Sunday, August 02, 2009

Enabling Reform

It must have been difficult for the Herald-Leader’s editorial board to pen comments critical of Superintendent Stu Silberman. But they did it.

Oh sure, they softened and buried it as much as they could; but criticized nonetheless. “[T]he district must do a better job of evaluating employees… [E]mployees who aren't accurately graded can't really be expected to improve,” they wrote.

This assessment, while accurate, deflects attention away from Silberman who was clearly aware and supported Peggy Petrilli every step of the way. The editorial board is only sorry the judge didn’t allow the defense to pile on more than it did. Having helped build the pedestal from which Petrilli fell, the Herald-Leader would now like us to keep Silberman on his.

In H-L’s mind Judge James Ishmael erred by restricting evidence in the case to only what was known by the parties at the moment Peggy Petrilli resigned. They suggest that by not allowing the jury to hear evidence from a district report generated eight months later – a report that the plaintiffs were not allowed discovery on - the judge prevented jurors from hearing that Petrilli’s “academic successes were built on questionable and possibly fraudulent practices.”

But H-L fails to point out that this restriction was implemented with the full consent of the defense. In a June 23rd pre-trial hearing, where the ground rules for the case were discussed, school board attorney John McNeill told the judge,

“I don’t disagree with the report’s contents itself being off the table. Now, there were attachments to the report that dealt with matters prior in time to August 23, 2007…I think are obviously relevant. But, no, I think the court understands that issue well and I think the court’s tracking the right way on that.”

And by allowing those attachments, the jury heard plenty about Petrilli’s shortcomings including the testing allegations. In fact, Silberman told the jury that following a parent meeting on August 22nd the district reported allegations that Petrilli was cheating on the test to KDE.

Consistent with that same thinking, Ishmael’s focus on the moment of resignation gave the defense its biggest advantage in the form of jury Question #1:
“Do you believe from the evidence that the Plaintiff, Peggy Petrilli, voluntarily resigned from her position as Principal of Booker T Washington Academy on August 23rd, 2007?”
The jury answered “Yes,” and the trial was over without any other considerations.

H-L incredibly laments that “Superintendent Stu Silberman had no inkling of the irregularities that would later be discovered.” Silberman may not have always known in advance, or the extent of problems, but what he did know about administrative irregularities at Booker T could fill a book. Soon after that meeting, School Board Attorney Brenda Allen advised Silberman to suspend Petrilli, but he refused.

No inkling?!

Silberman testified,
“It was an ongoing…litany of problems…and we supported Peggy in every single one of them... please understand…there was a problem every other day...”
Silberman told the jury “you look at the number of management problems…from Peggy compared to all others…” and he gestured to indicate a tall stack of problems from Petrilli and a short stack for all other principals.

The district was able to put into evidence a long list of failings that showed with great effect that Petrilli's management and relationship problems gave parents a reason to distrust her administration of the school on grounds that had nothing to do with her race, thus crippling the idea of some kind of racial conspiracy.

In action after action, the district portrayed Petrilli as the principal who couldn't shoot straight. The jury heard that she muffed hiring practices, created tremendous staff turnover, went back on agreements, ignored special education students’ IEPs, demoted 4th graders on the first day of testing, jeopardized Reading First funding for 11 participating schools, advised staff members to do “illegal things,” and made changes with a level of intuitive caprice that damaged relationships with community partners and cut her off from those she would otherwise be leading.

But jurors also heard the story of school principals who got a kind of special evaluation that teachers could only dream of. No bad marks.

The district claims they "supported Peggy.” But it seems clear that what the district really did was enable Petrilli, by not using the evaluation system as it was intended; to motivate her to improve her performance in areas where she was relatively weak. It got to the point where district directors thought, "This is just one more thing Peggy has gotten us into."

In a May editorial following the long awaited release of the district’s investigation into BTWA, H-L regretted their praise of Petrilli and their belief in “miracle-working” principals.

H-L said,
“The most amazing thing about all this is how eager everyone was to be gulled, to believe that all it takes is the right principal for kids who have almost no advantages to suddenly knock the lid off standardized tests. People want to believe that because if all it takes is leadership, then schools don't need more money or teachers or days of instruction or better-trained teachers.”
True. But if that was a confession, it falls short.

No one was more eager to be gulled than the editorial board. H-L helped spread the news of the principal-as-savior and didn't want anyone to get in the way of the narrative. They wanted to print the legend.

H-L claims it has learned a lesson from setting Petrilli up on that pedestal. Now they are fighting to keep Silberman up there. That’s a mistake.

The truth is that Silberman is a zealous, hard-working leader. It’s not that he isn't deserving of praise for his dedication; he has fended off numerous entreaties to become education commissioner, but he should not be confused with a savior.

If the Herald-Leader wants to help the public improve the schools, perhaps they should tell the story of how difficult this work really is, and resist the temptation to join those who engage in politically-motivated easy speak that promises much while ignoring reality.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Day,

Isn't it true that the editor of the H-L, Tim Kelly, is on the executive board of the Fayette Education Foundation (Is this the correct name?) that Silberman started about four years ago? You are the first who has hinted at the peculiar alliance between the H-L and Silberman.

I remember when Stu Silberman first initiated this foundation. Employees felt so coerced into giving because they could not check their paycheck on-line without first deciding to give/ or not to give to the foundation. After a negative outcry, Stu immmediately wrote an email that said employees should feel no pressure to give.

It will be interesting to see if employees are evaluated differently as a result of the lawsuit.

Anonymous said...

There is one difference between the parents who wanted Petrelli out at Booker T. Washington and the teachers who want Silberman to resign:

The parents could not be retaliated against. Doesn't anyone find it peculiar that no complaints about Stu make it to the editorial page?

Anonymous said...

Are you asking the Herals-Leader to be objective? To report facts instead of opinions? To investigate rather than to repeat predetermined templates? We all know those days are gone. Reporting truth, complete story facts and investigations are now largely in the hands of the new media. Your coverage of the Petrilli suit is a perfect local example. My hat is off to you. Please keep up your good work while trying to keep the main street media honest. Maybe you will be to Stu what Rush is to Obama...a truth detector.

Anonymous said...

Many teachers never see Mr. Silberman in their schools. Stu is about publicity and photo-shots. Foregoing the salary raise was a publicity stunt. With a newspaper on his side, and Merlene Davis eating from his hand, he can do no wrong.

What Stu doesn't realize is that the teaching staff must be treated fairly; they must feel they will be supported when a parent goes on the warpath. They must feel they have a voice in education policy. They must be treated as professionals. They must feel they can teach the curriculum as they know best.

When he arrived at FCPS four years ago, Stu tried to rewrite history by insinuating that his predecessors were not child-friendly. Before Stu, the teachers were doing as they pleased and kids were neglected.

Stu was the iconic savior. He cleaned up the mess.

I have never bought this view. In fact, I have never bought into Stu.
It's not about kids; it's about Stu.

Anonymous said...


You on certainly on point with your analysis of the H-L's hypocrisy as reflected by the editorial. At least two Fayette County Public School asministrators testified under oath that they falsified Ms. Petrelli's formal performance evaluation. This is a violation of 16 KAR 1:020 (i.e., "...Shall not knowingly falsify or misrepresent records of facts relationg to the educator's own qualifications or those of other professionals...") Can we assume that the H-L has made a formal report to the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board regarding this matter?

Anonymous said...

I don't know school law, but could Petrelli's spotless evaluation really be considered a violation of 16 KAR? If so, who would bring teh case against the administrators who supposedly falsified records?

Anonymous said...

Bloggers make mistakes, and I goofed. Let me set the record straight: Silberman did not found the Fayette Education Foundation as I stated.

It was started in 2003, before he came. He is on the board, however, and so Herald-Leader editor Tim Kelly. Anyone desiring more information on this should go to:

Richard Day said...

Hi Y'all. Let's see...

* I think the Foundation is older than 2004 when Silberman arrived.

* Tim Kelly is on the board but so are a lot of people, including one of my absolute favorites Harvie Wilkinson. They support local efforts to close the achievement gap and raise students achievement. I hope we're all in favor of those things.

* I doubt the foundation has any particular connection - other than Kelly wants to support better schools. So do I. H-L has been a supporter of KERA from the git go. I suspect whatever alliance exists is philosophical.

* I am very interested in the principal evaluation issue. Surely Stu won't take his attorney's pat answer as the last word on this issue. There are potential legal issues and my advice to Stu would be to say out loud and in a hurry that FCPS is going to relook its practices. I'm not quite sure how a complaint would work but I assume someone with standing would have to complain to OEA/KDE/EPSB, who would investigate if regulations are not being followed. In this case, any citizen might have standing.

* I am not asking the editorial board to be objective. I am asking them to get their facts straight. I truly believe the news folks try to be objective. The problem is that sometimes junior reporters don't have the background to understand the complexities of some issues, and let's face it, the edujargon alone is daunting.

* I love compliments, but I do not aspire to Rush's brand of truth. He spins his hind end off. It's OK because it's political speech. But he's not objective either.

* Stunt or not, foregoing salary during a budget crunch was a good thing to do. I think Stu deserves credit for the good things he does and criticism only when he falls short.

* I spoke to Merlene's latest take here:

* I give any superintendent some leeway to set their vision and work their plan but I certainly think it's a mistake to discount those who are most responsible for our student achievement gains - the teachers. We're in the people business and students and teachers must be nurtured.

* You cannot assume H-L has reported anything beyond their own pages.

Thanks for the comments.

Anonymous said...

In regards to the comments poster 8/2 10:12pm made in reference to Stu. This is amazingly similar to our experience with Dr. Holliday. Just watch the video here on this blog of Dr. Holliday and you will see him belittle his predecessor and complain about the "mess" he inherited as if he had become our "savior". Check out the blog by one of your teachers that emailed 20 teachers in ISS and received 18 negative responses. Teachers in ISS felt they had no voice and were often chastised for speaking up, not just out, even when in a professional manner. I can't tell you how many times I heard the word, insubordination, thrown around when anyone simply tried to express another opinion. You will have your hands full. It may take a while for things to settle into this, but as much as Dr. Holliday talks about needing to be able to change, He probably won't take his own advice.

Anonymous said...

Stu's best move since arriving in Lexington was to hire an excellent H-L reporter to run his PR point. Master stroke!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Day,

Interesting comments today. First, I think Stu and Kelly are closer than you think. Their relationship is not as distant as say that of William Ayres and Barack Obama.

Second, please understand that you and Stu are not the only ones who want better schools. Each blogger in here wants that.

Although you have intimated that some bloggers are engaging in character assasination when they say things about Stu or Holliday, I think each contributor here wants what is best for the public schools.

Sadly and finally, I think you have failed to gauge the level of frustration those of us in the trenches feel when a Stu or a Holliday wants this reform or that but fails to give us the resources to accomplish our goals.

Anonymous said...

As commissioner of education, Dr. Holliday won't be able to dismiss or punish teachers due to insubordination or other so-called offenses.

What is ironic here is the fact that he will have had more power over individual staff members as superintendent.

Anonymous said...

Stu does try to intimidate school employees. I know a principal who was called to Stu's office for a "hand slap" after the principal made an innocent critical remark to his staff about a Board decision Stu had recommended. Stu told the principal he was disappointed in the principal, implying that the criticism of Stu's recommendation was not acceptable. The principal left Stu's office knowing opinions counter to Stu's opinions were not going to be ignored. Hindering free and open expression harms our schools. Leaders need to have thick skins and deal with honest criticism of their work.

Anonymous said...

In your efforts to be diplomatic, you label Dr. Silberman asa "zealous, hard-working leader."

What about his predecessors? Were they less so, in you view?

This is my problem with the "interpreted" history of leadership in Fayette County Schools. You agree that Dr. Silberman is no savior, but you seem to perpetuate the idea that his predecessors were somehow less dedicated.

Drs. Walton and Potts were excellent superintendents who stood by their staff. Dr. Fankhouser, another target of minority parents and a distasteful smear campaign, was instrumental in ridding the school district of problematic principals Dr. Jerome Johnson and Vergil Covington.

With these superintendents, I always felt that they did what was right in a quiet manner, avoiding the flashy glitz of our current leader. If there is such a thing as a "populist" superintendent, Dr. Silberman wins the prize.

Anonymous said...

School reform cannot work unless parents are part of the equation.

True, the FCPS data suggests we are teaching lower income students to write, read, and do the math necessary to pass proficiency tests. I would say, though, that E.D. Hirsch is still correct when he says most reformers espouse a content-neutral curriculum that snarls at anything that comes close to rote learning and shows a disdain for for the accumulation of facts and cultural knowledge.

Although my Kentucky high school students are indeed better writers and math-test takers (with calculators), many do not have their multiplication facts memorized. Fewer still can identify a subject, verb, and direct object. Only about 50% of them know what the First Amendment states. Teaching cultural literacy is important....I think we are neglecting that today.

Richard Day said...


* Yes, Lisa Deffendall brings a lot of expertise to the job. She was great to work with when we were each on opposite sides of the desk as well.

* Stu and Tim Kelly could indeed be closer than I am aware of.

* My mention of character assassination was only related to efforts to go after Holliday's family as a way to get at Holliday. I'm just not going there. Otherwise, feel free to criticize. I just hope comments add some value to the discussions.

* ...and I do appreciate the frustrations associated with insufficient resources. Ask around. I didn't wait to retire before speaking out on those issues. What used to tick me off was when some district program acted to prevent us from reaching our goals.

* Yes...the commissioners job is very different from the superintendency.

* There of lots of "tough superintendent" stories. It kinda goes with the territory.

* Less zealous...yes, until you get back to Potts. But that was a different time. He was certainly equal in toughness and history will probably recall him as the second most important superintendent in Fayette Co history (behnd Cassidy)...depending on what Silberman does from here. Hard working? Others have been hard working as well.

* I always enjoyed working with Walton, who brought me to Lexington - the first "outsider" in 25 years.

* I supported Fankhauser for superintendent and she didn't deserve everything she got, but she was ultimately a disappointment. She took some very bad advice and damaged school administration in the county.

* In the end historians will judge by results - more access to higher levels of closing.

* When parents and teachers work together for kids...there's nothing more powerful.

* Hirsch has some good points but he's ultimately pushing an idea about cultural identity that is suspect. He got better once he was reminded that there was more than one culture. I think cultural knowledge is very important since that's how we identify as people and find meaning. Culturally responsive teaching is a helpful notion for gap closing since it is about respect for people. But it is many different cultures that form our nation and Hirsch is at his best when he recognizes that.

Anonymous said...

I do not think historians will view the superintendentship of Silberman as anything more than clever P.R. and teaching to the test.

Mr. Silberman reminds me of my former boss at EKU, Bob Kustra. Another huckster. Both had dictatorial tendencies; both loved the microphone.

As an aside, a neighbor's son once questioned the exaggerated emphasis on testing at his school and was treated in a very condescending manner by the principal when he met with him. When the poor kid made it to an "audience" with Stu, my neighbor reported his son received some pretty lame explanations for all the "scrimmage testing" after the superintendent had recovered from the initial shock of being challenged by a rather mature 8th grader.

Richard Day said...

You may be right. But I don't think it will come down to PR for historians. Silberman would have to return FCPS to where Potts had it - the flagship district in the state. Much to be done.

Anonymous said...

And much respect to be earn from a disillusioned, disheartened staff shellshocked by scrimmage tests and common assessments.

Steve Hyndman said...


Great coverage of the Silberman-Petrilli trial. I think it's very unfortunate the judge reduced this to a question of whether or not Peggy quit.

Seems the message here is, "employers, go ahead and do whatever you want to your employees. In the end all you have to do is convince a jury they quit their job and nothing else prior to that matters."

I have a feeling that isn't going to stand-up on appeal and the tax payers are going to be paying a lot more money to defend poor leadership.

Anyway...just my opinion

On another note, you really should consider moving your blog off Blogger and to a self-hosted site so that it is available in schools throughout the state. It's a shame there is so much great KY school related info here that can't be viewed on the vast majority of school computers in the State.

If you're ever interested in doing that and want some input on ways to go about it, just let me know.


Richard Day said...

Thanks Steve,

Good to hear from you. Hope all is well @ Gtown.

I was surprised by Jury Question #1 myself and thought it shifted the deliberations pretty strongly in the district's favor, but I'm not lawyer-enough to know how they would argue that on appeal. I'll have to study up on that.

When the question was argued in court, jurors were arriving for the morning session, so the judge brought the attorney's forward and turned on that "white noise" machine and we couldn't hear the arguments. ...other than the two quotes I caught beforehand:

Ishmael: If the jury decides she voluntarily resigned, knowing her options, how is that not a waiver of any claims?


Golden: Petrilli had no bargaining power...If you're not the person holding the gun, you don't waive anything.

And if Golden's argument prevails I suppose that would mean ...what...a whole new trial?

I thought the number of motions in this case (and therefore much of the cost) was staggering. Maybe it's this way all the time, but I could sure see a bunch of billable hours going into this case.

I have been thinking more and more about moving. Blogger has the great benefit of being free but I understand from my limited inquiries that my content can be captured and moved. And I don't want to lose any content.

I have been running into some very strange unexplained blog behavior too. It goes like this: Somebody will send a comment and I won't get it on the blog or in my email. That same week, the blog data fails to transfer to BNN and I will lose my ranking. Strange...viral/trojan-type stuff...very frustrating.

I'm working on another web-based idea, and if it comes to fruition, I may well combine both on a new platform. ...and I could use some techy advice.


Steve Hyndman said...

Ishmael: If the jury decides she voluntarily resigned, knowing her options, how is that not a waiver of any claims?

I simply don't understand his logic. Following that logic, if a person is subjected to racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, or simple baseball bat beatings from their boss, and they quit, then they waiver any claims...give me a break.

And while I'm the last person to want to spend more of our tax dollars, I do hope she wins her appeal and gets a new trial and the jury is actually allowed to rule on the case.

Let me know if you need any assistance with the site move.


Anonymous said...

When evaluating Fayette County superintendents over the past 50 years, one should study their top assistants. Potts, for example, generally had highly competent, loyal assistants that worked well with Potts. Since Potts, the superintendents have had less success at employing effective assistants. For example, Walton quickly ran off Pete Royse who would have served him well in finance, a Walton weak area. Flynn had several weak assistants who served him poorly, as did Fankhauser. Stu's appointments have been a mixed bag so far. For example, the middle school director position has been difficult for him to get the right fit.

Anonymous said...

I am so pleased that faculty at local colleges are able to sign their names. Can you imagine an FCPS employee actually criticizing Mr. Silberman on this blog? We know he certainly must be reading these pages.

I, too, hope Peggy wins her appeal.

Richard Day said...

I don't know, Steve, but it seemed to me that the judge put a whole lot of weight on the fact that Peggy was represented by counsel.

As for assistants...I've been reading a whole lot on the history of education in Kentucky over the past decade or so and can't remember one famous assistant superintendent. While I can see your point, it doesn't tend to work that way in the history books.

Also, where did you hear that Walton ran Royse off? I always thought Pete took one long look at the budget - and how much of his life he was going to have to give up to fix it - and headed for home.

Anonymous said...

I have canceled my subscription to the Herald Leader as I refuse to support a paper that does not fully represent BOTH sides to an issue and chooses to be selective in their reporting.

It is not about kids here in Fayette County. At the helm is a strong politico who truly believes in the end justifies the means! It is all about Stu ... do NOT cross him or you are gone!

Ms. Petrilli was an outstanding, passionate principal who truly had children's interests always in the forefront of any decision. She was valued as a maverick in this respect until she made some parents angry ... then Stu and others (who didn't want her to succeed in the first place) turned on her.

The sad thing is that the children and schools of Fayette County are made to suffer for this travesty.

Appeal, Ms. Petrilli, for all of those who KNOW the truth.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the reader above, but I will not cancel my subscription to the newspaper. As a matter of fact, I want to have a copy handy when Silberman resigns. I do appreciate the fact that so many like-minded Kentuckians (like the reader above) know what Stu did to Mrs. Petrelli.

If Petrelli had been breaking laws, it should have been reported to Frankfort. If she had been a bad principal whom Stu always needed to rescue, then common sense would have dictated she receive a corrective action plan or a negative evaluation.

As Mr. Day suggested, someone at Central Office falsified records. Which one of us will file a citizen's complaint to the Kentucky Department of Education? And, can the complaint be filed anonomously?

Anonymous said...

Why is it that the blogs that pertain to Silberman get the most hits and the most commentary?

I think the truth is that most of the readers, or those who choose to comment, must be from Fayette County.

Let's get the word out that this blog is for all educators in Kentucky!