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Posted at 2:58 PM ET, 02/ 3/2011

The mess in Arlington schools (and how to fix it)

By Valerie Strauss

The abrupt resignation of an Arlington middle school principal and the detailed letter she released explaining her grievances with the district’s superintendent has left the system in a mess -- and nobody is looking especially good at the moment.

Williamsburg Middle School Principal Kathy Francis stunned her community this week with her 1,700-word letter that accuses Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy of creating a hostile work environment.

Further, she wrote, Murphy stopped her for two years from dismissing an employee, whom she did not name but did call not only “incompetent” but “a safety concern.” The person was, she said, finally transferred to another Arlington school.

Neither side has acquitted them well in this episode so far.

The excruciating detail that Francis revealed in her letter was unnecessary, but beyond that, her description of the transferred employee as a “safety concern” raised a number of issues that she failed to address. And, so far, neither has the superintendent.

Both of them have been unfair to the public by refusing to publicly explain what happened. Some parents are imaging worst-case scenarios about exactly what the safety concern was with this employee.

District officials should find some way to explain what happened and reassure the public that nothing inappropriate has taken place. If there is something questionable about what happened, an investigation should be undertaken by the School Board.

Until this addressed, the mess isn’t likely to go away.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 3, 2011; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  Educational leadership, Middle School  | Tags:  arlington public schools, arlington schools, kathy francis, patrick k. murphy, principal fired, principal letter; arlington schools, principal quits, supt. murphy, williamsburg middle school  
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Comments

Re: the individual in question. If it is indeed Dr. W, as has been reported on comments in another post, I would be willing to testify under oath that this individual verbally and emotionally abused my child while he/she was in 6th and 7th grade.

Posted by: skaneateles1 | February 3, 2011 4:50 PM | Report abuse

I do not live in Arlington, but I read both letters. It sounded to me as if the principal resigned for ethical reasons. She gave the details, not because she was "angry", but because she felt that something should be done about that individual, for the sake of the school/kids. Instead, she was treated badly. It sounded as if it just got worse and worse.

I do not know the situation, but I thought the principal had the stronger case, given that she did give details. I thought it less professional of the district leadership to call her "angry" publicly.

That was how it came across to me.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | February 3, 2011 7:39 PM | Report abuse

There is a challenge in that employment law (not union law - this is true for non-union and union employees alike) is such that a subordinate can say anything they want about someone they work for, but an employer can be sued for libel pretty easily. It does make situations like this just that much more challenging.

Posted by: chrislehmann | February 3, 2011 8:39 PM | Report abuse

I believe that the negative PR that Arlington Public Schools is experiencing is self inflicted and is due to the poor leadership by the Arlington School Board and Superintendent Patrick Murphy.

APS is clearly lacking a process so that teachers, parents and staff can have a true voice in the educational process. From my own experience Superintendent Murphy doesn’t like confrontation or dissent. He is quick to shut down difficult conversations and acts like a bully.

People that don't feel they are getting a fair shake usually turn to the media (or listserves) to level out the power playing field. I think that is what is in play and hope that parents will demand changes from the school board. APS should get an ombudsman and develop a strong and fair arbitration system.

Regardless of whether the Ms. Francis is right or wrong, she deserves a venue for discussing her issues and parents deserve to know the truth. The APS system is broken and needs to be changed.

School Board Member Abby Raphael was quick to support the Superintendent without having an independent opinion in order to help her get to the truth. Shame on her! I’ve seen Abby do this on another occasion, coming to conclusions without hearing the supporting evidence. She so wants to believe in Dr. Murphy.

I agree that the School Board made a bad choice with Dr. Murphy, but they hired him and seem to be blinded by his glaring faults. I have yet to see Dr. Murphy answer a question at any parent chat or meeting. He is quick to reply he needs to “manage expectations” yet he has yet to ask what our expectations are and how he plans to meet them.

Posted by: Perry9337 | February 3, 2011 8:59 PM | Report abuse

There was a situation very similar to this one in the school district where I worked for many years. The superintendent had been bullying his principals for years, threatening them constantly with dismissal, but no one said anything. Teachers were unaware of the situation. Finally one principal had enough abuse and announced her retirement, but in doing so she wrote a letter to the board explaining why. The Board of Education asked for an immediate investigation and requested a private meeting with each principal. We found out later that every administrator supported the allegations of their colleague.

The superintendent was fired as a result but quickly got a job in another district. When this district found out about his former job, though, they dismissed him also. This time he made the papers and that should have been the end of his career, but it wasn't.

In coming forth with her complaints, Ms. Francis has probably saved a lot of people from misery. Good for her!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 3, 2011 10:44 PM | Report abuse

Mrs. Strauss,
Take a whiff of what is going on just southeast of Arlington, in Alexandria, Virginia. There are many issues in that district worth examining. The blog ACPS Underground is comically beginning to address some of these unsettling problems. Worth a look and a writing.

Posted by: learytimf | February 3, 2011 10:53 PM | Report abuse

Another way to fix the mess is NOT to vote for Abby Raphael, current school board member and to get someone to run against her.

The Feb 3 issue of the Arlington Sun Gazette said that Raphael pointed to the hiring of Superintendent Patrick Murphy (“an outstanding leader”) as among the highlights of her first three years in office.

The deadline for filing to run in the Arlington Democrats’ endorsement caucus is March 1, and if there is a field of more than one candidate, caucus voting will be held on May 12 and 14. If not, the caucus will be canceled and there will be an up-or-down vote on whether to endorse Raphael.

