Fairfax drops effort to fire veteran teacher


Violet Nichols worked at Rose Hill Elementary when she was terminated and has since appealed the issue with the help of an attorney. (Linda Davidson/TWP)
July 15, 2012

The Fairfax County school system has dropped its effort to fire Violet Nichols, a veteran sixth-grade teacher who spent the past year fighting to keep her job after she was accused of incompetence.

School system officials declined to be interviewed about the case. Schools spokesman John Torre wrote in an e-mail that the teacher’s “future assignment is still being arranged.”

The story of the attempt to dismiss Nichols, which appeared in The Washington Post in June, offers a glimpse into the murky business of judging teachers at a time of national debate over how much power a school system should have to fire its employees — and what kind of tools teachers should be able to marshal in resistance.

It is rare for veteran teachers to be fired in Fairfax and most other school systems.

“The decision to dismiss a teacher is a serious and time-consuming process and one that is not taken lightly,” Torre said in a written statement Friday. “But, under the process, the district should have the ability to enforce standards for good teaching.”

Steven Stone, Nichols’s lawyer, said he and his client are “very satisfied” but also declined to comment further, citing a confidentiality agreement.

“It’s good to be able to move forward, and I’m looking forward to being able to getting back with the kids,” Nichols said.

Nichols taught for more than three decades, including 21 years at Rose Hill Elementary School in Fairfax. She received positive job evaluations for all but the last two of those years, when Principal Terri Czarniak alleged that Nichols refused to modernize her teaching and adopt methods endorsed by school officials.

Nichols, meanwhile, contended she was unfairly attacked by a principal determined to push her out.

Nichols has tenure — the set of seniority-related job protections that have come under increasing scrutiny by critics who say it shields poor teachers, allowing them to remain in the classroom despite their ineffectiveness.

Supporters of tenure point out that it only promises due process — a chance for an embattled teacher to argue her case before a fact-finding panel.

In Nichols’s case, that panel heard five days of testimony from 21 witnesses before issuing a unanimous recommendation that she be allowed to return to the classroom.

School administrators had not explained how a teacher with such a long record of success had become incompetent in such a short time, the panel said, and evidence had shown a teacher who developed long-lasting relationships with students and “went far beyond the requirements of the classroom to foster a love of learning.”

The final decision about Nichols’s fate would have rested with the county School Board had the school system not decided to drop its push for dismissal.

“I was given an opportunity to tell my version of the story, put my story out there,” Nichols said. “I think the process works.”

Since 2009, more than a dozen states have eliminated teacher tenure, made it harder to get or easier to lose. Virginia nearly joined them this year, but Republican lawmakers in Richmond failed to pass a bill that would have allowed principals to get rid of teachers without providing a reason. The bill is expected to be reconsidered next year.

In the Nichols case, Fairfax spent more than $78,000 on outside lawyers, plus additional expenses for internal staff time, the fact-finding panel and Nichols’s salary — more than $92,000 for the year she spent out of the classroom challenging her dismissal.

Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax Education Association and member of the fact-finding panel in Nichols’s case, said he was pleased with the outcome. Teacher evaluations can be influenced by a personality conflict with the principal, he added, and the hearing process allows a fuller picture to emerge.

“I’m honored to be a part of the panel that defended a teacher with her track record and her connection with students and the community,” he said. “It’s very difficult to put a value on what she brought.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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