Last spring, a batch of seemingly routine personnel forms reached Montgomery County school administrators from Ayrlawn Elementary School in Bethesda. Three of the tiny school's seven classroom teachers and a reading specialist were requesting transfers.
Although the forms cited desire for "professional growth," the real reason was quite different: All four teachers refused to work under the school's new principal, Dr. Janet Bergman. The local PTA's executive board arguing that so many transfers would disrupt education, decided to seek Bergman's transfer instead.
Thus, began a struggle for control at the pleasant, tan-brick school that one board official calls the meanest school scrap in at least a decade in the Maryland suburb. The last year has seen a children's picket line, more teacher transfer requests, a note threatening death, and PTA meetings that degenerate into abuse free-for-alls between Bergman's critics and supporters.
Things became so contentious that a human relations specialist brought in to help the sides work it out got into a fight of her own with parents and has sued for $75,000 over letters they wrote about her to the school board.
The dispute provides a case study of the passions that can be aroused by school issues, especially in suburban areas. In many cases families move to places like Bethesda because of the schools, and parents often invest considerable amounts of emotional energy in their problems. Sometimes, as at Ayrlawn, the original issue at hand -- a parent's right to a say in a child's education against an educator's right to do a job without undue interference -- gets lost in the process.
"The fire got so far out of control that everyone got burned," remarked one school official who feels that the dispute won't help Ayrlawn's case when the school board budget cutters consider it for closure again later this year.
For now, the situation inside the school appears to have stabilized. Bergman remains on the job in her principal's office. Many of her teacher opponents have left, replaced by new staff members more amenable to her direction. Last month, 13 employes and teachers signed a letter to the school board praising Bergman as "an excellent administrator" who "amazes us with her ability to function . . . with grace under pressure."
But in the upper-middle-class Bethesda neighborhood that Ayrlawn serves, emotions remain high. "My son lost one of his teachers and he, like many others, was upset," said PTA president Bernard Marciante, a construction firm executive who led much of the fight against Bergman. More transfer requests are on file, which if approved would mean a 100 percent turnover of the original teaching staff, he said.
"It was a great school," Marciante lamented. Now "it is not a fun place to be."
Michael Cavanaugh, an accountant and Ayrlawn parent, feels equally strongly that Marciante and his group have acted irresponsibly. The question most parents at the school ask is: "Why don't these people shut up and let the school go on?" Cavanaugh said. Another parent called Bergman's opponents "mentally unbalanced."
From its looks, the school where the fight began is almost idyllic, a place where fine childhood memories begin. The windows of its neat, single-story wings are bright with children's crepe paper cut-outs.Built on the site of an old dairy farm, the school is bounded by a quiet residential street, dusty baseball diamonds and grassy hills and woods.
With only 200 students and seven classroom teachers, it is among the county's smallest and most educationally innovative schools. But to county school officials it is known as a "tight little island," sometimes difficult to deal with due to extremely close bonds between teachers and some parents.
Bergman, a 49-year-old educator with a doctorate who speaks in precise and measured tones, became principal in the fall of 1979, after 14 years in the county school system. In an interview, she said she brought no deliberate changes to the school but conceded that teachers may have perceived her working style as such.
She stopped children if they ran in the halls, led the school in the pledge of allegience over the loudspeaker system each morning and observed her staff in action in the classrooms. But by Christmas, conflicts had arisen which Bergman's critics say poisoned the atmosphere at the school, even though they may seem petty when taken alone.
One point of controversy, for example, was a soft drink machine in the teacher's lounge, whose accounts showed $276 in the red when Bergman arrived. Teachers with experience at Ayrlawn maintain she implied someone on the staff had stolen the money and, then banned refills for the machine until a new, more secure one came.
Bergman recalls it differently: She was advised to get a modern machine to be supplied and serviced by an outside firm, and stopped the refills as a means of pushing the company to install quickly. She never suggested that anyone had stolen money or drinks, and her sole purpose was to assure that new deficits would not arise, she said.
