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Lone Wolf

Defender of democracy, or reckless obstructionist? One thing's for certain: School Board firebrand Carol A.O. Wolf is a force to be reckoned with.



Hooting, hollering, whistling and fist-pumping, Carol A.O. Wolf doesn't hide her enthusiasm when it comes time to cheer on her son Dale.

"Go Dale!" she yells.

She stands out like a Packers fan at a PGA tournament.

Or in this case, a spelling bee. Specifically, the Richmond Times-Dispatch Regional Spelling Bee at the Library of Virginia March 17.

Wolf has arrived with an entourage. Two rows of the 17-row auditorium are devoted to Dale's supporters. Wolf, in particular, makes her presence felt. For every child, she claps before judges confirm correct spellings; after Dale, 14, slugs his way through a particularly tough word, Wolf hammers a triumphant fist into her hand: "We worked on that one this morning! He was getting so mad when I was making him [practice], and I said I don't care how mad you get — spell the word!"

Impassioned enthusiasm is one of Wolf's dominant traits. Her presence is electric at School Board meetings, where the same displaced football-fan gusto is known for rankling her fellow board members. Wolf never sits out debates; rather, she stirs them, alternating her passion between massive issues too big to ignore (weighing in on school closures in Mayor Wilder's City of the Future plan) and too little to notice. (Her e-mailed missives to board members about arcane legal trivialities are common.)

This ability to see significance in the small stuff is, for Wolf, her greatest strength — and, detractors say, her Achilles' heel.

As often happens when passions run hot, the Times-Dispatch Regional Spelling Bee ends in controversy.

Confused at being declared runner-up, Dale Wolf contests the rules as interpreted by Times-Dispatch publisher Thomas Silvestri, host of the bee. Carol Wolf rises to her son's aid, ushering him offstage, leaving the audience to murmur in confusion and Silvestri to shift uncomfortably. Finally reappearing on stage without her son, Wolf asks again for a clarification of the rules. What ensues is a days-long exchange between Wolf's lawyer husband, Thomas M. Wolf, and the newspaper.

In the end, the paper runs a murky correction to its arguably defamatory article critical of Dale's rules protest — reporting, inaccurately, that he lunged threateningly at the winner. As Thomas Wolf points out in his letter to Silvestri, Dale has a four-year window in which he can sue for libel. …

Standing in the foyer of her North Side home, Carol Wolf channels the spirits of the firebrand Quaker women whom she names as heroes. Feet set apart, seemingly ready to zig should you zag, she's petite, with a barely tamed shock of blondish hair and a disarming gaze made more unsettling by those eyes. One is gray, the other hazel; both are intense.

The spacious, turn-of-the-century brick Victorian home Wolf shares with her husband and her whirlwind brood of children, guests and pets seems to be one big work surface, covered in books, papers and notes dedicated to her passion: children.

If the house is a whirlwind, Wolf is at its center, as she is at the center of nearly every knock-down drag-out currently being battled between the city's School Board and Mayor Doug Wilder — debates over school closing, handicapped accessibility of schools, budget belt-tightening all have been changed by Wolf's input.

Wolf, 52, doesn't give visitors time to reflect on the heavy antique furniture surrounding them. Information comes quickly and in giant chunks nearly impossible for most minds to chew, let alone digest — often in the form of stacks of paperwork or the promise of endless e-mails — on her educational topic du jour.

For the past five years, Wolf has represented the 3rd District on the Richmond School Board.

But she also represents much more in a city where the public school system has spent decades under a siege of rapid-fire criticism from every corner. She's become the loudest and best-equipped booster for a host of education reform and child advocacy issues that sometimes save money — and children — but frequently vexes her fellow board members.

To anyone familiar with the board — and its interactions with school administrative staff, Richmond City Council or Mayor Doug Wilder — Wolf stands apart from her eight colleagues as a voice of dissent, an advocate for the underdog and a champion for the disaffected.

She's positioned herself as a relentless force for reform since her first night on the board almost five years ago. Appropriately, Wolf uses wrestling analogies when she talks about the atomic suplex she performed that first evening, when she broadsided the district's special-education department with accusations that it ignored millions in federal funding opportunities.

"I hit the mat and I hit it hard — and there was no mistaking I was going to make the best use of every minute," she says, tossing grenades at convention when it comes to the responsibilities of an elected School Board member.

"The saying that runs around here is, 'We need to get on the same page, people, we need to get on the same page.' I'm not convinced we need to be on the same page. I'm not even convinced we need to be in that particular book.

