Hisses and cheers: Tension marks School Board meeting

By 7pm on Thursday, September 16, every seat in the house was taken– hundreds of them– and the aisles were jammed with latecomers looking for a place to perch.

This was no rock concert. It was the semi-monthly meeting of the Charlottesville School Board, convening in the packed library at Charlottesville High School for the first business meeting since school started. The biggest turnout in recent memory was in response to tensions heightened by changes instituted by new superintendent Scottie Griffin, who some community members see as a victim of racism.

In a series of emails and phone calls circulating through the community over several weeks, Griffin had come under fire for what some called her "noncollaborative style."

Critics cited the fact that Griffin reassigned longtime associate superintendent Arletta Dimberg over the summer at the same time she implemented sweeping changes in school policy. Of particular concern were changes in testing, the mid-September reassignment of a beloved Burnley-Moran fourth-grade teacher, and a plan to hire two new upper-level administrators.

Morale in the school system is at an all-time low, several teachers told the Hook days before the meeting. As if the high pressure requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state SOLS weren't enough, they said, a rumored Griffin-issued "gag order" preventing teachers from contacting school board members for any reason contributed to the distress.

After calling the meeting to order, School Board chair Dede Smith reiterated the Board's unqualified confidence in Griffin and addressed the rumors.

"This school board supports our superintendent 100 percent," Smith said. "There is no gag order." Teachers, she explained, are expected to follow longstanding protocol– discussing problems with their principals before approaching the board.

Following Smith's ringing endorsement, nearly two dozen members of the community gave impassioned speeches about the Griffin regime– starting with Jenny Ackerman, who with her husband, Karl, had begun the chain of emails that fueled the fires of controversy.

The fiery tone of the Ackermans' initial email– which detailed seven major complaints against Griffin– was gone.

"We have become aware of the divisive and hurtful effect of our email," Jenny Ackerman said in a lengthy speech apologizing to members of the community, both black and white. After a meeting with Mayor David Brown and leaders of the black community, including the Reverend Alvin Edwards, Rick Turner, dean of UVA's Office of African American Affairs, and City Councilor Kendra Hamilton, Ackerman said, she realized Griffin was only "doing what the board directed."

However her concern with "the morale and well being of teachers in the schools" remained.

The Rev. Edwards followed Ackerman at the podium, acknowledging his "extreme upset" at the Ackermans' and others' "offensive and hurtful" emails, which he initially believed to be an "attack."

However, after meeting with the Ackermans, Edwards said, he recognized that they were "genuinely remorseful and willing to take responsibility" for the hurt they had caused– and for distracting school officials from their work.

"Any distractions," said Edwards, "be they internal or external... are not in the best interest of the children."

Speakers approached the podium in rapid succession following Edwards, some describing their love and respect for Dimberg, who parent Mark Collins said had been "dishonored in a mean and disrespectful way."

Some expressed support for Griffin, while others spoke of their concern about teacher morale. "A difficult job has just become nearly impossible," said Andrea Trank, an Albemarle County science teacher who has three children in the Charlottesville public school system.

The audience responded vigorously during UVA Dean Turner's speech.

When Turner charged, "People say they can't accept her style, but they can't accept the color of her skin," a ripple of protest crossed the audience, with several shouts of "That's not true" ringing out among hisses and boos– and a smattering of cheers.

Turner blamed "disgruntled parents and staff" as well as a "backstabbing administration" for giving Griffin "resistance," that he likened to Charlottesville's "massive resistance" to school integration in 1958.

The issue of race hung over the remainder of the meeting, with public housing activist Joy Johnson noting the disparate applause for speakers along racial lines. After a lengthy message laced with Biblical references, William Johnson promised, "We got your back, Scottie."

Griffin herself, however, kept a lower profile when she addressed the crowd early in the evening.

"We may not always agree on how to get there," she said, "but I'm working tirelessly to ensure that all of our students will be successful."

As the controversial Flanagan Testing Program remained in place this week, and teacher Michele Snyder took up her new duties at Greenbrier elementary, it seemed clear that Griffin's plans for that success have not been derailed.

At the September 16 School Board meeting, the Rev. Alvin Edwards denounced emails circulating about superintendent Scottie Griffin.