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Principal of the Matter

[whitespace] Kim Adams Silicon Valley PTA: Kim Adams, Morrill School parent and vice president of the school's Site Council, blames Berryessa Superintendent G. Herbert Wadley for students' failing grades and poor treatment of female employees.

Christopher Gardner

After firing two African American women in as many years, Berryessa's school superintendent faces charges of racism and harassment

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

His voice shaking with anger, an elderly African American man rises at a meeting of the Berryessa school board to confront two Morrill Middle School teachers who have just spoken. "I want to talk to you outside," James Manning tells the teachers, "and the talk is going to get rough." The meeting erupts as Manning refuses to sit down and stop talking, and within moments the board members have adjourned the meeting, and San Jose police are on their way.

The confrontation at the meeting in late February is an unusual occurrence even for the normally contentious Berryessa school board.

"When Mr. Manning went on a tirade, I'll say, I personally felt threatened," District Superintendent G. Herbert Wadley later told a reporter from the Berryessa Sun newspaper. James Manning is 65 years old. He wears a prosthesis on one of his legs and is legally blind.

The Morrill teachers had been voicing their opposition to Manning's daughter, Lorna Manning, who was hired as Morrill Middle School's principal at the beginning of the 1997-98 school year. The board later voted to remove Lorna Manning from her position at Morrill. Coupled with the firing of another African American female administrator from Morrill a year earlier, the Manning case has sparked charges of racial discrimination, harassment of female employees and intimidation of dissenters in the Berryessa Union School District, and has spawned several investigations by state and local agencies.

The Santa Clara County Alliance of Black Educators, the San Jose NAACP and the African-American Parent Coalition have protested the firings to Superintendent Wadley, and the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission has begun a formal inquiry, with some members saying that Berryessa schools have developed a "climate of coercion and fear" and a "polarized situation" that has "moved past civility and into anarchy."

The Berryessa district is made up of 13 elementary and middle schools in north San Jose. Three-quarters of the students are minorities, with half of them Chinese, Southeast Asian and Filipino and 20 percent Latino.

Wadley says the charges of racial discrimination are "unquestionably and without equivocation untrue." Kim Stevens, legal counsel for the Berryessa district, says the controversy is being stirred up by white former school board candidates who are trying to advance their own political goals and who "are never interested in the rights of minorities."

Neither Wadley nor Stevens would talk about the specific reasons for Manning's firing because the issue is presently in litigation, and because a school district does not need cause to fire a first-year school administrator.

Kim Adams, a Morrill parent and vice president of the Morrill School Site Council, blames Manning's firing partially on a "superintendent who likes to bully women."

Wadley "doesn't seem to like strong women," says Adams, who is white. She is also convinced that race played a role. Made up of parents and teachers, the School Site Council monitors and writes the budget for certain of the school's programs.

Adams joined several other parents, Berryessa community leaders and former Berryessa school employees in denouncing the district before the Human Relations Commission.

"There is no stability at Morrill," Adams says. "They have removed two principals and two assistant principals in the past two years. There can't be that many bad administrators."

Adams also questions why teachers were spending school time lobbying against Lorna Manning when she was serving as principal.

"My daughter is old enough to see this. She comes home and asks me, 'Mommy, why is this happening?' "

Adams says that the quality of education has been declining at Morrill since Wadley's hiring five years ago. She cites district test scores in reading and math, which dropped 25 percent between 1992 and 1996.

Kim Adams
Christopher Gardner

Middle Row: School Site Council member Kim Adams stands behind fired principal Lorna Manning.

Symbolic Politics

ADAMS BELIEVES that Wadley hired Manning solely to smooth community friction and prevent possible litigation over the firing of another African American woman a year earlier--popular Morrill vice principal Doris Holland. Wadley, she believes, "never really had any intention of keeping Lorna Manning."

Holland was a 24-year veteran employee of the Berryessa Schools and, Adams says, was instrumental in cleaning up gang violence at Morrill. Her popularity with children at the school brought her into disfavor with Morrill members of the California Teachers Association, whom Adams charges are "trying to run the school."

