Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

pic19634Personnel disputes get ugly when dirty linen gets aired in public. Hence many in Arlington weren’t sure what to make of the drama that burst into the open Feb. 1, when Kathy Francis abruptly resigned after nine years as principal of Williamsburg Middle School.

The story made all local news outlets and prompted several investigations, a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and a Washington Post editorial. Anguish over who runs our schools is a messy part of democracy.

An Arlington schools spokeswoman reiterated to me that no one there will discuss the sticky personnel matter. But last week I chatted with Francis, whom I knew when I was a Williamsburg PTA officer and whose elevation to principal I endorsed.

Francis too is restricted in what she can disclose about the year-long clash with Superintendent Pat Murphy that began with disagreement over her bid to remove an unidentified “nonperforming” employee whom she viewed as a safety threat, and which ended with her unsatisfactory performance review.

After unloading a scathing e-mail to Arlington’s entire parental universe charging gender and age discrimination, Francis had hoped to stay on for a month to ease her interim successor’s transition. Instead she was immediately relieved of her duties, school e-mail and daytime building privileges.

The priority now, she told me, is to “make sure the county’s independent audit of the situation is full and complete.” To that end, Francis elbowed her way into the Feb. 8 evening PTA meeting, at which she read a statement and took questions after the appearance and departure of the superintendent, assistant superintendent Betty Hobbs and school board members Libby Garvey and Abby Raphael. Francis said many parents expressed frustration at the shortage of discussable facts.

In her statement, Francis expressed disappointment in the school board for leaping to the superintendent’s defense. She argued, and many parents agreed, that the review should be widened. It should cover not just her case, but general policies on nonperforming staff, discrimination, safety, how principals are evaluated, the superintendent’s performance and the school board’s handling of the episode, she said. Francis also took a jab at evaluation methods that rely too much on “one-dimensional test scores.”

Williamsburg PTA leader Dawn Bova, who, as Francis joked, “picked a heckava year to be PTA president,” told me the PTA takes no position on the case other than to make sure parents could talk with the board. “Things are going well at the school,” she said. “It’s still functioning and my kid has homework. It’s important that employees be treated fairly and that the process be open, but that is happening separately and must run its course.”

The lack of advance notice of the deteriorating situation bothered PTA external vice president Emily Nack. “There was good dialogue at the PTA meeting,” she said, “but I hope the board can assess whether the review of this principal, who had a history of success at a highly performing school, could have been managed better.”

Middle school principal: the toughest job you’ll ever love? My Williamsburg alumnae daughter recalls Francis as a stern disciplinarian but, now as an adult, sees value in that role.

I asked Francis if she worried she’s burned the bridge to her next job. “I hope not,” she said. “But it’s important to stand up for principles.”


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com