School Superintendent Charles E. Nunley was addressing the Arlington Committee of 100, whose membership boasts some of the most influential men and women in the county, when he paused to offer a lighthearted description of the intermediate school years.
"It's the time when the girls get lumpy and the boys get fuzzy," said a smiling Nunley, 54. Few people in the crowd laughed. Some squirmed in their seats. Others rolled their eyes.
"It might play well in Overshoe, Wisconsin," said a longtime Nunley critic in the audience Wednesday night. "But it doesn't go over in Arlington. He's definitely out of his element."
Nunley's remark, which others also considered curiously inappropriate coming from the $58,800-a-year chief of Arlington's 14,000-student public school system, underscores what his critics say is the source of his emerging conflict with school officials and parents: Nunley's style seems somehow out of step with Arlington, a suburban community that prides itself on its urban sophistication and deep citizen participation in school affairs.
"All superintendents have a hard row to hoe," said former Democratic School Board member Ann C. Broder. "But I do think Dr. Nunley has never quite grasped what kind of community Arlington is . . . . We've always relied very heavily on the participation of citizens and felt deeply obligated to listen . . . . He's certainly not perceived to be doing that."
Working with the highly educated, politically active Arlington community has not gone smoothly for Nunley. He has been criticized for slowing access to public documents, for suggesting that decisions to close some modern schools be based on their leasing "marketability," and for failing to meet deadlines and not following the board's direction on school consolidation reports.
All five board members, a majority of whom were involved either as School Board or advisory board members in the selection of Nunley, have at some time been publicly critical of him. Some board members even have made discreet inquiries about how to break Nunley's four-year contract, which expires in 1985. Though board members have declined to discuss Nunley's status, Chairman Evelyn Reid Syphax said she cannot say she wants Nunley to serve out his term.
Nunley declined last week to comment on these and other criticisms. "I'd rather not at this time be interviewed," he said. "I just don't feel its appropriate at this time."
Despite the criticisms, Nunley has a friendly manner and quick, broad smile. Dressed in a light blue suit, eyeglasses case clipped to his breast pocket, Nunley one day recently heaved his sturdy frame into a slap on the back of an associate and asked about the family and last week's game, while shaking the hands of others who passed by.
His supporters say he is a talented administrator and a committed educator who actively tries to involve the county's business community in the schools. "He's done a good job as a superintendent," said board member Claude M. Hilton. "His strong points have been his ability to organize and administer the system." Said L. Osborne Lincoln, president of the Arlington Rotary Club, "He's an excellent public servant."
Many concerns about Nunley, however, are not rooted in his organizational skills, but rather in the way he has dealt with the board and the public. For instance:
* At a recent board meeting there was a tense exchange between Nunley and Vice Chairman Simone J. (Sim) Pace, who was being critical of Nunley for shifting as much as $15,000 in school funds within budget categories without alerting the board. "We adopt a budget with a certain amount of funding and a certain position level and then we find out the superintendent and staff is doing something different," Pace said.
"You're not finding that out," Nunley responded sharply. "You may find out that you didn't ask the right questions when you were approving the budget a year ago."
* At get-acquainted sessions with PTAs when Nunley first arrived, he often showed a movie that extolled the virtues of public schools. Stan Fabian, vice president of the Walter Reed Elementary School PTA, said that when Nunley talked to his PTA, which was gravely concerned about the school's possible closing, he showed the film but did not discuss the specific problems facing Walter Reed school.
"It might have been very nice for an eighth-grade civics class, but it wasn't for that audience," Fabian said of the film. " . . . People were pretty much scratching their heads and asking, 'What did he say?'
"It was the basic dog and pony show, but he never addressed the issues--quality education, continuity, special programs and which would be kept, where we could expect to see the school system in 10 years, improving test scores . . . . I don't think he's quite used to the sophisticated people we have here."
* At a 1981 back-to-school meeting with all school employes, the new superintendent introduced himself to his staff by reading a statement entitled, "This I Believe." In it, Nunley expressed his commitment to public education, democracy and preparing students for everyday life.
"People wanted to know, 'What does Dr. Nunley think about Arlington?' " said Sue Rafferty, a Yorktown High School social studies teacher and president of the Arlington Education Association. "They still don't know."
Nunley came to Arlington after the Lorain, Ohio, school board, plagued by three employe strikes during his tenure, opted not to renew his contract. Nunley has worked in education for 30 years and holds a doctorate in school administration. He was hired by a Republican-controlled Arlington School Board that was impressed with his reputation as a hard-nosed fiscal manager. One of two Democratic members also voted for him.
In the 21 months that he has headed the Arlington system, Nunley's accomplishments have included reorganizing the top level of school administration, an unpopular task that required cutting crucial staff positions.
Nunley also has been an active member of the Rotary Club, is on the board of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and has used relationships with local businessmen to benefit the school system. "He's a dynamic individual who always shows a willingness to get involved," said Robert Reade, a Chamber of Commerce official. "He's full of ideas." Last week, the Rotary Club, at Nunley's urging, "adopted" Yorktown High School, pledging to meet regularly with students.
But even these activities have brought criticism. Said Tom Hall, a longtime school activist and former chairman of the liberal and politically influential Arlingtonians for a Better County, "I find his main interest seems to be as a PR man with the Chamber and service groups."
Because Nunley was hired by a Republican-controlled board, some Republicans worry that Democrats will make the superintendent a political issue in this fall's County Board race, when the two GOP-endorsed independent board members are up for reelection. Although Republican appointees also hold all five School Board seats, Republican County Chairman Jade West said she did not believe Nunley would become an issue in the upcoming County Board election.
County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Sharon Davis, whose husband, Albert C. Eisenberg, is expected to seek the Democratic nomination for County Board, disagreed: "I think this is going to be one of the major issues this year, and I don't think it's something they can put in the laps of the Democrats."