Checkered past: Embattled Griffin knows controversy


New information regarding the work history of Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Scottie Griffin, whose short tenure here has been marked by high racial tension, suggests her troubles over the last nine months are hardly her first encounter with controversy.

Last week the Hook obtained a copy of Griffin's résumé, which shows that in the last decade, she has held seven positions (including her latest), four of which she left midway through the school-year– an unusual departure time in K-12 education.

But more notable than her frequent and oddly timed job changes are her legal woes: Griffin has sued one school system for wrongful termination and has recently become the subject of a second lawsuit by a longtime New Orleans public school employee who accuses her of abuse.

Griffin did not respond to the Hook's request for comment, and school board chair Dede Smith declined comment on Griffin's record. But according to Craig Wood, the attorney representing the Board, Board members knew nothing about Griffin's troubled past until recently, when Wood obtained copies of the suits.

How could the Board hire someone without knowing her troubled history? Wood says there's a simple explanation.

When looking for a new superintendent, the Board paid Iowa-based recruiting firm Ray and Associates to conduct the search, which Wood claims did not reveal Griffin's legal troubles. The Board "relied on the expertise" of the firm, says Wood, noting that school board members are not qualified to do such background checks themselves.

Wood did not know the exact sum paid to the firm, but Bobby Thompson, the school board clerk, says the Board paid $24,656 to find the new superintendent.

Wood says the Board could consider legal action against the search firm if negligence can be shown. He adds, however, that he doesn't currently have enough information to make such a decision.

Ray and Associates executive director Bill Newman did not return the Hook's call by press time.

As the Hook discovered last week and as Daily Progress reporter Bob Gibson revealed in his April 17 business column, what the school board didn't know has hurt them.

In 1999– two years after she left her job as an assistant principal and principal in the Flint Community Schools in Michigan, Griffin, by then a self-employed consultant, filed suit against that school system alleging wrongful discharge and age discrimination.

A teacher in the Flint school system who requests anonymity explains that Griffin injured her back and went on sick leave, only to find when she returned to work several months later that she had been reassigned. The teacher did not know the details of Griffin's departure. Griffin, now in her mid-50s, was in her late 40s at the time of her discharge.

A circuit court clerk in Genesee County, Michigan says Griffin was not required to list a specific financial demand amount in her filing. Civil suits in Michigan are divided into two categories: those seeking under $25,000 in damages, and those seeking over $25,000. Griffin's case fell into the latter category.

The Flint school system entered mediation with Griffin and settled out of court. The case was dismissed in November 2000.

That lawsuit was not her first trouble in Flint, however. A December 1994 story in The Flint Journal details a protest by a group of parents and students who claimed that Griffin, then the principal of the inner-city Dort Elementary School, had locked students out of the building and berated them if they were late for breakfast. Several children claimed she had struck them and suspended them for minor infractions.

"I was kicked out of school because I walked across the grass," said then-11-year-old Julius Rutherford.

But other parents and teachers stepped to Griffin's defense.

"There is now an atmosphere of loving discipline where children are taught to be accountable for their own behavior," said Lysa Fischer, a special ed teacher at Dort.

Steve Burroughs, currently a Flint teacher's union representative, worked under Griffin part-time as a P.E. teacher in the '90s, and although he did not work with her on a daily basis, he says she was "very authoritative" on his one-day-a-week visits to her school. It was "her way, or no way," he recalls.

At her next position, as a $135,000-a-year area superintendent in the New Orleans public schools, Griffin became the target of a lawsuit. That school district has been plagued by corruption– its superintendent, Anthony Amato, recently resigned under pressure after the school board discovered that, among other things, he'd sent school employees to board up his home as Hurricane Ivan approached. Griffin was not implicated in wrongdoing during her seven-month tenure, and some of her employees recall her fondly.

Contacted by the Hook, Angela Phillips, an administrative assistant in New Orleans schools who worked under Griffin, calls her "no nonsense but nice."

"Is she up for an award?" Phillips asked.

Janice Clay might not agree with Phillips' assessment. Clay, a tenured teacher for 36 years, holds a master's degree in education, and has taught at the college level for a decade. After her retirement, she returned to work in the New Orleans school system in 1997 as a team leader. In 2003 she worked as an executive secretary to Griffin, who'd been hired by Amato to head up one of the school system's four "areas."

Coming into a troubled school system and assigned to oversee more than 30 schools, "Griffin was charged with hitting the ground running," says Clay's attorney, Tracie Washington, "and she indicated and guaranteed that she could do that."

But the attorney believes Griffin, whose experience as a superintendent had been limited to three years as an associate superintendent in Prince George's County, Maryland, was in over her head.

Washington says that Clay was "more than happy to help Griffin" in her transition. But Griffin "was so overwhelmed that no matter who tried to give her help, she lashed out," says Washington. "It was always somebody else's fault."

In her suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against the Orleans Parish School Board and Scottie Griffin, Clay claims that within two months of Griffin's arrival, Clay's working conditions had become "intolerable," and she requested a transfer away from Griffin, who had "continually required Clay to perform duties and services that stretched far beyond the parameters of her position."

The "undue stress and anxiety" related to working for Griffin caused Clay's blood pressure to rise to "dangerously high levels," Clay's suit alleges. In addition the suit charges, she was not paid for 60 hours of overtime, and Griffin accused her of stealing a credit card.

"Mrs. Clay became physically ill and left on an emergency basis," according to the suit.

In January 2004, Clay filed a formal grievance with the school district against Griffin and, following two doctors' orders, went on medical leave "until she was provided a new job assignment, away from defendant Griffin."

While Clay was on approved medical leave, the suit claims, Griffin refused to release Clay's paychecks, and in March, when Clay was still on medical leave, Griffin recommended that Clay be terminated for "poor performance."

Clay is seeking one year's salary– approximately $35,000– in addition to compensation for pain and suffering and attorney's fees. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, April 20, the day after the Hook goes to press.

Because she is named individually in the case, says Washington, Griffin is "on the hook" for any money awarded to Clay.

Clay's experience under Griffin bears similarities to that of both Arletta Dimberg– a longtime deputy superintendent "reassigned" by Griffin last summer who subsequently took a year's sick leave– and Laura Purnell, an assistant superintendent hired by Griffin, who penned a scathing letter to the superintendent in February.

While some members of the African American community have suggested that Dimberg's reassignment had been planned by the school board and that Griffin simply took the heat for an unpopular action, insiders say that is simply not the case.

The school board "never planned" to reassign Dimberg, says board member Peggy Van Yahres.

As for Purnell, Griffin recently recommended to the Charlottesville school board that her position be eliminated at the end of the year. The school board has not ruled on her suggestion. Neither Purnell nor Dimberg returned the Hook's calls by press time.

The Charlottesville School Board may have some tough questions to ask– and to answer– in the coming days, and it will conduct a closed session on Thursday, April 21 at 6:30pm– an hour before its regularly scheduled open meeting on that date.

Washington says there's at least one question that's already been answered: whether criticism of Griffin is racially motivated. "It's not a race issue," says Washington, who, like her client Janice Clay, is black. "It's a competence issue."

Scottie Griffin