By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In 1986, Berry heard that no one was running for the Madison School Board; she took out petitions, and won. (Six others eventually joined the race.)
Even her harshest critics concede that she's intelligent and crafty. Berry took to her new post quickly--tackling, she says, the challenges posed by creeping economic disparity in the district.
Meadows Middle School and Simis Elementary School retain the upper-crusty Madison image. Madison No. 1, Rose Lane, Heights and Park schools have seen an economic decline. One-third of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, including 80 percent of the students at Park Elementary. (To qualify for the federal free-lunch program, a household of five people must have a gross monthly income of less than $1,800.)
Berry says she's the target of a hate campaign because she fought for the resignation of then-superintendent Bill Schaefer--who, she says, refused to represent the less-advantaged schools in the district.
"You can be chapped off with me because I got rid of the superintendent," she says. "But I didn't break any law, and I didn't break any policy."
Carolyne Berry's attorney, Roxana Bacon, calls the anti-Berry movement a "witchhunt." Perhaps Berry has cast a magic spell over the community--convincing people she has the power to fire secretaries, district officials and her children's teachers. She's been accused of all of that and more.
But for all their sophistication, Berry's foes forget that a school-board member has no legal authority outside the boardroom.
"She carries a power which isn't real, but which is nonetheless there," insists Scott Gardner, a Park school parent, who served on the Madison board with Berry from 1988 to 92. He says Berry was a "major factor" in his decision not to seek reelection.
"My experience on the board would have been one with very few sad times were it not for the presence of Mrs. Berry. . . . We weren't able to get through agenda items without caustic things coming up and adversarial feelings--it gets to where you can't get through agenda items quick enough and address problems that affect children," Gardner recalls.
Berry's detractors say it isn't the mere fact that she disagrees, but the manner in which she disagrees, that makes her so offensive. "You have to feel her wrath to understand how it makes you feel," says longtime foe Chaunci Aeed, who, when pressed, is at a loss to explain just what it is that Berry has done.
Catching Berry breaking a rule hasn't been easy. People have been trying for years.
Ken Rhoades, a 24-year veteran of the Madison district, teaches eighth-grade language arts at Meadows. In 1991, inspired by what he saw as meddling by Berry, he convinced 23 teachers to sign a letter to the board, urging it to limit direct contact with teachers and principals and asking trustees instead that they go through the district superintendent. The letter was about Berry, though she wasn't named.
"Because a Board Member is such a 'heavyweight' in our District, such contact is an extremely stressful experience for the individual staff member--and for staff members as a whole," Rhoades wrote.
When asked, Rhoades can't name a single situation in which Berry has been responsible for a district staff member's termination. Or, in fact, in which she's done anything more than speak to staff members.
Madison parent Sandi Long has been hearing Berry stories for years, and has had unpleasant run-ins herself with Berry, but there's nothing she can put her finger on.
"Some of it's founded and some of it's unfounded. You know how some things get rolling sometimes," says Long, who refused to sign a petition calling for an investigation of Berry's behavior.
"If I, personally, actually had the documentation or I could even testify to a particular instance when I thought she had been out of line, either ethically or legally, then I would have had more of a go-ahead attitude," she says.
Tales of Berry's antics aren't as interesting as the response she engenders.
Dan Maynard, a partner at the law firm Johnston, Maynard, Grant & Parker by day and "commissioner of basketball" for a youth league by evening, wrote Berry on his firm's stationery in January 1993 after hearing that Berry had asked a janitor to open a school gym 15 minutes earlier than the league and the district had agreed to.
"It is my understanding," he wrote, "that you have approached the janitor and the facilities representative and demanded that they open the gym at 5:30 p.m., telling them that you are a member of the school board." Maynard told Berry to "desist such activity."
That opening shot triggered a six-month volley of rancorous letters between Maynard and Carolyne and Rick Berry. In the end, Maynard demanded that the school board investigate Carolyne Berry's actions.
"It is all hearsay and feelings," says Gerard, shrugging. But she adds, "The problem with Carolyne is that when she doesn't get her way, she goes out after people to get them instead of trying to build coalitions. . . . She thinks she can just power it through."
People complained about Carolyne Berry for a long time before anybody bothered to organize. That happened in the spring of 1993. Berry blames Chaunci Aeed and Aeed's friends from the Junior League.