"Dissent is a very important part of democracy," continues Wolf, looking more like the suffragettes and abolitionists she admires than a pro wrestler. "It's critical. Critical. I wish that our board, past and present, could appreciate and understand why having someone on board who is willing to dissent and willing to hold the ground makes for a better board."

During her first meeting as a board member in December 2002, Wolf earned a sharp rebuke from then-chairman Larry Olanrewaju. Pounding his fist Soviet-style on the table repeatedly to silence her, Olanrewaju chastised Wolf for trying to "spend three dollars to collect one dollar."

But Wolf returned to the next meeting with a U.S. General Accounting Office report showing Maryland collecting as much as $850 per disabled child from Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements, compared with Virginia's average of $5 per child. Richmond, at the time, was collecting nothing.

"When you start to talk about money, and you start to talk about millions of dollars of money, you start to get people's attention," she says, adding that Richmond soon began applying for the federal reimbursements. "I've paid for myself."

Wolf, however, has also paid the price for her rebellion.

It's only the perspective of distance that allows David Ballard, who recently left the board after two terms, to view Wolf with the appreciation she seeks from her colleagues. A former chairman of the School Board, Ballard often clashed with Wolf, not unlike the board's current chairman, George Braxton.

"Mrs. Wolf has the potential to be a tremendous asset to the School Board," Ballard says. "She has some talent that would be well-served if applied in the right direction, but she has taken almost exclusively an adversarial approach to the school system." He says it's an approach common to new members of the board, but one that usually is quickly replaced by a spirit of cooperation and solidarity.

"I think most of us [newly elected members] felt that there was money not being wisely spent. We worked through that in the first six months," he says. "We moved away from that adversarial approach. … Mrs. Wolf can't do that — she can't move on."

Ballard sees Wolf's insistence on treating the school administration as an adversary largely as a detriment, but he also sees her point.

"Certainly, questioning things is a strength," he says. "I think that Mrs. Wolf has the interest of the students in her heart when she does things. [But] every issue is not a crisis."

Wolf's repayment for shining her truth light on school district activities also has repaid her in the intense loyalty of some members of the public.

"I have found Carol to be truly a woman of genuine integrity and passion," says Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, president of the Richmond Council of PTAs. "She's a zealous advocate on behalf of all children in Richmond Public Schools."

Pinkney-Eppes' association with Wolf dates only to recent times, with her own ascension to a post of district-wide leadership, "But I think that as I get to know her, I will be honored to call her friend."

Meantime, Pinkney-Eppes is happy to call her an advocate and an ally.

"Her bark is just as big as her bite," she says. "I mean, when she says it, she believes it, she means it and she's willing to fight for it."

Though now living a life of relative financial ease as the wife of one of Richmond's more prominent lawyers, Wolf's sympathies for the large swaths of Richmond children growing up poor and without dependable parenting doesn't come from reading too many books.

Raised in Denver, Colo., Wolf's early biography might sound like the sympathy-building setup to a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie about triumph over adversity — if it weren't so dark.

Her parents, both bred from dirt-farm squalor in rural Illinois, were alcoholic and abusive. Her mother, who had only a ninth-grade education, was often neglectful. Her father, who attended school only until third grade, was an abusive, unpredictable man whom Wolf somewhat sadly refers to as "a carnie."

The two were caretakers at a junkyard, and though Wolf says she sees them for what they were, "They did the best they could [for their family] with what they had.

"Some people talk about being dirt poor, but we were sidewalk poor," continues Wolf, the first family member "in generations" to graduate from high school. The oldest of six, she says she acted as surrogate mother to her brother and sisters. Many of her siblings went on to success, including her brother, a retired corporate financial executive.

She recalls, vividly and with tears in her eyes, herself as a 6-year-old girl. Her parents left the children with an aunt, going down the street together for a pack of smokes, but not coming back for weeks.

"We were put into foster care," she says. "I will never forget when the social worker came to get us. I remember fighting. I fought so hard."

Her parents returned, got the children back, and that incident became just one of many of abuse or neglect.

"We were not treated right as kids," she says, "but to put it in perspective, it made me very strong, it made me very focused in speaking out."

School was a refuge for Wolf, who gained acceptance to a private preparatory school, the Kent School for Girls in Colorado, on a full scholarship. It was her ticket up and out.

Working later as a copy messenger at the Denver Post, she attended the University of Colorado but eventually dropped out to work full time. "I don't have a college degree," she says, "and it's one of my regrets."

