Former principal Petrilli loses lawsuit, but attorney says she's likely to appeal

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 29, 2009 

A Fayette Circuit Court jury decided against former Booker T. Washington Academy principal Peggy Petrilli on Tuesday afternoon, rejecting her claim that the county school system and Superintendent Stu Silberman forced her out of her job.

Jurors deliberated for a little more than 31/2 hours before emerging to report their conclusion that Petrilli "voluntarily resigned from her position as principal of Booker T. Washington Academy on August 27, 2007."

Under instructions given to the jury by Circuit Judge James Ishmael, the first question jurors had to consider was whether Petrilli's resignation was voluntary. Once jurors concluded it was, Petrilli's other claims essentially were rendered moot.

Ten of the 12 jurors agreed on the finding. Nine are required to reach a decision.

The jury was composed of seven women and five men, including two African-Americans.

After the decision, Petrilli's attorney, J. Dale Golden, questioned the jury instruction and said it would be a key issue in an appeal of Tuesday's decision.

"What we're looking at is the prospect of an appeal, specifically the very first instruction that was given," Golden said. "It will be for the appellate court to decide whether that first instruction should have been given or not."

Attorney John McNeill, who represented Silberman and the school board, declined to speculate about the jury instructions.

"Everybody looks at the instructions differently," McNeill said. "He (Golden) will assess that with his client ... and we'll pursue the things we need to do. We will vigorously defend any effort to set aside what this community has ruled on."

Neither Silberman not Petrilli offered comment.

Silberman appointed Petrilli as principal of the newly created Booker T. Washington Academy in 2005, largely because of her success at Lexington's Northern Elementary School, where she earned principal-of-the-year honors and received national press attention for boosting student scores. Just two years later, however, Petrilli stepped down.

Petrilli claimed in a civil suit against Silberman and the Fayette schools that she was a victim of "reverse discrimination." She said she was undermined by a small group of black parents who wanted to replace her at Booker T. Washington with an African- American principal.

Petrilli, who is white, alleged that the campaign was orchestrated by parents Jessica Berry and Buddy and Alva White. Ultimately, Petrilli claimed, Silberman caved in to the parents' demands, forcing Petrilli out because he feared parents would picket the school, contact the news media or complain to the state if he didn't get rid of her.

But McNeill maintained throughout the eight-day trial that no such underground campaign ever existed and that Petrilli actually was undone by her own failings. The defense claimed that while Petrilli was a gifted instructional leader who raised students' test scores, her lax day-to-day management of Booker T. Washington and failure to communicate with parents caused an ongoing stream of problems that ultimately led to her resignation.

McNeill continued to hammer away on that contention in his closing argument Tuesday, arguing that Petrilli "failed at the most basic things a principal has to do, building relationships with parents, the staff and the community."

McNeill argued that Petrilli's claims were based on an "almost insulting conclusion" that "African-American parents were more concerned about having an African-American principal than about the education their children should receive."

Golden depicted Petrilli as an innocent victim in his strongly worded closing argument, declaring that Silberman abandoned her to appease Berry and the Clarks in their "personal vendetta against Peggy."

Golden also attacked testimony in the trial by various Fayette County Schools officials who said Petrilli had serious management weaknesses in communication, consensus building and day-to-day school operations. Golden said no evidence of those supposed problems was reflected in Petrilli's performance evaluations, which always gave her the highest possible scores.

"Where is the documentation?" Golden demanded, suggesting that such testimony was part of "a show" put on by Silberman to discredit Petrilli.

Golden further argued that other Fayette Schools principals could face similar mistreatment in the future unless jurors sent a message by finding in Petrilli's favor.

"It's difficult to take on City Hall, but someone has to stand up for Peggy," he said. "Don't let them get away with it."

Petrilli had sought damages not to exceed about $1.9 million for lost wages and impaired ability to earn. But under instructions given to the jury, there was no limit on how much jurors could have awarded her for mental pain and embarrassment.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service