Teachers recount incidents in which Bergman dressed down a teacher and reduced her to tears in front of children, spoke sharply for no reason, snooped in classrooms, harassed parent volunteers and made unfounded accusations. In each case, the principal offered an opposing account that placed her in the right or reduced the incident to insignificance.
Whatever the facts, trust and communication between principal and staff evaporated quickly, to the point that the adversaries began channeling much of their communication through handwritten notes.
By March a year ago, Bergman had approved four requests for transfers and passed them on to school administrators.
The local PTA's executive board created a committee to investigate. It later reported that the school had become "irreconcilably polarized" and proposed seeking the transfer of Bergman, not the teachers, as the best way to assure continuity in their children's education. But in repeated meetings with Marciante and other parents, school officials rejected this solution, saying Ayrlawn's "personnel problem" was best settled in-house.
Soon the Dump Bergman campaign was drawing fire from other parents, who charged that the PTA board had been taken over by a small number of unrepresentative parents who, meeting without proper notice, had violated PTA bylaws and taken the extraordinary step of seeking a principal's removal without consulting the full membership.
As time went on, meetings became increasingly stormy. "It was an absolute zoo," recalled one parent. "People yelling and screaming at each other, cursing." At one meeting, Bergman, feeling the pressure of the parents' campaign, fainted while delivering a presentation on test scores.
The school board's solution was to send in human relations specialist Wilma Fairley to mediate. It didn't work.
A session she held with parents in October prompted three separate letters to the board from parents alleging misconduct on Fairley's part. She "in no way took the role of an impartial observer," said one letter. Fairley had accused parents of trying to make Ayrlawn a "private school on public grounds" and said teachers were "a dime a dozen," according to the letter. In response, Fairley sued the letter writers on grounds of libel, seeking damages of $75,000. The suit is pending.
The Montgomery County Federation of Teachers, which has supported the teachers in the dispute, has donated $50 to help defray the parents' legal costs.
Throughout the fall and winter, emotions remained high. When 24-year-old teacher Jill Jachowski, one of the four whose transfer requests had sparked the troubles, finally left the school in November, someone draped the school's facade in black plastic torn from garbage bags. A sign lettered in black Gothic letters -- apparently not the work of child -- was placed on the front door. "In Memoriam," it read.
Later, about 15 students picketed just outside the school grounds with signs bidding goodby to Jachowski. Bergman stepped up to them with a camera and photographed the group -- as a means of preventing rowdiness, she later explained.
In February, a teacher supporting the principal called police to investigate a death threat scrawled in felt-tipped pen that she said she found under her classroom door. Earlier, she told police, a man had threatened her over the telephone and her car's hubcaps had been vandalized.
To the group of parents who oppose the PTAs campaign against Bergman, Fairley's alleged reference to a private school on public grounds went to the heart of their charge that a small group was trying to run a school as if it belonged to them.
Cavanaugh, for example, points out that Ayrlawn has had four principals since the mid-1970s, and "only one have these people been happy with. The current problem is not a new one."
Cavanaugh believes a professional should be allowed to make her own decisions. "It's not up to us to decide whether this is a good principal or not," he says.
Marciante's group counters that they were simply concerned over their children's education. Simultaneous transfer requests by so many good teachers showed that things were clearly amiss, they say. There was no secrecy in the executive board meetings and if PTA regulations were violated, it was only on technicalities.
Moreover, they say, Bergman provoked similar problems at her previous school, Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary in Rockville -- a rash of transfer requests by teachers unable to work under her, a point confirmed by sources sympathetic to the principal. That crisis was solved when Bergman went on leave to complete her doctorate.
Bergman herself blames her long problems on a "roadblock attempt by a few 'dissidents'" who are "trying to discredit me and create the impression that the educational system in the school is not as it should be."
"My bottom line is kids," she said recently in her little office at Ayrlawn. "I consider myself a good educator and I think what's happening to me is damn unfair."