"When [daughter] Kelly was born, I was a teenaged mother basically," she says. "I was married at age 18, divorced at 19."

She worked her way up at the Post, becoming a writer there, eventually moving to other local publications. She came to Richmond 27 years ago following the newspaper business and a young lawyer named Tom Wolf. She landed a job at the now-defunct Richmond News Leader.

Tom Wolf at the time was a young lawyer helping fight a losing battle to defend beleaguered pharmaceutical company A.H. Robins against claims that its Dalkon Shield birth-control device had severely injured thousands of women. Carol covered parts of the trial for the paper, and by her description, Tom Wolf, who was representing A.H. Robins, was occasionally frustrated by the young reporter with a bold style of interviewing.

By 1983, Wolf had moved to Richmond's one-year-old alternative publication, Style Weekly, where she stayed until taking on full-time motherhood two years later with the birth of Joey Wolf.

"I loved reporting," Wolf says.

By some accounts Wolf never stopped being a reporter, even if she no longer writes for publications on more than an occasional freelance basis.

University of Richmond professor John Moeser, who is a professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University and a frequently called-upon authority on matters of Richmond government and urban planning, knew Wolf in those reporting days.

"She always raised good questions, and she was always committed to what she was doing — she had the instincts of a very good investigative reporter," Moeser says. "Since she's been on the School Board, the kind of commitment she had and her interest in getting to the bottom of things … has carried through."

Moeser generally sees Wolf as an asset on the board, one willing to fight the good fight for issues otherwise unconsidered, but says that same willingness to engage opponents has a dark side.

"Being a lone voice on School Board, she can, in her zeal, often set people off against her — but you have to admire her for having convictions and being persistent," Moeser says. "I think it is that kind of doggedness of hers and the fact that she's not intimidated by anyone [that] has really gained the respect of Wilder."

In fact, Wolf arguably was the first among elected officials to challenge Wilder's repeated assaults on schools, and the first to go on the offensive against him.

When midway through this school year Wilder demanded that the School Board immediately close a dozen of its 60 or so facilities, Wolf immediately blasted his demands as potentially harmful to students. It was a stand that was followed by her fellow board members in votes against Wilder, and eventually some members of City Council.

When Wilder took millions of dollars in funds from the school district budget that Wolf believed were already earmarked for use in bringing school facilities into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, she took her show on the road.

Armed with a tape measure and a chip on her shoulder, Wolf went to City Hall and measured bathroom doorways and stall entrances to find that no restrooms there were in compliance with federal law.

Wilder's demands for an audit of city schools went from a request to a pitched battle. Currently, the two forces are locked in a battle for control of school funds, with Wilder withholding money approved by the City Council. The School Board has filed numerous lawsuits against the city.

Wolf, for her part, has come out alternately in favor and against the various lawsuits. She's judged each case on its merits in deciding — often against her fellow board members — whether a lawsuit against Wilder was appropriate.

"I think she's not been bullied by [Wilder]," opines one Wolf supporter. "I think he's intimidated by her."

Her forward approach has certainly gained his attention. Wilder began mentioning Wolf by name in his weekly newsletter, at first to chastise her brazenness in calling him out, but later almost allying with her when he recognized that she was equally willing to critique her fellow board members.

"What Carol has done better than the other members of the board is keep a focus on the issues and the real purpose we have schools — which is to educate kids," says Paul Goldman, Wilder's former chief policy strategist, who says she's alone among her peers in being an independent thinker. "You need people willing to have well-reasoned positions and to be not afraid to articulate them."

But former School Board Chairman Ballard disagrees with Wolf's approach. He says that by aiming her ire equally at her fellow board members, Wolf has created cracks in the armor and broken the united front that allows Wilder to expose the School Board.

"I think the other significant issue is that — I won't say always because you can't ever say always — most of the time Mrs. Wolf doesn't accept anything as the truth unless she thinks it's the truth," Ballard says, pointing to her frequent formal Freedom of Information Act requests to the school administrators with whom she's supposed to be cooperating. "If seven out of nine of the people you encounter say this is real, most will say OK. Mrs. Wolf can't do that."

Occasionally her provocations have brought a backlash.

In February 2005, Wolf accused now-Chairman Braxton of threatening to hit her after she called him on a conflict-of-interest issue. The next month, a new seating arrangement during board meetings placed Braxton and Wolf at maximum distance.

In March 2006, former Assistant City Attorney Michael Sarahan launched a vitriolic verbal attack on Wolf and her son shortly before deciding not to run against her for her School Board seat.

