Manassas School Board members did not have much to say after they voted last week to force out Sidney "Chip" Zullinger as school superintendent.
An excerpt from the board's prepared statement, the only part that assesses Zullinger's four-plus years at the helm, reads: "The Board is grateful to him for his years of fine service, but we have decided to move in a different direction." The statement is on the school system's Web site.
Offered this hazy explanation, the public is still seeking answers.
On Tuesday night, the School Board voted, 4 to 2, not to renew Zullinger's contract, which ends in June, and forced him to resign immediately. He still will be paid through the end of the school year, as per his contract. The School Board appointed Assistant Superintendent John Boronkay, 58, as acting superintendent.
School Board Vice Chairman Mary E. Andersen and members Scott M. Albrecht, Patrick D. Linehan and Edward W. Pratt voted not to renew the contract; Sheryl L. Bass and Curtis W. Wunderly voted to keep Zullinger, 55. Chairman Arthur P. Bushnell was absent for the vote because he was at his mother's funeral, School Board members said.
School Board members acknowledged the problematic nature of the statement.
"Yeah, we're saying 'change of direction,' but that's going to make a lot of people uncomfortable," Pratt said. "I will tell you this, a top priority for us, and through the acting superintendent, will be to further elucidate [the vote]. We're going to have to do that right away -- one of the members of our faculty advised us of that yesterday."
When local governing bodies terminate or suspend a high-ranking appointed official, they tend to avoid discussing the specific reasons behind their actions. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act protects them from having to reveal the substance of their investigation or discussions of their meetings, which are closed out of respect for the employee's privacy.
Christine Spratley, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at the city's sole high school, Osbourn, said she did not know how to react to Zullinger's departure because she does not know why he was let go.
"I am waiting to get some clarification. What I am hearing from parents is that they would like an explanation," Spratley said. "I didn't have any problems with his performance."
In interviews, some School Board members elaborated briefly on their reasons not to renew Zullinger's contract. Andersen said that Zullinger was slow to accept various initiatives the School Board favored, including strategies targeted at improving the performance of students with limited English skills. She said that he presided over a staff in which some employees' duties were "not being performed correctly" and that there were "a lot of other positions that were in name only with a salary."
Andersen said that the School Board was pleased with how scores on state standardized tests improved during Zullinger's tenure, but that members wanted a new leader who can handle the "continued pressure" from demanding federal guidelines, which require school districts to close the achievement gap between whites and minorities.
"We're going to have to get more creative and innovative," she said. "It was not going to work for us to have Dr. Zullinger remain."
Pratt said he was looking for a stronger leader who has "better communication" skills and can forge a healthier relationship with the School Board.
Calls to a home telephone number listed for Zullinger were not returned.
Zullinger came to Manassas in 2001, after having presided over school districts in rural North Carolina, Wyoming, South Carolina and Denver, where at various points he experienced some of the same tensions that built up here. For instance, he began as schools chief in Denver in August 1999 but lasted only nine months, after which board members voted to terminate his contract, in part because he pursued initiatives without keeping them informed.
For now, Zullinger has almost an entire school year to search for a job and still collect his $159,124 annual salary. Asked whether it would have been better to let Zullinger continue as superintendent until his contract expires so the money would at least be spent on something rather than nothing, Pratt said: "It was an indication of the seriousness with which we made this decision. We thought for all concerned it would be best to part ways now. It would be best for him not to be hanging around like a lame duck."
Manassas City Council member Jackson H. Miller (R) put it more bluntly. "If they're going to release the superintendent and pay him for 10 months, that money could go to anything. Yes, it's very wasteful," Miller said.