Witnesses deny that they worked to oust principal at Booker T.

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 22, 2009 

A call for a new principal at Lexington's Booker T. Washington Academy apparently was raised during a July 2007 meeting of parents to discuss issues concerning the school, according to testimony Tuesday in Fayette Circuit Court.

Parent Jessica Berry, who took notes at that meeting, testified that a call for a new principal was made, but that she didn't know who made it. Berry said, however, that she put the matter in her notes and later included it on a 21/2-page list of concerns that parents submitted to Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman on Aug. 22, 2007.

Peggy Petrilli resigned as Booker T. Washington principal a few days later. Now, Petrilli alleges in a civil lawsuit that Silberman forced her to resign to placate a group of Booker T. Washington parents who wanted a black principal and were threatening to picket the school or complain to the news media if Silberman didn't act. Petrilli further alleges that Berry and two other Booker T. Washington parents — Buddy Clark and his wife, Alva Clark — led the campaign to oust her.

Silberman and the county school board contend that Petrilli resigned voluntarily because she had lost the support of Booker T. Washington parents through her own actions.

During questioning by Petrilli's attorney, J. Dan Golden, Berry denied that she and the Clarks worked to "undermine" Petrilli.

Berry acknowledged, however, that she and Alva Clark helped organize the July 2007 parents' meeting at the West End Empowerment Center. The session was to gather parents' concerns about the school and present them to Silberman, Berry said.

Golden led Berry through a list of concerns in her meeting notes covering items such as "cultural sensitivity" and "inappropriate cultural comments" at the school. Golden has suggested that such items are indicative of parents' interest in replacing Petrilli with an African-American.

Berry acknowledged that her meeting notes included a call for a "new principal" who would "encourage greater ethical, moral and education standards" at Booker T.

Golden then turned to the parents' Aug. 22 meeting with Silberman, suggesting that its purpose was to convince the superintendent that parents would picket the school or go to the news media unless he "gave in" to their demands.

"No, that was not the purpose of that meeting," Berry said.

Earlier Tuesday, Golden questioned William "Buddy" Clark as to whether he and his wife had worked against Petrilli. Clark insisted that they didn't want to oust Petrilli.

"I think she may have had trouble relating to some in the community, and there were some in the community who may have had trouble relating to her," Clark said. "That was not the case with me and my wife."

Golden also questioned Clark about an incident in which Petrilli "turned in" the Clarks' son to the county schools' pupil personnel department for living outside the Booker T. Washington attendance zone. Their son, who is disabled, is a student at the school.

Petrilli contends that she had to turn in the Clarks' child under school district policies, but that the Clarks blamed her and retaliated against her for it. She claims that it was the key event in sparking the parents' campaign against her.

Buddy Clark, however, insisted that his wife didn't learn that Petrilli had turned in their son until after Petrilli resigned. Clark admitted that he offered advice on gathering parental complaints against Petrilli, but he denied that he and his wife "went after" her.

Clark said his wife had been "excited" when Petrilli arrived at Booker T. in 2005, because of her reputation for raising student achievement. He noted that the principal Petrilli replaced was black, denying that he and his wife opposed Petrilli because of her race.

"We had nothing against Ms. Petrilli," he said.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397 Ext. 3255.

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