Wolf is deeply religious, and came to her religion late in life. Her husband was raised in the Lutheran church, but on snowy Sundays his mother took the family to a nearby Quaker meeting house. He took to the religion, known for its valuing of peace and hard work.

Carol Wolf began attending the Quaker meetings while dating Tom. For years she didn't join, saying she couldn't get beyond that "old Groucho Marx thing — that I wouldn't want to be a member of anything that would have me as a member."

She also had problems with organized religion's long association with placing women below men. But in Quakerism she found a home — and heroes. Many early abolitionists — predating the American Revolution — were outspoken Quaker women. The underground railroad's figurative tracks were laid by Quakers who, sometimes faced with penalty of death, offered their homes as refuge.

She sees those early civil-rights fights not as dead, moldy history, but as the first shots in a struggle that endures today and that manifests itself in Richmond Public Schools. Black students, she says, remain an underclass, often segregated not on the basis of their skin color, but on the basis of new, contrived labels such as "special needs" or misdiagnosed as mentally retarded.

Wolf is also a photographer of some talent. She has a permanent installation of her work at Holton Elementary, where Dale attended grade school. The pictures — mostly sepia-toned shots ("Everybody's in shades of brown," Wolf explains) — document the school's first year mostly in portraits of kids. Dale is featured.

So is a group of rough-looking kids striking tough poses on the school playground. The picture represents much in Wolf's struggle to give all kids the chances her own child has had. The photo, admittedly of some of the school's problem students, met resistance from faculty and staff who didn't want bad kids enshrined. One teacher, Wolf says, asked her, "Why those kids?"

Recalling the conversation, Wolf shakes her head and wags her finger through the air in a broad, cutting gesture. She didn't give in to the teacher's pressure, she says, insisting that these children are of equal worth to any other child in the school. She stomps her own foot as she recalls her ire at the teacher's suggestion, her pose now as defiant as any of the kids in the picture. She points to the children: "I'm not ready to give up on them."

In no other area of school politics has Wolf been more vocal than on issues of equal access for disabled students and parents, or more dogged in her frequent FOIA requests. It's a cause over which she's taken personal ownership, as a mother, but equally as a Quaker who sees society's ill treatment of its most defenseless members as a civil rights injustice.

Dale Wolf, Carol Wolf's second son, was born premature and now deals with mild cerebral palsy. Dale's first steps were at age 3 and were later aided by surgeries to improve his mobility, allowing him to get around nearly as well as his peers. He recently was accepted to the Maggie Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies.

But Wolf's first interactions with Richmond Public Schools on behalf of Dale were rocky at best.

"I am his Annie Sullivan and more," says Wolf, her eyes flashing with determination, referring to the woman who dedicated her own life to helping deaf and blind Helen Keller overcome extreme disabilities to become an author, lecturer and champion for the disabled.

Dale has attended regular classes in Richmond schools because of Wolf's insistence.

Her first interaction with fellow School Board member Joan T. Mimms was when Mimms was principal at Ginter Park Elementary School. Despite Dale's strong test results, Mimms was refusing him admission to her school, insisting that Wolf instead enroll her son at Amelia Street School, which specializes in "exceptional education" students.

Wolf fought Mimms, eventually going over her head to push her son into mainstreamed classes, where he has excelled.

Wolf believes that nearly any child given Dale's opportunities could also excel. It's what drives her, she says, in most of her fights for ADA compliance. It's what has made her a friend and frequent visitor at the home of famed Richmond civil-rights lawyer Oliver Hill, whom she calls a mentor.

It was Hill, she says, who pushed her hardest to run for the board. Wanting change, she'd been searching for someone to run for the seat.

After months of looking, Wolf says she asked Hill to push his son, Duke, to run for school board.

"He said, 'I don't think we need to find anybody else to run,'" Wolf says, recalling an awkward silence while she considered how to tell the then-nonagenarian he might be a bit old for the campaign trail. "'No, no, no, not me,'" she says he told her. "'You!'"

"I said, 'Do you remember that I'm white?'" Wolf says, an acknowledgment that the 3rd District, where she lives, is majority black. "He said, 'Yes I do — what does that have to do with it?'"

That night over dinner, a somewhat disconcerted Wolf recounted the exchange to her husband: "Tom Wolf puts his fork down and says, 'If Mr. Hill says you need to do something, you'd better get to it.'"

Last year, Wolf convinced fellow board members to sign a settlement agreement with area parents who were suing the school system for its noncompliance with ADA. Among those parents was Vickie Beatty, parent of two Richmond Public Schools students, one of whom is disabled.

