No deal: Embattled Griffin stays the course


After the Charlottesville School Board convened a closed-door session on March 25 at the law offices of McGuire Woods, board members announced that the purpose of the meeting had been to approve a survey of school staff about the performance of the current administration.

But Dr. Rick Turner, UVA's fiery dean of African American Affairs, says that meeting– as well as a second closed session at McGuire Woods on Wednesday, March 30–- is simply the latest effort by Charlottesville's "white elite" to get rid of school superintendent Scottie Griffin.

"The most insidious part is that they're trying to find a way to buy her out," he says. "But she's not going for it."

Griffin says she "can't comment on anything," and neither school board chair Dede Smith nor vice chair Julie Gronlund could be reached by Hook press time.

If the school board is looking for a way to oust Griffin, it would not be the first time this town has bought out a superintendent who challenged the board. In 1996, Dorothea Shannon– accused of putting a favorable spin on unfavorable student performance reports– was paid $67,360 to bow out of her contract. According to media accounts, Griffin holds a four-year contract that pays her $140,000 this year, and that amount is slated to rise to more than $150,000 next year.

But while it wouldn't be the first superintendent buy-out, the move would mark a significant change of heart for the board since it hired Griffin in July 2004. A veteran school administrator, Griffin, who is black, came to Charlottesville with a doctorate in education from Western Michigan State University and more than three decades of education experience, most recently with the New Orleans school district, where she served for less than six months before accepting the Charlottesville post.

Within a month of her arrival, Griffin unleashed an ambitious program of curricular overhaul. Among her goals were closing the achievement gap between minority and other students and making sure schools perform well on the state's Standards of Learning, or SOLs.

The school year hadn't even begun, however, before Griffin became a lightning rod for controversy that some community members said was racially motivated.

At the first school board meeting of the year in September, parents and teachers– many of them enraged by the sudden demotion of longtime associate superintendent Arletta Dimberg– gave impassioned pleas for Dimberg's reinstatement. Griffin's style was called "noncollaborative." But Turner, the Rev. Alvin Edwards, and the Rev. R.A. Johnson quickly mounted a fierce defense, claiming that Dimberg's demotion had long been planned, and that Griffin was simply taking the heat for doing the school board's bidding.

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

The whites in the audience booed and hissed at his accusations.

Griffin became only more controversial as the year progressed, but Turner's support never waned– nor did his claims of racism abate.

"There's a black, competent woman at the helm, and people do not like it," he says. Problems would never have arisen, he says, "If she was the kind who was a jokester, who grinned when something wasn't funny, who would acquiesce and be a Negro buffoon, who would take orders from the white elites, say everything's fine, give raises, go to little meetings and have tea."

Instead, Griffin's plans to eliminate teaching and counseling positions and hire senior administrators rankled parents and teachers. Some citizens also took issue with what they considered to be Griffin's high-handed leadership style.

When a scathing letter from assistant superintendent Laura Purnell to Griffin became public in early February, tensions intensified. Purnell has consistently declined comment.

Now, a source close to Purnell says she received a notice from Griffin dated March 10 and hand-delivered on Thursday, March 24, announcing that her job is being eliminated.

Purnell is declining comment, and assistant superintendent Bobby Thompson, who the source says was present for that delivery, declines comment on that letter as well, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues.

The message of Purnell's critical letter– the full text of which can be read at Waldo Jaquith's local news blog,– is clear: Griffin is an inept manager.

"The decisions that you are making and the behaviors that you exhibit as our Superintendent are significant barriers to the success of our efforts to close the achievement gap and to provide excellent educational experiences for all students," wrote Purnell, who went on to call Griffin "bullying" and "verbally abusive." Griffin's handling of other issues– including the purchase of a math intervention program– caused Purnell further discomfort. "Under your leadership and direction," she wrote, "I have often struggled with my own integrity in order to not appear insubordinate."

Former school board chair and local attorney Mary Susan Payne says the school board should have quickly protected Purnell from Griffin's retribution.

"Common decency would require the school board to acknowledge her letter," she says. Purnell, says Payne, with her 25 years of experience in urban schools, is now the school system's "intellectual linchpin."

"There's a vacuum of visionary thinkers," says Payne. "The superintendent is not showing any ability to be visionary. To try to get rid of the one person who's thinking is awful," she adds.

Purnell's job status is scheduled for consideration at the school board meeting on Thursday, March 31.

Turner says it's about time Purnell is terminated.

"Dr. Griffin hired her, but she shouldn't have," he says, adding, "We do make mistakes in personnel sometimes."

When asked whether Griffin's hire might have been a similar mistake on the part of the school board, Turner replies, "Absolutely not. The school board members are inept."

He adds that they– and Charlottesville taxpayers– are "going to pay" for their treatment of Griffin. "People really don't understand the cost of racism," he says. "It's going to cost the city."

Turner suggests that Griffin has "no reason" to accept a buy-out offer, and he believes she will force the school board to fire her. But first, he says, "They need a reason," which he believes explains the new survey.

In a quieter moment, Turner drops the accusations and simply wonders why the board won't let Griffin do her job.

"These are the same people who hired Dr. Griffin," he says. "I want to know now, what changed their mind? We still have an achievement gap. We still had an audit by a reputable organization that pinpointed the glaring deficiencies. Why not allow Scottie Griffin to deal with those deficiencies and after a period of time evaluate that?"

Payne, however, says the breach is too deep.

"It's so dysfunctional, we need somebody new," she says. "The school board needs to stop dithering and take action."

Scottie Griffin inspires passions– both pro and con.