Purnell’s Letter to Griffin

There’s a whole kerfuffle over a letter circulating via e-mail, allegedly written by Charlottesville Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Laura Purnell, as James Fernald and Josh Barney report in today’s Progress. Purnell wrote a nasty criticism of beleaguered Charlottesville Superintendent Scottie Griffin, and ended up writing a letter of apology to Griffin. Griffin released the letter of apology publicly, but would not release the letter that made the apology necessary. To that end, keep reading to see the original letter in question, thanks to pseudonymous submitter “DumpHer.”

February 3, 2005

Dear Dr. Griffin:

This letter is in response to the memorandum that you directed Mrs. Ivory to write yesterday on your behalf and intend to give to me, detailing your expectations for my work with the school improvement process and your perception that there is a lack of evidence that I am doing the work that I was hired to do related to improving student achievement for all students. Had you taken the opportunity to discuss the Academic Review Process with me, the two lead reviewers from the VDOE, any of the trained, division level academic review team members, or the administrators of the schools in review, you would understand that the Academic Review Process is intended to be informative and not punitive. Your intention to reprimand me by linking the Areas of Improvement outlined in the Clark Academic Review Summary directly to my performance is quite punitive and conflicts with the spirit and intent of the process. Although I am tempted to try and defend the type, quality and quantity of work that I have done since arriving in Charlottesville on September 18, I choose instead to let my work and professional presence in our community speak for itself.

I can no longer be supportive of your leadership in this division and can no longer behave in a manner that suggests to the staff in the Charlottesville City Schools, the youth that we are here to serve, and the greater community, that everything is as it should be. Many present the argument that current unrest is in response to your leadership style and the reform efforts that you are attempting. Others assert that the problems exist because of race. I have a different view. As you know through my background and experiences, I have learned to view my work through a critical race lens. Most of my professional work and volunteering have been done in urban settings in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. I have served under many Black supervisors, on predominately Black non-profit Boards, with numerous urban, faith-based organizations, and at one point in my career was the only white administrator at my level in the East Cleveland City Schools. I also understand and teach “between and within group differences,” cultural differences, modern racism and internalized oppression. From my point of view, one can never take race out of the picture. However, there are many more dynamics than race influencing teaching and learning in our city schools. The purpose of this letter is to let you know that from my perspective the decisions that you are making and the behaviors that you exhibit as our Superintendent, are significant barriers to the success of our efforts to close the achievement gap and to provide excellent educational experiences for all students. It is my intent to make public the four following concerns that I have consistently experienced in the last five months.

Your behavior to members of the administrative team, support staff, Board and community members can be described as bullying. Within my first two weeks here in Charlottesville, you were so verbally abusive to me that I contemplated not signing my contract. You probably recall that I told you I doubted the decision I made to work for you and that in my 25 year career I had never experienced this type of unprofessional behavior. With pointed fingers, your response to me was patronizing and you indicated that you did not have time to hold my hand during these chaotic times. Your behavior changed following this early confrontation. In public sessions and during small team meetings, you have marginalized me, interrupted me, excluded me, and at one time directed Mrs. Ivory to hang up on me. Perhaps the most disturbing form of marginalizing has been your directive to me that I run all of my ideas and written work past Mr. Miles, Mr. Thompson, and/or Mrs. Ivory. A bully operates in ways that cause people to fear him or her. You frequently make public comments about firing people who are not supportive of you. My anger now overrides my fears of being fired. I am willing to take the risk of responding to you in this manner even though my husband is retiring next month, we are selling our home in Ohio, we have two children in college, and will be closing on a house in Crozet on April 1.

As a leader you are extremely controlling, offering the Associate Superintendent, Assistant Superintendents, Directors, Coordinators and school level administrators absolutely no professional autonomy. I was not given the opportunity to interview and choose my own secretary. You made that appointment in early October without my input. You give orders, dictate letters, rewrite memos and constantly direct central office administrators to do work that often interferes with the work that we are expected to do. In many instances, we are told what to do and how to do it. For example, I have been asked by you dozens of times to put interventions in place at the schools, to spend time researching programs such as FOSS, PLATO, Remediation Plus, I Can Learn, and many others. On numerous occasions I have told you that we need to focus on processes, procedures and practices rather than specific programs, and you have dismissed me each time. It is my perception that you are influenced by vendors and that you frequently make hasty decisions without much information. It is insulting and a waste of time to sit with a Superintendent who tells me how to write, what to do, and what to say.