"I think Carol is one of the elected officials — and that includes City Council — to really have the people's needs at heart," says Beatty, who was first referred to Wolf by her own school board representative, former board member and mayoral candidate Charles Nance.

"After he was elected [to the School Board], I called and asked him what do you know about special education?" she says. "His response was 'Absolutely nothing.'"

Nance quickly connected her with Wolf.

"It wasn't long after that that there was a forced resignation of the special-education director [Renee Archer]," Beatty says. Neither she nor Wolf claims direct responsibility for that resignation, but together, both acknowledge they provided overwhelming testimony that pointed to Archer's mismanagement of the department.

"I got people to come down and talk. It was the masses that came down to talk. It was the federal monitoring report that showed things hadn't gotten better over the five years that she was there — in fact it had gotten worse," Beatty says. "That was the best thing that ever happened to Richmond's special-[education] community ever. Ever."

Beatty shares Wolf's view that disabled rights are civil rights. "The General Assembly made an official apology this year for something that didn't happen under their watch — slavery," Beatty says, calling on city schools and city administration to do the same by repairing the school buildings that deny her child the access he deserves.

Even Ballard agrees Wolf is on point with her ADA advocacy, even if misguided in her pursuit of it.

"When a person with a disability comes to a building that they can't get into, how is that any different than an African-American who isn't allowed into a school?" he asks. "Same thing."

But again, he disagrees with Wolf, in this case on her insistence that every school facility must meet ADA-accessibility requirements.

"I think the difference in the ADA issue is, it's access to the programs offered — not necessarily physical access to every building," he says. "From that standpoint there may be a little bit of difference between the ADA act and the civil-rights act."

It's this difference that makes Ballard part of the status quo for Beatty, but even she concedes that Wolf's tactics sometimes are counterproductive to the cause.

"I think that other elected officials don't see it the right way," Beatty says. "She's so strong about it … that I think sometimes her delivery is ineffective. People get so touchy not seeing what the problem is, but instead seeing the delivery, that the people with the issue end up getting screwed.

"I sometimes say to her, 'You said what?'" Beatty says of Wolf's occasional recounting of less-than-successful interactions with local politicians. "You need to play in the same sandbox with people. But I understand it; when there's so much wrong, it's hard to rein things in."

Some critics even say Wolf has a tendency to overstep her authority as a School Board member, delving much like her sometimes-adversary, Wilder, into areas not allowed by her position as an elected official.

She's a frequent visitor to local schools. She meets often with teachers, parents and administrators. Sometimes she makes demands — or recommendations — for fixes and changes to existing operations. She is, by her own admission, very hands-on.

It's a tendency that — along with her often abrasive approach in presenting an issue — causes fellow board members to take occasional potshots at Wolf, both in open board meetings and in off-the-record asides.

But even to her critics, Wolf is far from overstepping those bounds to the point of illegality. And, in fact, it's her willingness to push boundaries and fight for basic rights that has made this petite white woman with the big brick house and the Volvo station wagon the representative of choice in a majority black district.

Despite the occasional mumblings from other board members, Wolf's style has not affected the overall unity of that board, University of Richmond's Moeser says.

"It seems to me that the School Board is a fairly cohesive group now — sometimes Carol Wolf is the outlier, but as a whole the School Board functions well as a group," he says. "Her doggedness has … often led the School Board to address a matter that otherwise it might not have addressed as quickly."

Wolf is well-aware of what Moeser sees as a weakness and Beatty sees as an obstacle — Wolf's abrasive personality — but she sees it as a necessary evil.

"The status quo doesn't work here," she says of Richmond Public Schools, blaming compromise and conciliation for much of the failure, as well as complacency and immobility of past Richmond school boards. "We've lost a generation. We've got a dropout rate that's shameful. We should be getting Fs for failing our children. There are some things that are just not negotiable."

That said, Wolf always seems to come back to her living hero, Hill. It's when she's faced with the steepest hills and the most impenetrable lines of resistance that she leans on his pronouncements, regardless of how confounding they sometimes are to her.

"What Mr. Hill said was don't worry, because it's all going to work out," she says, recalling one point of advice.

"I said, 'Mr. Hill, what do you mean it's all going to work out?'

"And he said, 'Well, evolution will take care of all of this.'

"I said, 'Mr. Hill!'

"He says, 'I know, evolution does tend to be so damn slow, doesn't it?'

"I try to take that long view," Wolf says. "It will work out." S

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