Alexandria school board members, beginning their search for a new school superintendent, have been asked by the city's educational and civic leaders to look for a candidate who would be sensitive to racial issues and accessible to the public.
A trio of consultants hired by the school board to recommend candidates met last week with teachers, administrators, school employes and civic groups to hear their views on a replacement for outgoing superintendent John L. Bristol.
Bristol, appointed in 1977, resigned in January to take a similar position with the LaGrange, Ill., school system. His new post will pay $59,000 a year; he now earns $51,000.
The consultants heard from city residents during seven daytime sessions, which were closed to reporters, and during one open evening meeting. In testimony and in separate interviews, the speakers appeared to strike similar themes: race relations, credibility and the accessibility of the school administration.
Bristol, who cam under attack both directly and indirectly in some of the comments to the consultants, later denied that he had been racially insensitive, and said he was leaving Alexandria without any feelings of animosity.
Judy Seltz, a spokesman for the Rosemont Civic Association and the Lyles-Crouch and Maury elementary schools PTAs, said in a statement prepared for the consultants, "Mistrust between the black and white communities seems to be increasing, although not necessarily among students, and the new superinetendent will have to work at establishing credibility with all segments of both black and white communities."
The Rev. John O. Peterson, one of the board's three black members, said in an interview, "School closings in recent years in the black communities have had a one-way busing trend: out of the black neighborhoods into the white. That does not lend itself to harmony."
Bristol noted, "I have to educate children -- and that is not based on color or location in the city."
Peterson and William D. Euille, another of the board's black members, have repeatedly criticized Bristol on racial issues in a school system that is 47 percent black and 44 percent white, with 9 percent classified as "other."
Janet Chitwood, a member of the city's special education advisory committee, said in a written statement, "One of the most serious problems a new superintendent will face is the profound mistrust many of these parents currently feel toward the administration because of what they perceive as a lack of responsiveness to the needs of their children."
On a similar note, Diane Gould, president of the Alexandria Pta Council, said she told the consultants, "One of the problems we have to correct in finding a new superintendent is eliminating what is a profound mistrust by parents with the school administration."
Gould added, "The other thing that has to be stopped is the white flight. It just has to stop." Gould said there had been a sharp decline in Alexandria's white student population in the 1970s. She also expressed concern over the decline in standardized test scores in recent years.
School board member J. Harvey Harrison Jr., in an interview, said there is statistical evidence that the shrinking white enrollment and poor test scores are tapering off. "But we can't really say for sure until a few more years pass."
Harrison praised Bristol as "the best thing that has happened to this school system in years" because of his management abilities and emphasis on basic education.
Val Martin, president of the 660-member Education Association of Alexandria, which represents 90 percent of the city's teachers, told a reporter that the EAA wants a "superintendent who is self-confidence enough that he doesn't feel threatened in sharing his power and responsibility with the teachers."
Last April, the EAA called for Bristol's resignation after charging that he had refused to hold open discussions with the teachers over salary disputes. "I guess he took us seriously and started looking for a job," she said.
In commenting on last week's testimony and remarks, Bristol said when he arrived in Alexandria in 1977, he found a financially troubled school system in which enrollment had fallen from 18,000 to 12,000 in a decade. During his tenure, he said, five schools were closed and 80 teachers' jobs were trimmed from the budget. The savings, he said, went into building repairs and curriculum changes.
Bristol said he was sorry if some community groups felt he was aloof or inaccessible. "The problem we faced didn't require a lot of handshaking. That's what the school board members are there for. There's nine of them and only one of me."
The barring of reporters from the seven daytime meetings -- a decision made by Bristol and board chairman Alaison M. May -- was disputed by several of the speakers, both inside and outside the meeting room.
John Alexander, a spokesman for the Alexandria United Way, criticized Bristol and May for excluding the press. "I am extremely perturbed. This is a step backwards. Most people consider Bristol pretty arrogant and this is why," he said.
"I know of no reason why the meetings should have been closed," said board member Euille. May and Bristol refused to say why they prohibited media coverage of the discussions. "There's no provision for your being here. All you need to know is that you are not wanted in there," Bristol told a reporter.
The evening meeting with the consultants, which was open to the public, was attended by about 30 people.
Angella Current, director of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Urban League, urged the consultants to search for a candidate whose record shows an ability to promote equal opportunity, support students' rights, make staff appointments that reflect the racial balance of the community and provide educational leadership.
John McCune, an eighth grader at Francis C. Hammond High School who attended a student luncheon with the consultants, said, "The new superintendent should get along with city council members."
Alexandria City Manager Douglas Harman, commenting later, said, "There is no secret in the fact that there have been points of strain (with Bristol). We have had an inordinate amount of hassles."
Bristol responded, "I don't work for the city manager." He characterized budget squabbles as "the rites of spring."
Several students, including Nora Nichols, T. C. Williams junior class president, complained of drug problems and overcrowding in the schools. "We want the next superintendent to get more involved in the schools. We want to see him and know who he is," she said.
The school board hired the three consultants, for $15,000, for the National School Board Association. They are Carroll F. Johnson, professor emeritus from Columbia University; John W. Brubacher, professor and head of the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Connecticut; and Charles Smith, associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation on loan to Atlanta University. All three are former schools superintendents.