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Board Minority Shunned

School Board chairman’s meeting with the superintendent prompts controversy.

Four members of Alexandria’s nine-member School Board say that they were not consulted before their chairman told Superintendent Rebecca Perry that her contract would probably not be renewed last week during a May 9 meeting in the superintendent’s office. The four members say that the lack of consultation undermines the working relationship between members of the School Board, who have often been in conflict since taking office last year — disagreeing on everything from budget numbers to the availability of honors classes. Since last week’s meeting, a firestorm of opposition has emerged in objection to a process that some board members have described as secretive and unprincipled.

"At the very least it’s unethical, and it may even be illegal," said Sheryl Gorsuch, one of the four members who say they were not consulted before the chairman’s May 9 meeting with the superintendent. "There were obviously private discussions between board members that did not involve all the board members."

In separate interviews this week, Gorsuch, Ronnie Campbell, Eileen Rivera and Charles Wilson each said that they were not consulted before the chairman met with the superintendent. His failure to notify them before the meeting, they said, indicates a sort of hidden consensus among School Board members is at work within the school division — with a five-vote majority working in secret to oust the superintendent.

"This is a serious breach of ethics," said Wilson, the only incumbent member of the previous School Board to stand for reelection last year. "The way these five School Board members have acted here certainly impairs our chance to find a qualified superintendent candidate. Who would want to work for a board that runs around in secret like this?"

Chairman Arthur Peabody described his May 9 meeting as a "courtesy call" to inform Perry that he was aware that certain members were interested in forming a search committee to find a new superintendent. He denied that he asked for her resignation, and he said he called Campbell, Gorsuch, Rivera and Wilson after the meeting to inform them of what had transpired in Perry’s office that morning.

"I felt that she should be the first person to hear about it from me," said Peabody. "I thought that I was following the proper protocol."

PARTICIPANTS OF the 20-minute Wednesday morning meeting in Perry’s office, which included Vice Chairwoman Blanche Maness, described the encounter as cordial and businesslike. Maness said that Peabody informed Perry that several members of the board were interested in putting together a search committee to look for a new superintendent, and they didn’t want her or her staff to be surprised when the issue was raised during an upcoming session. After the meeting concluded, Perry informed her senior staff members of what the chairman told her.

"We were all disappointed," said Amy Carlini, director of information and public outreach for the division. "You can look at test scores or any other indication to see that we’ve been moving in the right direction for the last six years."

Since 2001, Perry has frequently been at the center of controversy. Many of her decisions have prompted a great deal of outrage, such as moving Lyles-Crouch Principal Lucretia Jackson to Maury Elementary School and creating a year-round calendar at Mount Vernon Elementary School. After Perry was convicted in 2004 for driving under the influence of alcohol, she weathered several months of bitter criticism and calls for her resignation.

"Her contract called for her to uphold the highest moral standards, and she did no do that," said Ken Foran, a former member of the School Board who advocated firing the superintendent when she pleaded guilty to the offense. "The only reason she made it through is that she had seven votes."

A majority of the School Board members at the time decided to renew her contract through 2008 and raise her salary from $168,000 to $189,745. Perry’s current salary is $216,232, and her supporters say that she has she has earned an extension of her contract when it expires next year.

"When she took over the division, only two schools were accredited. Now 14 out of 16 schools are accredited," said Marianne Hetzer, president of the Alexandria PTA Council. "Rebecca Perry has an exemplary record as superintendent, yet there’s this group of School Board members who are allegedly sneaking around trying to get rid of her. I’m not sure if this is the group that I want to find the next superintendent."

VIRGINIA LAW GOVERNS several aspects of the School Board’s behavior, and a provision known as the Virginia Freedom of Information Act forbids elected leaders from adopting "an atmosphere of secrecy." Another provision of the law prohibits secret meetings with "as many as three members … whether or not votes are cast." The four School Board members who were not consulted before Peabody’s meeting with Perry each said that they felt the chairman’s meeting with the superintendent lacked the kind of transparency they expected from their leader, whether or not it was a technical violation of the law.

"It was a secret to me that the chairman had even started talking about the superintendent’s contract until I found out about it Thursday night," said School Board member Eileen Rivera. "The chairman has not fostered an atmosphere of openness and transparency."

"The chairman didn’t consult with us until after the fact," agreed School Board member Ronnie Campbell. "When the chairman meets with the superintendent, he is supposed to speak for the entire board. But that didn’t happen here."

Vice Chairwoman Maness, who was one of the three witnesses to the May 9 meeting, said that she felt Peabody handled the situation appropriately. She said that even though all the board members were not consulted before the May 9 meeting, all the board members were fully apprised during the School Board’s May 10 executive session.

"I can’t tell you what happened in executive session, but I can tell you that there was transparency," said Maness. "The Wednesday meeting was a courtesy call, nothing more."

SCHOOL BOARD members have scheduled May 21 "special meeting," and Peabody said that the issue of the superintendent’s contract could be on the docket for a closed executive session at that time. He added that it was impossible to tell exactly how the matter will play out because a formal vote on the superintendent’s future in the school division has yet to be cast.

Until that time, School Board member Claire Eberwein warned school administration officials not to lobby in favor of the superintendent. In a May 11 e-mail to seniors members of Perry’s staff, School Board members and City Council members, Eberwein said that she heard that senior administration staff members "were directed by the superintendent to contact principals" in an effort "to lobby the board with regard to the renewal or non-renewal of Ms. Perry’s contract."

"The use of senior staff and principals to conduct private business on behalf of the superintendent is not a legitimate use of their time and is not in their job description," Eberwein wrote. "I can’t even begin to comment on what value we place on our students if this is how staff time is expended at the public’s expense."

"I was not instructed by the superintendent to contact principals nor have I spoken to any principals about this situation," responded Assistant Superintendent John Porter. "Additionally, the implication that I and other senior staff members don’t value our students is absurd."