I have not been supported in my attempts to do the work that I am capable of doing and am being held responsible for doing. In mid-October I presented you with a plan for using content-advocates as a means of on-going, sustained professional development and I was dismissed. In late October I requested the opportunity to work collaboratively with several schools on work associated with closing the achievement gap and culturally responsive teaching. I was directed by you that I was not to be involved in professional development, especially work related to diversity and culturally responsive teaching and leading. In order to do the work that the principals and I felt needed to be done, I facilitated workshops on the division wide staff development day at Buford and at CHS by indicating that the work would focus on data analysis. Actually, the work that needed to be done focused on seven pre-requisite skills to effectively and appropriately using data to close the achievement gap. I have successfully done this type of work in Ohio and North Carolina, as well as with professional organizations such as the National Council of Exceptional Children, NCATE, the Eastern Educational Research Association, and in partnership with ASCD in South Africa. In November, I shared a draft professional development plan with you which you dismissed. In December you directed me to significantly reduce my proposed role in professional development in a collaborative project with UVA. Perhaps the most significant lack of support is in the area of reading instruction and benchmark testing. You have dismissed recommendations made by Mrs. Ivory and me related to the administration of PALS and the implementation of Open Court. You have also made it impossible for principals and staff to share concerns and observations about the relationship of Flanagan tests and the SOLs.

Finally, I need to let you know of my anger and frustration with your lack of collaboration at the central office level and with your administrative team. The ideals of working with a professional learning community, of collaboration, and in the spirit of teamwork that you described during my interview and, that is alluded to in my contract, are not at all typical of the way that this system currently functions. This lack of collaboration has resulted in many poor and potentially expensive decisions. I do not support parts of the proposed budget due to lack of collaboration and communication. For example, the central office team has made it clear to you that we do not support both an ELA coordinator and a literacy coordinator. It was your decision to propose a full-time Fine & Performing Arts Coordinator in an attempt to hire someone new. There was no input solicited of the Associate and Assistant Superintendents regarding the pay raise and change in title for the Supervisor of Testing. I have repeatedly informed you that there is not currently a need to purchase additional hands-on science and elementary level reading materials, and my feedback has been dismissed. Furthermore, you are misleading the community by indicating that the schools have input into the proposed math and reading interventions. For example, Dr. Heard and I attended a meeting with you and two I Can Learn vendors last fall. At that time you indicated that we will do this algebra program beginning second semester and you directed your two central office team members not to tell Mr. Flynn that the decision had already been made. The trip that the Buford math team made to Washington DC to observe this math intervention was an attempt to make it appear that there was staff in-put and buy-in to this program. We are now aware that the FBI is currently investigating this vendor. Under your leadership and direction, I have often struggled with my own integrity in order to not appear insubordinate.

The Charlottesville community has the right and responsibility to hold their school administrators and staff to high standards. The community also has the right to know what has been going on behind the scenes. In my opinion, it is disturbing that you are attempting to influence the Black community by perpetuating the myth that you are a victim of racism.

Ironically, Dr. Joseph Johnson is scheduled to be the key-note speaker at an upcoming Title I technical conference in Richmond. It was my privilege to work with Dr. Johnson in Ohio. Dr. Johnson served as a professional reference for me last spring, writing, “Dr. Purnell’s background as a principal and district administrator gives her a practical perspective-yet she is very conversant with research and literature related to achievement gap issues.” (Joseph F. Johnson, Jr. Ph.D., Special Assistant to the State Superintendent, Ohio Department of Education.) Dr. Johnson espouses that closing the achievement gap is a moral, legal and economic imperative for all of us and that communities must work collaboratively to address this complex social issue. We can no longer afford to alienate staff of the Charlottesville City Schools, community-wide social service agencies, our colleagues at the University of Virginia, civic organizations, and the parents who send their children to our public schools.

It is my intention to send this letter via email today to School Board members.

Laura Purnell, Ph.D.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction
Charlottesville City Schools

24 Responses to “Purnell’s Letter to Griffin”

Comments are currently closed.