(Updated at 6:05 p.m.) Williamsburg Middle School Principal Kathleen Francis says she will be resigning in March due to “the untenable and hostile work environment created by Superintendent [Patrick] Murphy.”
In a lengthy email to parents, Francis detailed what she describes as a “long struggle” to resolve a personnel matter with Dr. Murphy. Francis said her efforts, which allegedly upset Dr. Murphy, resulted in “an ongoing series of actions to harass me and mischaracterize my performance and professional reputation.”
Francis defended her record and said she went so far as to file a discrimination complaint.
“The continuing misconduct reached such a level that I was forced to file formal age and gender discrimination complaints,” she said. “In apparent retaliation for my filing these actions, the Superintendent confirmed his threat to place me on a formal Performance Improvement Plan.”
Francis concluded by insisting that she’s not alone in her displeasure with Dr. Murphy’s leadership.
“My situation with the new Superintendent is not an isolated incident,” she wrote. “It is merely representative of a larger problem in the Arlington Public Schools.”
Dr. Murphy was appointed superintendent of Arlington Public Schools in April 2009. We are awaiting comment from the school system.
Dear Parents and WMS Community,
Below for your information is an Open Letter to the Williamsburg Community that explains the reasons behind my decision to leave Arlington Public Schools in March.
Williamsburg Middle School
3600 North Harrison Street, Arlington, Virginia 22207 Phone: 703-228-5450
Kathleen Francis, Principal
Open Letter to Williamsburg Middle School Community
February 1, 2011
Williamsburg is an outstanding school with wonderful students and a dedicated staff. I’m proud to have served as part of this community for 18 years and hopefully contributed to its educational excellence. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I inform you I am resigning as Principal and will be leaving WMS in March. I do this recognizing the regrettable disruption this may create. However, it is unavoidable because of the untenable and hostile work environment created by Superintendent Murphy for me and Arlington Public Schools.
At this point, it is unproductive to dwell on all the details of the difficult year long struggle that has precipitated this decision. However, since you may be impacted by this disruption, you deserve to know some of the reasons. In summary, Dr. Murphy, and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Hobbs acting at his direction, has engaged in an ongoing series of actions to harass me and mischaracterize my performance and professional reputation in the hopes of encouraging my departure from APS. These actions were taken in response to my fulfilling my responsibilities to ensure a safe learning environment at WMS and requesting that the Superintendent and Central Office take action on a longstanding and serious personnel situation at Williamsburg. That situation involved an individual with a well-documented, multiple year record of non-performance and who was extremely disruptive to the educational environment of the school. Dr. Murphy refused to act and made it clear that he was concerned about the “perceptions” around such actions and, therefore, did not want difficult personnel matters brought to the Central Office. Following his directive, I fully utilized the limited school-based tools at my disposal, but the situation worsened. When the individual’s behavior became more disruptive, I again requested that Dr. Murphy take action consistent with APS policies. The Superintendent refused to exercise his responsibilities and expressed displeasure at me for bringing it to his attention. Nonetheless, when the situation became a potential safety concern, in the interests of the students and staff, I was obliged to persist in requesting Central Office action. After many months, I finally prevailed and forced action. Although there was overwhelming documentation for removal, the individual was transferred to another school.
In my mind, this resolution should have been the end of the matter. However, as a direct result of my requesting Central Office action on this personnel matter, Superintendent Murphy’s attitude toward me and the WMS leadership team changed dramatically. He became adversarial and initiated steps designed to discredit the academic achievements at WMS, my professional performance and reputation, and force my removal from my position. Some of these actions constitute impermissible discrimination.
One act came in the form of an Unsatisfactory performance appraisal for the 2009-2010 school year despite my meeting all of the APS performance criteria. Prior to this incident, I had received Satisfactory performance evaluations from a range of supervisors and Superintendents for the entire three decades of my service to APS as a teacher and administrator. Nonetheless, in August, Dr. Murphy informed me that that the educational progress at WMS had suddenly become unacceptable and that my leadership of the school was unsatisfactory. In pertinent part, Dr. Murphy’s evaluation states that, Ms. Francis’ leadership has “not moved the school and the students to an overall higher level of performance.” I know we aren’t perfect at WMS, but I think we do darn well and are always striving for improvement. I know we aren’t “unsatisfactory.” Therefore, this allegation mischaracterizes the hard-earned performance of WMS students, insults the exceptional efforts of the WMS teachers and staff, and discounts the superior support of the WMS parents and community. I strongly objected to Dr. Murphy’s description of WMS performance and provided him with extensive evidence of superior student accomplishments; how all the requirements in my performance standards had been achieved; and, the documented success of WMS on the Standards of Learning tests. In fact, during the 2009-2010 school year, WMS’ achievements on the SOL tests were exceptional, and our initiatives produced the best improvement in student subpopulation performance and surpassed Dr. Murphy’s expectations of 4-year growth in only one year. Although he was unable to contradict the factual evidence, he said the Unsatisfactory performance appraisal would stand. I was advised that it would be best to just go along with his plans. He discussed his belief that the most important characteristic in his staff was personal loyalty to him and agreement with his desires, and that I had failed that standard in pushing for resolution of the personnel matter.
