Sue 'em? Post-Griffin, board takes the heat

Superintendent Scottie Griffin may be history, but the problems with the city schools are very much alive. In fact, just a week after school board chair Dede Smith announced Griffin's resignation– while concealing the terms of a settlement– there are calls for school board members to step down.

"I think we need a new school board," says Agnes Cross-White, editor of the Charlottesville Albemarle Tribune, a local weekly paper covering African American issues. "I don't think we can trust this school board to conduct another search."

Cross-White, citing Griffin's "abysmal" employment record and the fact that she was "the center of controversy and disruption in past job situations," called for the superintendent to resign or be dismissed in an editorial in the Tribune on April 21, the day the school board voted 5-2 to accept Griffin's resignation. Last week, Griffin's involvement in two lawsuits was revealed by both the Hook and the Daily Progress.

But Cross-White saved her harshest words for board members. "They have done this community a disservice," she wrote, "and they should tender their resignations immediately."

She isn't the only one taking the board to task.

Walt Heinecke, a professor at UVA's Curry School of Education and father of two children in city schools, says Smith, along with Griffin, "fanned the flames of racial conflict."

Smith strongly denies the assertion. Smith was among Griffin's staunchest supporters over the year, defending her amid charges that she was "bullying" and "abusive." They could often be seen at board meetings conferring privately, and though Smith eventually voted to accept Griffin's resignation, she did so tearfully, telling the Progress it was "one of the hardest nights I've ever had."

But Smith says those who criticize her leadership shouldn't be too quick to judge her or the board.

"We've had a difficult year, but we've also had a pretty big charge, to make some dramatic changes so our achievement will increase," she says, adding, "I'm not sure we could have completely avoided the conflict we saw."

Smith, who says she will not likely serve a second year as chair, believes the current board is up to the task of finding the new supe, and that this time around things will go smoothly.

"I think it's pretty clear what sort of superintendent we need," she says. "The superintendent coming in will have a pretty clear picture of how to approach the problems."

Heinecke is unconvinced. And he's particularly concerned that school board members are appointed by the City Council and cannot be removed before their terms end. They "have no accountability" to anyone, he says.

Heinecke believes Council should install a new school board before the next superintendent search and says he would support City Council pursuing the change through a legal process. Barring that, he explains, it would be left up to a "citizen's group" to take legal action against city council for allowing the school board to shirk its "fiduciary responsibility."

According to a source who requests anonymity, a group of parents has already met to discuss a potential lawsuit.

"I hope it doesn't come to that," says Heinecke.

Heinecke and others want to know what the past year has actually cost the city. The board has refused to quell rumors of a buyout of Griffin's contract.

According to school board attorney Craig Wood, the "separation agreement" between Griffin– whose four-year contract called for her to earn approximately $150,000 a year– and the City Schools is considered part of her personnel file and is therefore confidential. Only when payments are made to Griffin would amounts be made public, Wood says.

Last week, Wood said that the school board could consider suing Ray & Associates, the Iowa-based search firm the board employed in hiring Griffin. The city paid the firm $24,656, and Wood says it provided no information on Griffin's past employment troubles and legal woes.

Councilor Blake Caravati, who has sharply criticized Smith's leadership, says Council's hands are tied when it comes to taking action against the board she chairs.

"State law is very specific about that," he explains. "We only have two powers [regarding schools]: one is appointing the school board and the other is voting on the budget."

Caravati doesn't believe there are grounds for the legal removal of board members, and he says state law dictates that can be done only in cases of criminal wrongdoing or extensive absence from the job.

Failure to live up to a fiduciary responsibility, says Caravati, "is not grounds" for removal.

Charlottesville Mayor David Brown, who, like Caravati, has harshly criticized Smith, is also singing a conciliatory tune.

"I personally don't want to dwell on what's gotten us to where we are," says Brown, "but I do want to move forward from here and work with Dede [Smith] and the rest of the school board to start putting our focus back on the kids and back on improving achievement for low income kids."

As for the threat of a lawsuit, Brown says he hopes that "people on both sides can calm down and think about what would be helpful to move the city forward and what would just be divisive and unhelpful."

In the meantime, the city schools are once again without a superintendent.

Board member Muriel Wiggins, who– along with Bill Igbani– voted against accepting Griffin's resignation, calls the decision "a regretful action." Now that it's done, however, she says the board needs to "come together to see how to move forward."

Wiggins says the board is meeting with school administrators "in twos" to discuss the schools' future. Currently, associate superintendent Gertrude Ivory, a Griffin hire, and longtime assistant superintendent Bobby Thompson have been tasked with steering the schools through the transition.

Griffin could not be reached for comment. Her secretary at Charlottesville City Schools central office, Joyce Hutchinson, reports, "She doesn't work here anymore."

Wiggins says she has no plans to step down before her second term ends in two years, but she will not seek reappointment– though not because of the superintendent imbroglio.

"I will be celebrating my 75th birthday that year," Wiggins explains, "and there is no way I'm going to continue this insanity."

However the supe search progresses– and whoever leads it– it's sure to be a bumpy road, and the racial divide will likely remain.

But newspaperwoman Cross-White says the search must be color-blind.

"Racism in this community exists," she says, but the problems with our schools "neither begin nor end with racism."

The new superintendent must be the "best person possible," says Cross-White. She suggests that Monticello High School principal Irving Jones, an African American who was the second-place contender for superintendent behind Griffin in 2004, should be considered. But Cross-White says that if a "white man" has the strongest vision for leading "all students," she would support the hire.

"If there are charges of racism, so be it," she says. "This is America."

School Board member Byron Brown accepted Griffin's resignation.

School Board chair Dede Smith.

School Board members Ned Michie and Bill Igbani found themselves on opposite sides of the vote.

Plenty of crowds lately at the Booker T. Reaves Media Center.

Tribune editor Agnes Cross-White calls for a new board.