Principal's complaints about superintendent cause concern in Arlington

For more than a year, Kathy Francis kept her struggles with Arlington County Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy to herself. And then on Tuesday, exhausted and demoralized, the principal of Williamsburg Middle School let the world know, firing off a sharply worded, 1,700-word resignation e-mail to 1,200 parents and teachers.

That letter blames Murphy for preventing the dismissal of an employee whom she did not name but called "incompetent" and "a safety concern." Francis wrote that she tried for two years to fire the employee, who eventually was transferred to another Arlington school.

The missive, which quickly went viral in a community not accustomed to such unguarded talk about sensitive school matters, led some to question Murphy's leadership and others to affirm their support for the superintendent.

But as Francis attempts to plot a new future - she's barred by the school district from returning to Williamsburg, she said - many in Arlington are wondering about her accusations and about what has the school system has done to address them.

"We're not happy, if there really was a security issue, that this person is still in an [Arlington] school," said Lynn Pollack, a Williamsburg PTA member. "Nobody has a clue who it is. . . . People are just putting out guesses."

Arlington officials would not comment on the personnel matter that Francis raised in the e-mail. Arlington public schools "will continue to respond with a higher level of professionalism," officials wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post.

James S. Lander, an Arlington School Board member, said an investigation had begun into some of the issues raised in Francis's e-mail. That inquiry continues, Lander said. "We owe it to parents and staff to ensure a safe environment," he said.

Of Francis, Lander said: "She decided to put her business out on the street. . . . It's not usually the way people go about this."

School Board members and many parents have voiced support for Murphy, who took over as superintendent in 2009. He was chosen for the job after a four-year stint as assistant superintendent of accountability for Fairfax County schools. His supporters call him a motivated leader who rose from a physical education teacher to become the head of a nationally recognized school system.

"I have full confidence in his leadership," said Abby Raphael, the School Board's vice chairman, who also has a child at Williamsburg. She called it "a terrific school."

Francis expanded on her complaints about Murphy during an interview with The Post in which she again declined to name the employee or to say much about the employee's alleged misdeeds. But she said the employee intimidated students in verbal exchanges and once threatened a co-worker. "But there was never any real interest in firing the person," Francis said in an interview.

Francis said the dispute, which played out over many months, soured her relationship with Murphy and led to her receiving an "unsatisfactory" rating for the first time in her career. That came as test scores among some sub-populations at the school increased. Scores overall remained fairly level but were higher than the average for the Arlington school system.

"It's not your scores; it's your leadership," she recalled Murphy telling her. In 2009 and 2010, the school did not make adequate yearly progress, a standard required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Francis said she tried to resolve the problem through conventional channels but ran into bureaucratic hurdles. "The resignation letter seemed like the only way to let people know how terrible things had become," she said.

But the letter, which outlined Francis's concerns in general terms, sparked unease among some Arlington parents.

"I'm shocked and dismayed by Ms. Francis's allegations about the new superintendent. If even half of what she wrote is true, the schools are in trouble," said Joanne Marshall, whose daughter is in sixth grade at Williamsburg.

Another parent with a sixth-grade daughter at the school, Anne Paris, said,"Arlington's School Board should seek an independent investigation by an experienced outside law firm of the points raised by Ms. Francis - particularly as to the transfer of a potentially dangerous teacher and an environment of retaliation."

Last weekend, as Francis prepared the e-mail in an emotional, two-day push, she felt relieved to get her story down on paper, she said. "I was nervous, until my finger was hovering over the send button, but wanted my staff to understand what happened."

On Wednesday afternoon, members of that staff carried bouquets to Francis's home, and the 33-year public school veteran teared up. "They're all concerned," she said. "They're all so supportive."

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.

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