Friday, May 28, 2010

Back down the rabbit hole

School board approves deeper budget cuts

Goochland superintendent of schools Dr. Linda Underwood and four of the county’s five school board members — chair Max Cisne, District 5 was absent for unexplained reasons — didn’t quite sit with hands over their ears chanting “lalalala” while students and parents pleaded that they reconsider budget cuts at their May 25 workshop.

It was soon clear that the board had already decided to approve the additional $317,099 in budget reductions needed to balance the school budget for fiscal 2011, which begins on July 1. (For details go the school website at and click on school board agendas. It is part of the May 25 packet.) These were identified by Underwood at the May 11 school board meeting.

Among the additional cuts, Underwood cited a savings of about #63,000 the in salary and benefits due to the resignation of the information and technology specialist.
We’re still not sure what he did or who approved the creation of that position in the first place.

It is rumored that a school administrative employee is pursuing an advanced degree on the county’s time and dime. Yet, we cannot fund all classroom teacher positions.

In retrospect, it has been clear since late last year that Underwood — the school board just sings backup — decided to eliminate the elementary gifted center, textbooks, programs and get rid of many teachers while retaining her posse in the central office.

The meeting included poignant pleas from parents and students to save the elementary gifted center. Other parents pointed out that no one, save Underwood and the school board, publicly supported the proposed school budget.

(Visit the Goochland Education Parents (GEPA) website at for insightful discussions on many facets of the local school system.)

Crafting a school budget in the shadow of a drastically contracting economy was very difficult. The perpetual tug of war between those who believe that the schools spend too much and those involved with local education who believe that they are never adequately funded was especially bitter.

Underwood’s refusal to compile a budget reflecting the reality of no increase in the real estate tax rate illustrates her complete disconnect with reality. She seems to have assumed that the supervisors would raise taxes to placate vocal parent groups. In hard times, you get everyone together, explain the problem, roll up your sleeves and find a way through the crisis.

Throughout the process Underwood exhibited a total lack of understanding of a very important facet of her job, winning the hearts and minds of the parents of her students.

The name of Frank Morgan, beloved former superintendent of Goochland schools, was mentioned with longing a few times during the public comment period.

Parents contended that Morgan was far more accessible than Underwood whose style tends to be imperious and aloof. Charming and gregarious by nature, Morgan promptly responded to emails and phone calls and was happy to chat pretty much anytime anywhere.

While it is unfair to expect Underwood to be a Morgan clone, she should have learned something by watching him in action. Parents contend that Underwood controls email access to school board members and sometimes even composes replies to parents for them.

Earlier this year, she metaphorically waved her Ph.D. at the supervisors after parents disagreed with her budget claiming that she knew best how the school system should spend its money. This was embarrassing and pathetic.

Had Underwood bothered to seriously consider suggestions presented by GEPA and worked with that group, they would have walked through fire for her. Instead, they have become a formidable foe.

Military leaders understand the wisdom of the “men and horses eat first” management style as a way to motivate people in impossible conditions to perform extraordinary feats because they are valued.

Underwood instead seems to prefer the “beatings will continue until morale improves” motivation style and treats teachers as costs on two feet. Her distribution of reduction in force notices during teacher appreciation week is evidence of this.

More than eliminating specific programs and firing teachers while preserving administrative jobs, this attitude will decay the quality of public education in Goochland. Those good teachers that have not been fired will quietly bide their time and move to a system that appreciates their skill and dedication.

The school board seems blithely oblivious to the problem. They will answer for this at the November, 2011 elections.

Following the budget vote, the board turned to more mundane matters. They finally acknowledged the microphone problem in the high school auditorium and discussed the purchase of new ones. The supervisors used that very public address system for their budget public hearing and it worked quite well. Why can’t the school system figure out how to operate its own equipment?

Why don’t they just accept the offer from the county to hold school board meetings in the board room at the administration building? The microphone system there is excellent and able to record meetings in a format that can be posted online at no cost.

A paid outside energy consultant delivered a preliminary report on ways to save energy dollars. Goochland citizen and parent Adeeb Hamzey, who works for Dominion Power in a similar capacity, offered to perform an energy audit of the schools system gratis and was rebuffed.

The consultant did report that the school system could save about $250 per year per desktop computer by turning them off every night. There are a lot of computers in our school system. Perhaps a teaching job could have been saved had anyone used the off switch!!! Does school administration really need to hire an expert to tell them that?

He used a line from a Buffalo Springsteen song to describe a spike in energy use at the high school/middle school complex in 2009. “Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Holding school board meetings at the county admin building would save energy by keeping the lights off and the HVAC system in the auditorium at maintenance levels.

Our school board is an embarrassment. We are not alone.

There was a fascinating article in the June 7, 2010 issue of Forbes ( entitled “what schools can learn from money managers.” Public education in our county and country is dysfunctional if not broken. It’s past time for new solutions. State and federal regulations are not the answer.


Richard Saunders said...

The School Board now has about 17 months and counting...

Anonymous said...

Can someone please explain why there are so many students "out and about" during a school day? I never skipped school, because there were consequences at school, and AT HOME.

Anonymous said...

Seventeen months is too much time for them. What Goochland needs is a petition for recall of the school board members now, like citizens in Portsmouth are doing with their Mayor. The sad part is, Portsmouth's Mayor would be the best school board member we have.