An Unsatisfactory rating is a precursor to a dismissal action. More broadly, I’m aware that such an attitude toward WMS by the Superintendent can adversely impact employee morale and school performance. Therefore, I formally requested reconsideration. As part of that request, I pointed out that schools with lower performance against the APS rating criteria had not been similarly adversely evaluated. Dr. Murphy responded that didn’t matter because he wasn’t bound by the written criteria and could use any basis he wanted for the rating. He dismissed my claim that ignoring the evidence constituted discrimination and made it clear that he was not interested in compromise, arbitration or re-establishing a collaborative working relationship. I told Dr. Murphy that to protect my professional reputation (and the reputation of the WMS staff and community) and future employment prospects, I was obligated to seek redress. However, I learned that, in violation of basic due process, School Board Policies allow no appeal to a neutral party for principals from such an unfair evaluation. This allows the Superintendent to utilize the performance appraisal process for professional bullying of subordinates while cloaked in anonymity.
Disappointed, I nonetheless focused my energy and attention on the responsibilities of running the largest middle school in Arlington County and complying with every request from the Superintendent. However, Dr. Murphy and Dr. Hobbs have made it clear to me they want me to retire despite my commitment to WMS and my plans to work longer to complete the excellent initiatives we have launched. Since September, I have been subjected to further baseless and demanding actions. These include requirements for excessive reporting and innumerable meetings to monitor my performance; violations of APS confidentiality policy by revealing personnel information to unauthorized parties; and discriminatory discussions of my hoped for premature retirement. The latter even included an announcement at a meeting of all APS leadership staff that Dr Hobbs and I had been discussing my retirement. Since I had previously informed both Dr. Murphy and Dr. Hobbs that I had no plans for retirement, this was an attempt to undermine my leadership effectiveness by making me appear to be a lame duck to my peers.
The continuing misconduct reached such a level that I was forced to file formal age and gender discrimination complaints with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Council and the Arlington School Board. In apparent retaliation for my filing these actions, the Superintendent confirmed his threat to place me on a formal Performance Improvement Plan. This would impose enormous additional micro-management of school activities and endless information generation on top of an already demanding work load.
I am confident that if I pursued these claims through the APS and federal procedural and litigation processes, I would prevail based on the facts. Yet, this could take years. I am willing to invest the effort in seeking justice and modeling persistence in defense of my personal reputation. However, my professional responsibilities to put the WMS students first will not allow me to let this unnecessary and corrosive situation to drag on indefinitely. Beyond the personal stress, it is a major distraction from our core educational purpose to have to constantly defend WMS to a Superintendent who should be aware of its outstanding achievements and educational environment. We have exciting initiatives at WMS that I hate to abandon. But, it is ultimately unproductive for the school to have a principal the Superintendent does not want and will not support.
I appreciate the support I have received during this difficult time from my colleagues. On their behalf, I must note that my situation with the new Superintendent is not an isolated incident. It is merely representative of a larger problem in the Arlington Public Schools. In conversations with my school-based and Central Office colleagues, it is clear there is a widespread concern in Dr. Murphy’s leadership. In his short tenure, he has created an environment of distrust between himself and many of the leadership staff. Rather than building a spirit of teamwork in pursuit of further educational excellence, he has created a divisive and blame-seeking environment. Some of these outstanding educators are dispirited; others are angry; some have been cowed into silence. Unfortunately, a number of individuals are considering premature retirement or are seeking employment opportunities outside the system. Some have already departed because they didn’t wish to work in an environment where they are neither valued nor supported. This is not a case of legitimate professional disagreements on APS direction, means and priorities. While it is hoped that a Superintendent would sincerely seek the input and experience of the leaders on important educational matters, it is the prerogative of the School Board’s appointee to set his own course and for the career staff to try and implement it. Rather, this unfortunate situation is the result of his treatment of those who work for him and disrespect for the opinions of others. It reflects his belief that any disagreement with his ideas is not acceptable professional discourse, but rather personal disloyalty. I have not seen a comparably hostile atmosphere in my three decades of service to Arlington Public Schools. It is contrary to the professional and collaborative approach that has made APS one of the top school systems in the country. I am not alone in this opinion.
In conclusion, I wish to thank you for your personal support during my tenure at WMS. It is gratifying and appreciated. More importantly, thank you for your contributions to the Williamsburg educational community. Our students have benefitted enormously. I will miss you all. You have my best wishes and will be in my prayers.
Arlington Public Schools superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy is responding to a lengthy resignation letter sent to Williamsburg Middle School parents by the school’s principal. The letter, first reported by ARLnow.com, accused Dr. Murphy of harassment and discrimination.
Dr. Murphy’s letter to parents toned back some of the language used by the school system last night, when officials described the letter as “regrettable,” “unfortunate” and “very angry” in a statement to the Washington Post.
“We will continue to respond with a high level of professionalism and cannot discuss Ms. Francis’s actions now or in the future,” Dr. Murphy wrote. “However, we deny that there has been any discrimination.”
APS School Talk – A Letter to the Williamsburg Community
February 2, 2011
Dear Williamsburg Parents:
By now we know that you have heard that Ms. Francis has chosen to resign her position as principal at Williamsburg Middle School. I want to assure you that the students, parents, staff and community have been and will remain my first priority during this period of transition.
While I understand that many parents may have questions, it has always been the practice of the Arlington Public Schools that we do not publicly discuss Personnel issues. Therefore, we will continue to respond with a high level of professionalism and cannot discuss Ms. Francis’s actions now or in the future. However, we deny that there has been any discrimination.
At this time, we are exercising our responsibility to make sure that we provide the best educational learning environment for your student. Our primary focus is to take appropriate and immediate steps to put a highlyqualified team of administrative leaders in place at the school to ensure that we provide the best instructional support and leadership for our students, their families and the school staff.
Please know that the students at Williamsburg and their well-being will remain our primary focus as we work to ensure that they receive a high quality education in a positive learning environment.
As this process evolves, we will involve the Williamsburg community and keep you apprised of our deliberations and decisions.
Patrick K. Murphy, Ed.D.