A weekend retreat aimed in part at improving communication among Alexandria School Board members ended yesterday in disarray, as one member accused another of unethical behavior and was accused in return of being disrespectful.
A second retreat was planned to repair the damage.
Most of the nearly 20 hours of discussion -- on such topics as discipline and laptops for high school students -- remained as peaceful as the retreat's surroundings at an Alexandria nature sanctuary. Among other actions, the board set up a task force to increase family involvement and a committee to examine disciplinary policies in schools. But board members sparred as they revisited decisions made in the aftermath of Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry's arrest April 23 on a charge of driving while intoxicated.
A week after the arrest, then-Vice Chairman Gwendolyn H. Lewis cast the lone vote against keeping Perry in the job. In July, the board replaced Lewis as vice chairman, electing Mary "Mollie" Danforth instead.
Reading from written remarks yesterday, Lewis called for an end to the board's "mean-spirited, tyrannical behavior." Danforth tried to silence her, saying Lewis's timing -- in the middle of a discussion of the city's special-focus schools -- was inappropriate.
"I want to finish my statement," Lewis said.
"No," Danforth said.
Lewis proceeded anyway, responding to comments made during Saturday's session by School Board member Sally Ann Baynard accusing Lewis of unethical behavior.
"You have demeaned my character," Lewis said. "I hope this business of tearing down people in public will stop."
On Saturday, Baynard circulated a copy of an e-mail in which Lewis told constituents that the School Board had "little to no leadership."
"The Superintendent's arrogance and disrespect is the results of her employer, the Board, allowing her unbridled power to do whatever she wants to in the wake of her inexcusable behavior," Lewis wrote in the e-mail.
Baynard cited the e-mail as "part of a pattern of distortion that is unacceptable. . . . Covert attacks on the board and its members, by its members, should stop."
The board agreed Saturday to take another retreat, this time with a facilitator, to help mend relations. Chairman Mark O. Wilkoff said that details were being worked out and that he expected the retreat to be limited to board members.
"Most likely, it would be a closed session," he said.
Lewis, who said she agreed with the idea of another retreat, said she hoped it would be "humane."
This month, reacting to Lewis's defeat by written ballot for the vice chairman's post, three pastors at predominantly black churches filed court papers aimed at overturning the election, saying state codes governing public meetings do not allow votes in secret or by written ballot.
The School Board is expected to vote on the matter again Sept. 9, and members said they expected Danforth to win again.
Before the retreat began Friday, Wilkoff said he hoped that the weekend would focus on education and not on the debate engendered by the superintendent's arrest and guilty plea.
"We're trying to move beyond that," Wilkoff said. "We want to educate our children and find better ways to get out our successes in the public."
But in an interview yesterday, Baynard said it was impossible to move on while "leaving the big issues among board members unsettled. . . . I couldn't move on with what are bad and deceitful behaviors, so I put them on the table."
In addition to Lewis's ouster as vice chairman, there has been controversy over board member Melissa W. Luby, who was with Perry the night of the arrest. Luby is the target of a recall petition, circulated largely by parent activist James Boissonnault, who also runs a Web site critical of the school system and School Board.
On July 2, Boissonnault's home was egged by two youths, one of whom was identified as Luby's son, James Jr., 19, who pleaded guilty and apologized.
"If our constituents have a problem with any of us, the remedy lies in their hands on Election Day," Baynard told board members Saturday. "Mrs. Luby did not break the law, and her personal life is not the business of the School Board."
The board's bickering didn't much surprise Cindy Anderson, president of the PTA Council of Alexandria and one of a handful of community members who attended the retreat.
"Since it's been the summer, they really haven't been together that much since this all unfolded," Anderson said, referring to Perry's arrest. "I think having an outside person work with them is the best way."
As a mother of two children, Anderson said she listened more to discussions over school policies than the internal squabbling. She said she was happy that most of the discussion items on the retreat agenda resulted in a task force or committee being created to examine various issues, from communication to discipline.
"It was really quite productive," she said. "I don't think the retreat was mostly about [the board's disputes]. It was not holding back progress on other fronts."
In remarks made as the retreat opened late Friday afternoon, Perry lauded the school district for embracing "shared leadership." She made only a subtle reference to recent disputes, likening them to terror alerts, sniper attacks and deadly hurricanes.
"An equally tumultuous series of events have played out during the spring and summer, and unfortunately, appear to be a continuing diversion for those with a variety of motivations," Perry said.
"The real progress of this school division," she went on, "is being overshadowed -- progress that you and I have worked hard to achieve together. I would like to commend our school administrators and teachers, who, despite difficult circumstances, have maintained their focus at all times on what is important -- our students and their achievement."