Less than a year into Thomas Graves' first term as superintendent of Chester County schools, the school board has put him on administrative leave with pay.
Five of the seven school board members met at 7 a.m. Monday for a closed-door meeting. When they emerged, they voted unanimously to send Graves on leave.
Chairwoman Maggie James and board member Bill Stringfellow said several board members feel that Graves doesn't follow their direction.
"He failed to follow board policy and do things the board asked him to do," Stringfellow said.
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Board member James Stroman, who said he couldn't make the meeting because of work obligations, disagrees.
Graves "hasn't been there a year yet," Stroman said. "I like some of the things he's done. I would like further consideration."
Graves and other school board members couldn't be reached.
The board members at the specially-called meeting included James, Stringfellow, Denise Lawson, Laurens Fort and Gene Boyd, who participated by speaker phone.
Board members Stroman and Patricia Hensley were absent.
James said the board hasn't decided whether Graves will keep his job or who will lead in the meantime. James said a decision could come within a week.
Stringfellow said he expects to tap Associate Superintendent Blair Turner to be interim superintendent.
While details surrounding Graves' forced leave are sketchy, tensions between some board members and the superintendent have been simmering for several months.
"It's been a build-up of things," said James, who declined to go into specifics. "There were some areas of concern."
During a public meeting in March, James blasted Graves for quotes attributed to him in the magazine Education Executive.
An excerpt from the article reads: "One daunting problem facing Chester County School District relates to discipline, and here is where the mindset factor comes into play. Graves feels the community didn't always completely value education because years ago the area thrived on a booming textile industry. It wasn't uncommon for people to leave schooling early and live comfortably working in mills. Those days are gone, but the mindset that education wasn't important remained."
The profile went on to quote Graves as saying: "We have the physical tools to provide a modern education. What we've lacked is a vision, standards and high expectations that students will excel. You can put all the technology you want in the school, but you won't get anywhere if you don't have high expectations, relate content to the real world and hold kids accountable."
That didn't sit well with James.
"I was apologizing to the citizens of Chester County," she said. "He said the people in Chester County did not value education. There was the illusion that everybody worked in a mill. ... My comments were that Chester County has some of the best schools in this state and in the United States. We've always been on the cutting edge of providing students with what they need to be successful.
"That was an insult to me and the people of Chester."
Stringfellow is unhappy with Graves' decision to test a new approach to suspending and expelling students.
Graves calls it a "virtual alternative school," where some students scheduled for suspension or expulsion are required to complete assignments at home and check in with a teacher while away from school. Those who don't have a computer or cellphone can arrange to use equipment loaned from the district.
Graves considers that more productive than sending students away with no assignments or opportunity to earn credit.
That matter should have come before the board first, Stringfellow said.
Tensions between Graves and the board reared publicly again on April 11, when a majority of members voted down the superintendent's proposed budget for the 2011-2012 school year.
Graves was an assistant superintendent in Washington County Schools in Virginia when the Chester County school board hired him last spring to lead the rural district of 11 schools and 6,000 students.
He was one of four finalists to withdraw his name from consideration during the district's superintendent search, but changed his mind before his hiring.