws concerning disclosure, notification and evaluation. Even Tuesday night’s decision did not end talk of a potential recall effort aimed at the five-member majority who decided to dump Perry last month.
"My impression is that a recall effort is now more likely than not," said John Leary, founder of a group known as AlexandriaKids.org that may spearhead an effort to begin collecting signatures for Circuit Court hearings on recalling selected board members. "The process was completely flawed, and a significant portion of the community has lost confidence in five of the School Board members."
THE LAST THREE School Board meetings have been dominated by a seemingly endless parade of speakers sounding off about the May 21 decision. Some of the dialogue has turned into personal attack and counterattack as the sessions stretched deep into the evening hours at the board chambers on North Beauregard Street. Although the first two sessions were dominated by speakers who opposed the board’s decision, Tuesday night’s meeting included a two-third majority of participants who said that they agreed with the May 21 decision to allow Perry’s contract to expire on June 30, 2008. The first speaker was Pricilla Goodwin, who presented board members with a petition including 329 signatures supporting the decision.
"I would like new leadership so that academic excellence can become our goal instead of accreditation," said Goodwin. "Trumpeting the fact that we are accredited is like saying our restaurant is wonderful because we have passed the health inspection."
Speaker after speaker thanked the School Board for its decision on Perry, accusing the superintendent of putting too much emphasis on meeting the minimum standards set forth in Virginia’s Standards of Learning. Many of the speakers said that more emphasis should be place on increasing the rigor for gifted students, a goal they said Perry does not share. Some of the speakers complained that Perry has a heavy-handed leadership style and a condescending attitude toward those who disagreed with her.
"The board acted properly," said Larry Campbell. "And the Alexandria school system will benefit from fresh new leadership."
Speakers who opposed the board’s decision decried a series of secret meetings that culminated in a May 9 encounter in which Peabody informed Perry that five board members had expressed an interest in not renewing her contract. These speakers described a performance evaluation of the superintendent, presented to her shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, as a last-minute and half-hearted attempt to meet its own policies and procedures.
"You now have a credibility problem," said Jacquelyn Kittredge. "And it’s up to you to earn it back."
THE INTERNAL DYNAMICS between School Board members was one of the topics addressed in state-funded efficiency review, which was presented in advance of the failed motion to rescind. As a standing-room-only crowd of speakers listened, MGT consultant Simmie Raiford conducted a PowerPoint presentation outlining the study’s findings. The review included 72 recommendations at a total cost of $8.4 million, and some of its findings reflected poorly on the School Board’s governance.
According to the consultants’ study, Alexandria School Board has been "sidetracked from its traditional role," and "lacks clearly articulated vision, mission and goals." Exacerbating the problem, according to the review, was the lack of staggered terms for elected School Board members — a circumstances that has created a situation in which the city has eight newly elected board members and only one returning incumbent. To remedy some of the problems MGT found with the School Board, the study recommended that board members conduct a retreat and develop clearly articulated goals for itself. Ultimately, the review suggested, board develop specific performance goals to evaluate the superintendent.
"We do, of course, have a process for evaluating the superintendent," Peabody told Raiford after her presentation had concluded. "I’m happy to pass that along to you."
Peabody said that the report was incorrect in several key areas. Taking issue with the study’s findings, the chairman said that School Board conducts annual retreats, has written document outlining goals as well as a procedure for self-assessment of board members. He asked her if MGT would be able to issue a correction, then thanked her for the consulting firms work investigating the school system.
"I don’t want to quibble," said Peabody. "I think the report is very helpful, and it has many good suggestions."