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,
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.