'Smoking gun' alleged in Petrilli lawsuit

A month before confronting the Fayette school district superintendent with complaints about Booker T. Washington Academy Principal Peggy Petrilli, a parent urged the principal's critics to compile a list of everything that negatively affected black parents, "no matter how inconsequential it appears."

On July 26, 2007, William "Buddy" Clark forwarded an e-mail to his wife, Alva, and site-based decision making council member Jessica Berry, according to records filed in Petrilli's racial discrimination lawsuit against the Fayette County Board of Education and Superintendent Stu Silberman.

"We need a list of everything that has happened over the past year which negatively affected black parents, students, teachers, or the community," Buddy Clark wrote. "Include everything no matter how inconsequential it appears. Failure to develop black talent will have a future negative effect."

Petrilli's lawyers claim the e-mail is "smoking gun" proof that Petrilli's departure from the predominantly black elementary school was racially motivated. Petrilli, who is white, was principal at Booker T. Washington from March 2005 to August 2007.

Petrilli accuses Silberman of illegally forcing her to resign in August 2007 to placate her black critics.

"Stu Silberman was keenly aware of the fact that he was being subjected to a power play by Jessica Berry and the Clarks," Petrilli's attorney, Dale Golden, wrote in a response filed Friday to a school board motion. "Ms. Berry and the Clarks demonstrated that they could fill a room full of angry African-American parents that were willing to be very vocal about their dislike of Petrilli. Threats of picketing Booker T. Washington and going to the media were circulating.

"Fearful that his political future could be jeopardized by Jessica Berry and the Clarks' ability to galvanize the black community, Stu Silberman folded to the pressure rather than doing the right thing," Golden wrote.

Through a spokeswoman, Silberman referred questions to the board's attorney, John McNeill.

McNeill said the board filed a motion to dismiss a defamation claim by Petrilli and to dismiss claims against Carmen Coleman, the director of elementary schools.

Golden's claims are irrelevant to the board's motion, McNeill said.

The truth will come out in the depositions of Buddy Clark, Alva Clark, Berry and Coleman, McNeill said. The depositions have not yet been transcribed.

"The best evidence to the truth of the matter is in those depositions," said McNeill, who declined to comment further.

Berry and Alva Clark, who was also on the PTA and site-based decision-making council, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

The school board, in legal filings, has repeatedly said that Petrilli resigned on her own after being shown a list of complaints from parents. The school board has maintained that it did not pressure her.

The board has also filed Petrilli's public statement to the media after she resigned. The statement contained no indication that Petrilli was being forced out.

In August 2007, angry parents at Booker T. Washington presented Silberman with 2½ pages of complaints that included allegations of financial mismanagement and unethical scoring and administering of standardized tests.

School board attorney Brenda D. Allen investigated the allegations. She wrote a sweeping report accusing some school staff of engaging in testing irregularities, improperly holding students back a year, misleading parents, circumventing the school's site-based decision making council and retaliating against parents.

The report called into question the test score improvements achieved during Petrilli's tenure.

Petrilli countered by suing Allen and the board for defamation.

The board has maintained in legal filings that it was obligated to investigate alleged testing improprieties. The board also has said that Petrilli wanted an investigation, thinking that it would clear her name.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader