Fayette superintendent testifies he didn't force principal to quit

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 24, 2009 

Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman repeatedly asserted Thursday in Fayette Circuit Court that he never forced Peggy Petrilli to resign as principal of the Booker T. Washington Academy in 2007, maintaining that he continued to back her despite repeated administrative mistakes that she made at the school.

But Petrilli's attorney, J. Dale Golden, sharply challenged Silberman's contention that Petrilli had many administrative weaknesses, wondering again and again why those supposed issues never turned up on her job evaluations.

Golden also continued to argue that Silberman forced Petrilli out to placate some Booker T. Washington parents, led by Buddy and Alva Clark and Jessica Berry, who Golden said wanted to replace Petrilli with an African-American. Golden suggested at one point that Silberman had decided that "it would be easier to turn your back on Peggy and give in to the Clarks and Jessica Berry."

"Sir, that is absolutely untrue," Silberman replied.

Golden wrapped up his case late Thursday afternoon. There will be no testimony on Friday. The defense is to begin calling witnesses on Monday, and Circuit Judge James Ishmael has advised jurors that they might not get the case until late Monday or sometime Tuesday.

Petrilli alleges in a civil suit that she was the victim of a campaign, orchestrated by a few parents who wanted to get rid of her. She contends that Silberman and the county schools caved in and forced her to resign because the parents were threatening to picket the school, contact the news media or complain to the state Department of Education.

Petrilli submitted her resignation on Aug. 27, 2007, five days after a contingent of Booker T. Washington parents, some school staffers and some community leaders handed Silberman a 21/2-page list of complaints about Petrilli's work.

But Silberman insisted Thursday that no one at the meeting ever asked him to fire Petrilli, expressed a desire to have an African-American as principal or complained about not having had a say in picking the principal.

Silberman described the parents as "very upset" and "very emotional" over "what had been happening to their children at the school." Some parents wanted to remain anonymous, he said, because they feared that Petrilli might retaliate against their children.

Golden pounced on that, asking whether Silberman ever tried to identify which children might have been at risk of retaliation. Silberman said he did not.

Silberman testified that he met with Petrilli the next day to discuss issues raised by parents. He said that he saw no reason why Petrilli couldn't remain at the school, insisting that he didn't believe most of the allegations. He said he told Petrilli, "I believe we can fight this."

The superintendent said, however, that after going over the complaints, Petrilli told him she couldn't return to the school because she had "lost the community's support." Silberman said he then offered to arrange for Petrilli to return to Northern Elementary, where she previously was principal. But she declined, saying she couldn't do that "with a cloud hanging over my head," according to Silberman.

He said that after conferring with the Fayette Schools' attorney on Sunday, Aug. 26, he decided that he would have to suspend Petrilli if she did not resign or retire. Petrilli ultimately submitted a resignation letter the next day.

Silberman acknowledged, however, that he told a Herald-Leader reporter in a phone interview on Sunday night, Aug. 26, that Petrilli wouldn't return, based on her statement that she couldn't go back.

Golden closely questioned Silberman about the Aug. 22 meeting, other events leading up to Petrilli's resignation and whether Silberman had given in to pressure to get rid of her. Silberman insisted that he had not.

"Peggy made the decision to leave on her own," he said.

Silberman called Petrilli "an outstanding instruction leader" who improved test scores at both Booker T. Washington and Northern. But he said she had "significant issues" with the "organizational piece and the management piece" of being a principal. Silberman said those weaknesses led to "problem after problem after problem" that he had to resolve.

Golden questioned Silberman as to why such issues never showed up on Petrilli's evaluations, in which he always gave her high marks. Golden demanded at one point why Silberman couldn't show jurors "one piece of paper" reflecting the problems.

Silberman said the school system had tried to support Petrilli rather than simply "writing her up."

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

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