Adams says that more administrators in the district have been targeted and that one teacher has received anonymous hate mail that reads "You're next. You should retire when you can."

Dennis Conners, a Morrill teacher and president of the Berryessa Teachers Association, denies that members of his union are doing anything improper.

"We have no intention of trying to run the administration of Morrill School," Conners says. "I expect the administration to perform that role. There are just certain things that an administration should not do. And any union has a role to play in the proper functioning of a business."

Asked if Manning's firing was racially motivated, Conners says, "There is absolutely no racism involved whatsoever."

But an official in the Berryessa Union School District, requesting anonymity, confirms Adams' charges of a union overstepping its boundaries. "There is a group called 'the Gang of Nine' at Morrill, and they basically run the school," the official says, listing CTA president Conners as the leader of the group. "They thought they could intimidate Lorna Manning and get special perks. When they found out they couldn't use her, they went after her. And that's why the superintendent let Manning go."

The CTA filed an unfair-practices charge against Manning with the state Public Employment Relations Board in April, charging her with interfering with union activities.

In a 10-page narrative that accompanied the complaint, the union lists only one instance of alleged union interference: The teachers claim that Manning attempted to impose an evaluation on one teacher in excess of the number allowed by the union contract. The complaint goes on to say Manning later told that teacher, "You've upped the ante by going to your union representative."

Much of the rest of the document seems to have nothing to do with interference with union activities. Instead, the Unfair Practices Charge, filed with the state's Public Employee Relations Board, accuses Manning of creating a "climate of fear and intimidation" among teachers at the school. The accusations focus on a first-year teacher who felt intimidated by Manning, and complained that Manning was being unprofessional by missing several scheduled classroom observations. Problems escalated when several union members came to that teacher's defense by going to the superintendent.

In places, the document reads like a junior high school clique not liking the new kid on campus. Describing a meeting at a restaurant, the complaint states that Manning mistreated Conners by being "very distant and aloof," and that "she did not speak with him nor did she make eye contact with him."

The union admits that Conners secretly taped a meeting of the Morrill School Site Council after several members, including Adams, expressed support for Manning. The document also quotes Conners as telling Manning that he took a set of complaints about her to Wadley--her boss--without talking with her first because she was "the alleged intimidator."

Manning detractors also reported to the superintendent that she was romantically involved with a teacher at the school, an allegation Manning denied and was cleared of, according to an inside source.

'Horrendous Abuse'

WHEN ASKED to discuss Manning's tenure at Morrill, Conners declined, saying, "I'm waiting for my day in court to bring everything out."

There are several days in court coming up. The Berryessa Teachers Association filed an unfair-practices charge against Manning with the state Public Employment Relations Board, charging her with interfering with union activities, although Conners says there is a possibility that the charges will be dropped now that Manning has been fired.

Another inquiry has been instituted by the state Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, reacting to a complaint by Manning. And the state Department of Education has begun an investigation into Adams' charge that the Berryessa schools are improperly spending funds earmarked for remedial education and English as a Second Language.

Manning herself told the county Human Affairs Commission that she asked for a commission investigation because she believes that the Berryessa school district "harasses and discriminates against minorities and women."

"African American females bear the most horrendous abuse by the district," she says. "People fear retaliation if they speak up against the regime. They have been threatened." On advice of her lawyer, Manning declines to talk further about the issue.

Wadley acknowledges that test scores in his district are declining, but denies that the district is neglecting the problem. "This is part of a national tragedy," Wadley says. "I am not offering an excuse. We're pursuing it aggressively."

The district is working closely with several minority organizations, including Breakout Ministries and Ujima, Wadley says, in an effort to offer good role models to its minority students and enhance their academic achievement.

"It's true, minority students are still not doing as well on standardized tests as we'd like," he says, "but we have been steadily improving since I've been here. Not a single African American student passed the geometry test five years ago. Now, four times as many African American students are completing both ninth-grade algebra and 10th-grade geometry as they were when I first came to Berryessa."

Wadley says he is not bothered by some of the heated rhetoric unleashed at the Human Relations Commission meeting. "A lot of the people were there because of personnel issues," he says. "Several of them had been released from employment with the district. Their feelings are understandable."

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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