Let's get a competent person to run against Raphael. She along with the current board should pay the price for their poor judgement in not only hiring Murphy but in giving him unconditional support. They are running APS into the ground.

Posted by: Perry9337 | February 3, 2011 11:16 PM | Report abuse

"Some parents are imaging worst-case..."

This should be 'imagining.' Please raise your standards. These types of errors occur all too often in the WaPo online. Truly sad when they happen in the education section.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | February 4, 2011 7:39 AM | Report abuse

Another screwed up public school, this is kind of a "dog bites man" story, isn't it?

We pour more money into primary school education than any other nation on earth and all we get are poor results and soap opera nonsense like this.

Pathetic.

Posted by: NoDonkey | February 4, 2011 9:14 AM | Report abuse

As a former employees of APS, I would caution folks from jumping to conclusions to quickly. There is much more to this story than is being publicized, and I only hope that it all comes out in the investigation. Dr. Murphy is indeed a poor leader in many ways, and I am greatly disappointed that he is leading APS. In my own experience, I found him harsh, uncaring, and dictatorial. That being said, I must honestly say that he acted appropriately in this situation. As a form APS employee with first-hand knowledge of Ms. Francis and the employee referenced in the letter, her allegations are unfounded. Given the situation with this particularly employee and many many others who work at WMS, he responded appropriately. He may not have handled it well, but his decisions regarding Ms. Francis were appropriate. I suspect this will be revealed in both investigations. The issues involving Ms. Francis have been continually before the school board for two years now, and that is the reason they can offer support so quickly. Ms. Francis even admits that Dr. Murphy attributed her evaluation to her poor management, even after she goes to great lengths to attribut it to test scores. Please hold off on judgement until all facts are revealed. I think many people will be eventually be shocked if and when all the facts are on the table.

Posted by: FormerEmployee | February 4, 2011 5:58 PM | Report abuse


I just wish to comment on a recent article from the Alexandria Gazette Packet newspaper. In the article it spoke of Dr. Sherman’s disdain for teachers and his “my way or hit the highway” attitude. Well, I know all too well what that meeting must have felt like because the teachers at Cora Kelly Elementary school experience exactly the same. In a recent staff meeting the principal, Brandon Davis, gave the teachers at the meeting precisely the same ultimatum. After a heated exchange with a teacher during the meeting he said, “If you don’t like the way I do things at this school then you need to find another school or school district.” We sat there horrified as he berated and threatened to seek and destroy the 20% of teachers that have what he labeled a “Pre Davis Mentality.” Too many times we have witnessed his erratic and highly emotional behavior that he uses to intimidate and bully faculty and staff members. It appears these tactics have the blessings from the superintendent, Dr. Sherman, since Mr. Davis constantly reminds us that he and Dr. Sherman are in complete agreement on how Mr. Davis manages his staff. The tension and hostile working conditions at Cora Kelly are almost unbearable. The wariness is further exacerbated by the assistant principal, Timothy Grasso, who mimics Brandon‘s dictatorship management style. One only needs to enter the main office and view the unfriendly, stressed out expressions on the faces on the support staff to understand the tone set by the administrators. Yes, Cora Kelly does have its unique share of problems among elementary schools in Alexandria. The school must currently adhere to a strict set of guidelines under a “school improvement plan.” This is the second year that the school has failed to meet its “Adequate Yearly Progress”(AYP) as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. I completely agree that the entire faculty, staff, and community should be held accountable for the success of each student. I do; however, disagree with the bullying, and intentional abuse of power as demonstrated by Messieurs Sherman and Davis. Teaches at Cora Kelly are frightened to speak out, and fear of retribution is real and has been experienced by those few brave individuals who have complained.
By Anonymous on Some questions just have to be asked... at 5:03 PM

Posted by: bradfartner | February 4, 2011 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Yup...hired thugs and very well paid hired thugs at that...the superintendent and his lackies,of course. I'm not talking about the teachers or this principal. I believe her because I've seen this happen to teachers/principals as observed by myself..a parent. This 'my way or the highway' attitude is just another intimidation tactic..he's a control freak..some teachers like that because some teachers are control freaks and admire this trait...I applaud this principal .. and I agree that for the school district to state that she was 'angry' gives you insight into the condescending role they have played in the past, so for what it's worth, I'd bet on the principals word and her concerns for the schools future and its superintendent. Parents of this school district should 'DEMAND' a sound explanation...and stand pat until they get one.

Posted by: jessica221 | February 5, 2011 5:09 AM | Report abuse

Dr. Murphy is a bully who manipulates and intimidates his administrators on a daily basis. He has run a number of quality administrators out of the district already because they chose not to stay and put up with his abuse. Like any bully, he puts on a face of innocence for the public, but he is in reality a cruel, vindictive, insecure man with the conscience of a 6th grade school yard bully.

Dr. Murphy has aligned himself with Dr. Elizabeth Hobbs, who herself has a long track record of victimizing personnel and leaving a trail of ruined careers in her wake. Other administrators close to him are avoiding him at all costs and trying to survive in the hopes he will not last long. Others will be leaving this year as a result of his ruthless mistreatment.

This is why Kathy Francis needed to publicly state her reasons for leaving. We who are serving within APS are grateful that she has called this to the public's attention. While the APS investigation will be a farce, the EEOC investigation is going to blow this wide open.

Posted by: pauldebono70 | February 9, 2011 6:11 PM | Report abuse

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