Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County Is Criticized in Online Posts

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Irene Williams came out guns blazing. In a series of posts last month to the Internet list of the influential Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, she portrayed the group's leaders as "purveyors of evil," "cowardly bullies" and "inebriated beavers."

Never had a parent unleashed such a withering assault on the coalition, a network of parents who have been players in virtually every major controversy to vex the Montgomery school system, the school board and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast in the past two academic years.

The coalition might be the best-known parent advocacy group in the region. Its members represent several constituencies, including parents of special education and gifted education students and fiscal watchdogs. The group's defining victory came this school year when the school system scaled back the fees charged to families for course materials.

Coalition leaders have drawn attention to the misuse of funds collected from students for activities, the broadcast of a commercial radio service on school buses and, with their "Weast Watch" blog, the travel habits of Weast and his lieutenants.

Privately, school system leaders have fumed about the group's vitriolic tone, hyperbolic tendencies and waxing influence on administrators' actions. Publicly, they have kept mum. The school system's harshest critics have drawn little criticism.

Williams surfaced in a May 19 discussion that criticized a school board request for $67.5 million in capital funds to build a school. Janis Sartucci, a Potomac parent who is among the best-known coalition voices, termed it "an amazing request in the middle of a financial crisis."

The new critic jumped in: "I rise to salute all the hard working staff of our school system that a few on this list seem to enjoy sliming and maligning," Williams wrote. In postings over the next few days, she lambasted coalition leaders individually and collectively as privileged white parents orchestrating a "narcissistic power play" against the school system, hobbling its operations "with a million questions a day that do not help a child one whit."

She accused the group of "stalking" Weast with its frequent postings on his travels, saying they bordered on the criminal.

Coalition leaders challenged the poster's identity, surmising the name was an alias for some school system insider, or perhaps for a rival parent activist seeking to dethrone Sartucci and other coalition leaders. (The group does not officially designate leaders.)

Louis Wilen, a coalition parent and information technology professional, said Monday that he had determined that Williams wrote several posts on a school system computer, based on coding in the e-mails. School system policy forbids employees to use computers for statements that are "libelous, slanderous, or that harass others."

Coalition leaders said they think the writer took the name from a retired teacher named Irene Williams, who died recently. They point out that language in the posts -- "appropriation authority," the MCPS "brand" -- sounds like the words of a school system administrator.

"No MCPS parent or even low-level employee talks about the MCPS brand," Wilen said in an interview. "It's Board of Education speak."

In e-mails to The Washington Post -- she declined to speak by phone -- Williams identified herself as an African American parent with children in county elementary, middle and high schools. She said she used her maiden name in posts to protect her identity.

"I do not work for Dr. Weast," she wrote. She said her posts occasionally criticize the school system, along with its detractors. She said coalition members privately thanked her for tapping into "simmering unease" in their ranks.

"I hope that my bias is obvious," she said in the e-mail correspondence. "I am worried about the kids that might be hurt because of what I view as the self-serving 'advocacy' of a few members of the Parents Coalition."

In interviews this week, Wilen and Sartucci said they are fairly sure Irene Williams is either one or several school system employees, possibly highly-placed. They said she is pretty much alone in her opinions.

Sartucci said the coalition has fielded few other complaints from parents over its campaigns against course fees and misused activity funds. She and other coalition leaders challenged Williams to a public airing of their differences. Williams says she awaits an invitation.

Williams might have raised lingering questions about coalition leaders and their methods. But Internet e-mail lists have short memories. This week, the group had resumed railing against course fees, with Sartucci at the fore.

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