Schools Chief's Supporters Decry Decision

Schools chief Rebecca L. Perry calls the vote's timing
Schools chief Rebecca L. Perry calls the vote's timing "unfortunate." (By Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Alexandria School Board's decision this week to seek new leadership for the school system elicited sharp criticism yesterday from Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry's supporters, who contended that the board rushed to action with little public input.

Perry called "unfortunate" the timing of the 5 to 4 vote Monday night against renewing her contract. She said the action "probably would have been a little more palatable if there had ever been an evaluation" of her performance after a new board convened last year.

But School Board Chairman Arthur E. Peabody Jr. defended the action. "Each member of the board has been evaluating her since they took office," he said, adding, "These personnel decisions are controversial and emotional, and I see no reason to divide the community by inviting comment on a personnel decision."

Debate over the board's decision to search for a new superintendent for the 10,000-student system underscores the significant role a school leader plays in a community, especially one as small as Alexandria. Policies on curriculum, testing, hiring and spending can have a major effect in the classroom. Quality of schools can influence home values and neighborhood politics. In recent days, the board's handling of Perry has become the talk of the town.

Although some school systems have leadership turnover every four years or so, others find superintendents who become fixtures. Edgar B. Hatrick III has served as Loudoun County superintendent since 1991, giving him the longest tenure of any Washington area schools chief.

Perry has been superintendent since August 2001. Her contract, which pays an annual salary of $216,231, ends in June 2008.

John Porter, an assistant superintendent under Perry, said an e-mail box for public comments to the board has been filled with messages of support for Perry. "Some said, 'Don't do this,' " he said. "Some said, 'You might want to give the public time to give some input on something this important.' "

Deputy Superintendent Cathy David said she felt the school system had "the wind taken out of our sails."

Several of the five board members who voted for a leadership change have criticized Perry's management style. Some have questioned her personnel and budget decisions. None cited an issue that appears largely to have blown over: Perry's 2004 conviction on a charge of driving under the influence. However, the DUI conviction in some ways shaped elections last year that turned over most of the school board.

Board members Claire M. Eberwein and Scott Newsham, who voted against renewing Perry's contract, said yesterday that the contract barred them from discussing reasons for personnel decisions.

S. Howard Woodson III, president of the NAACP's Alexandria branch, questioned why board members would seek to oust a superintendent who has been credited with narrowing the minority achievement gap.

"If this superintendent has been effective in helping minorities improve their achievement, and therefore the school system, why is it that she's not wanted any longer?" asked Woodson, adding that he spoke only for himself. He criticized board members who said they wanted a different direction.

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