Peggy Petrilli testified in Fayette Circuit Court on Thursday that she wanted to remain as principal at Lexington's Booker T. Washington Academy in 2007, but that Superintendent Stu Silberman told her to either resign or retire.
She resigned in August 2007 and retired later.
"It was unreal," Petrilli told jurors. "I couldn't believe that Stu Silberman would cave in ... and let me go."
Petrilli is suing Silberman and the county board of education for damages. She says that the superintendent forced her out to appease a small group of parents at Booker T. Washington who wanted an African-American as the school's principal.
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Petrilli said that she had wanted to remain as principal because she loved her job — "It was my passion," she said — and because she needed the income as her family's main breadwinner. She said she now teaches at Eastern Kentucky University and does consulting work, making a little more than half her original salary.
Attorney John McNeil, who represents Silberman and the school board, painted a starkly different picture during his opening argument Thursday.
McNeil told jurors that Petrilli resigned voluntarily because of problems she was having as principal, not because she was forced out.
She raised no objections or reservations in the resignation letter that she signed, McNeil said; he noted that her attorney helped negotiate the terms of resignation and that Petrilli herself helped negotiate the wording of a press release announcing her departure.
McNeil further argued that there was no effort by black parents at Booker T. Washington to remove Petrilli and replace her with an African-American. Indeed, he said, parents initially were pleased when she became principal because they had heard of her success in raising test scores when she was principal at Northern Elementary School.
"There was no racial issue about Peggy Petrilli," McNeil said. "No one in the community wanted her to be fired."
Rather, McNeil said, Petrilli stepped down because parents became disillusioned with her practices, such as holding students back in grade. But McNeil insisted that Silberman continued to support Petrilli and offered to arrange for her to return to Northern, an offer she declined.
Petrilli spent more than three hours on the witness stand Thursday as her attorney, J. Dale Golden, led her through her version of events.
McNeil raised a steady stream of objections to Golden's questioning, leading to numerous conferences between the attorneys and Circuit Judge James Ishmael.
At one point, Ishamel cautioned the lawyers to "talk to me, not each other."
In his opening statement, Golden said Petrilli rapidly raised test scores during her two years at Booker T. Washington, received nothing but high scores on evaluations, and continued to received congratulatory messages from Silberman until a few weeks before her departure.
But Golden contended that a small group of parents at Booker T. Washington were unhappy from the moment Petrilli arrived at the school in 2005 because they had not been allowed input in the selection of the new principal. Eventually, the group's "sole agenda was to get rid of Peggy," he said.
Golden said he would present testimony that some parents at one point threatened to picket the school or complain to the news media if a change wasn't made.
There will be no testimony in the case Friday. The trial will resume Monday with cross-examination of Petrilli.