In a five-to-four vote this week, a deeply divided School Board voted to not renew Superintendent Rebecca Perry’s employment contract. Chairman Arthur Peabody told those interested in speaking that the School Board would not be hearing input from the public on the matter, then convened a three-hour closed-door meeting to discuss the matter — the second executive session in which the matter was a topic of discussion. When the grim-faced board members emerged from the windowless room, Yvonne Folkerts offered a motion to not renew Perry’s contract when it expires on June 30, 2008. Scott Newsham offered a second.
"I think it’s time for new leadership," said Newsham. "With new leadership, I’m confident that our best days are yet to come."
Among the members of the five-vote majority, only Newsham and Peabody attempted to justify the decision during the meeting — although they declined to be specific about their reasoning for not renewing her contract. Other members who voted for the motion were later vague about their rationale, citing nothing more than a desire for "new leadership" and a "fresh start." Noting that Perry’s administration has improved test scores, Peabody said that he felt it was time for change.
"The entire community can be proud of these achievements," Peabody said shortly before the vote. "But for me, this is a time to look toward the future."
The four board members who voted against the motion each said they felt frustrated by the lack of reasons provided in public by the other board members. Eileen Cassidy Rivera said that she would be unprepared to explain why the board made its decision — which she described as one of the most important decisions a School Board can make. Decrying the lack of public participation before the vote, Rivera said she didn’t understand why a decision needed to be made without hearing from constituents.
"I have yet to hear a good reason," said Rivera. "I certainly won’t be able to answer questions when I drop my son off at school tomorrow morning."
AFTER THE MEETING, Claire Eberwein said that School Board members were warned by their attorney not to publicly disclose their reasons for not renewing Perry’s contract — citing concerns over privacy and defamation. Eberwein also said that other School Board members were well aware of the reasons mentioned in closed executive session, which she said she would decline to share on the advice of the board’s attorney.
"Given the legal perimeters established by the School Board’s attorney in both executive sessions, board members were warned about expressing their reasons for non-renewal in public," said Eberwein.
Mollie Danforth, who served on the School Board from 1994 to 2006, said that school divisions often err on the side excessive privacy. She recalled that the reasons for the departure of former Superintendent Herb Berg were never fully acknowledged in public. Danforth added that a dysfunctional relationship between School Board members and a superintendent would be a valid reason for not renewing a contract.
"Is hating someone’s guts a good reason?" asked Danforth. "It might be, but those are the kind of reasons they would be unlikely to mention."
Mark Wilkoff, who served on the School Board from 2000 to 2005, disagreed with Danforth about constituents’ right to understand the reason behind decisions of their elected leaders. Calling the board’s decision about Perry "the most important decision this board is going to make," Wilkoff said the lack of reasoning indicated questionable motives among the five members who voted to not renew the superintendent’s contract.
"The politics of hate and revenge have won," said Wilkoff. "And the children of Alexandria are the losers."
PERRY WAS HIRED in 2001, replacing Berg, who had served since 1995. When Perry assumed control of the division, only two schools were accredited. Today, 14 of the 16 schools are accredited and SAT scores have improved at a time when other jurisdictions saw a decline. Her supporters say that she is one of the most capable superintendents in Virginia, and that the Alexandria school system has benefited tremendously from her leadership — especially in the gains made by black and Latino students under her administration. Some said that the lack of availability for public comment indicated that School Board members lacked reasons that were valid.
"I think this is based on personal vendettas and political agendas," said S. Howard Woodson, president of the Alexandria branch of the NAACP. "By not allowing public input into the decision, the board was cowardly in its action. If this decision was the right one to make, why not allow the public to comment on it before it was made?"
Peabody told Perry in a May 9 meeting that five members of the School Board had already indicated that they were interested in forming a search committee to find a new superintendent. After the other four members later learned of the meeting, they accused the five-vote majority of forming a hidden consensus among selected board members to work in secret toward ousting the superintendent. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act forbids elected leaders from adopting "an atmosphere of secrecy," and prohibits secret meetings with "as many as three members … whether or not votes are cast." After the May 9 meeting, Perry told her senior staff members, who then informed principals and PTA presidents.
"Whether it does or does not violate the Freedom of Information Act for the chair and vice chair individually to gather five our of nine votes in private discussions and then present the majority decision as a fait accompli is a debate that only lawyers could love," wrote attorney Victor Glasberg in an e-mail to School Board members. "But any citizen can tell you that this protocol does not pass the smell test."
PERRY’S DETRACTORS say that her interpersonal style is off-putting and her approach to management is domineering. She pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol in 2004, prompting months of bitter personal criticism and dozens of calls for her resignation. But her supporters rallied around her, and the previous School Board renewed her contract and raised her salary from $168,000 to $189,745. Her current contract became effective on Nov. 16, 2004, and her annual salary is now $216,232.
"The ongoing divisiveness within the system caused by the superintendent suggests that we need new, professional leadership that doesn’t feel a need to use the system resources in a self-serving lobbying campaign to influence the outcome of a full board vote," said Jim Boissonnault in an e-mail to School Board members. "The core issue is one of putting self-advancement and self-preservation ahead of the good of children."
Perry’s harshest critics cite her DUI conviction and the steadily rising operating costs as a possible reason for not renewing her contract. When Perry’s budget for fiscal year 2008 was released in December — including an 8-percent growth in operating costs — some viewed her unwillingness to meet the 4-percent growth target set by City Council as a signal of fiscal irresponsibility. Yet the School Board narrowly approved the 8-percent increase in a five-to-four vote. As the budget season dragged on, Perry was accused of being unable to defend the details of the budget. The district’s budget was finalized Monday night shortly before the board voted on Perry’s contract.
"I think they decided not to renew the contract because she was unable produce a budget within the target, then she couldn’t even explain important details of her own budget," said Annabelle Fisher, a frequent critic of the superintendent. "She just didn’t want to deal with the process, and she thought it was her way or the highway."
In the week between Peabody’s secret meeting with the superintendent and the School Board’s closed session on not renewing her contract, the school division’s Web site was flooded with e-mails supporting the superintendent. A review of these documents — received as the result of a Freedom of Information request — shows that Perry’s supporters include a broad cross-section of the city’s education community: Christopher Campagna, Michael Porterfield, Catherine Puskar, Elbert Ransom and Joe Youcha.
"Generally, when a business performs consistently well, the CEO is rewarded, not fired," wrote former School Board member Arthur Schmalz in a May 21 e-mail to current board members. "Instead of focussing on student achievement, the board will inevitably become ensnarled in the laborious effort of finding a new superintendent. Moreover, there is no guarantee that a suitable candidate even could be found, much less hired."