Thursday, June 2, 2011

At last the school budget is approved

At its May 31 meeting, the Goochland School Board voted unanimously to approve the budget as presented to it by Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools ( For details please go to or the school website.)

The meeting was held in a high school auditorium about half filled with parents, teachers, interested parties and some students. Once again it was good theater. The chorus from Randolph Elementary School got up on stage and sang a song in support of their music teacher, whose job was threatened by budget cuts.

Even before the 30 minute public comment period, which School Board Chair Ivan Mattox, Sr. District 3, condescendingly noted was something that the school board did not have to do under rules of procedure, Underwood announced that programs including drama; elementary art; band; swimming and gymnastics as well as transportation for the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School had been reinstated.

That took the edge off the anger of many speakers. An undercurrent of distrust permeated the entire meeting anyway. Mutual contempt between parents and the school board was palpable.

Indeed, the e school board seemed to hold a closed meeting in full view of the public by the simple mechanism of refusing to speak into the microphones in front of them. (There is nothing wrong with the public address system in the GHS auditorium. During the supervisors’’ public budget hearing earlier this year, every word they uttered was clearly audible because they spoke directly into the microphones.) To her credit, Underwood’s remarks were easy to hear even though she spoke without a microphone.

Dr. Richard Carchman observed that in difficult times no one can expect everyone to be satisfied with measures taken to deal with those circumstances. The level of dissatisfaction that has existed throughout the entirety of this year’s school budget process has far exceeded those expectations, he said.

He warned that newly released economic reports show few signs of improvement.

Carchman contended that the school board must be far more transparent in its dismissal and rehiring process. He wondered what sort of processes were used by the school board and administration to produce the” helter skelter result” and suggested that employees who were dismissed then rehired might have second thoughts about coming back.

Sekou Shabaka thanked the board for reinstating the previously cut items to the budget. He took the board to task for not using an active listening process when parents, teachers and concerned citizens expended time and effort to address the board.

“When you speak in public it’s like putting your heart in a meat grinder,” said Shabaka. “If speakers got a response from the superintendent and school board that says ‘I hear you’ the public response would be more reasonable. It should not take a mobilization of half the county to get results.”

Shabaka urged the school division leaders to actively seek feedback, be respectful and let the citizens know that they’ve been heard.

Michael McDermott accused the school board of improperly making the decision to reconvene the May 24 meeting during a break rather than in open session. He said that action violated Virginia’s public meeting laws and declared that the school system has too many chiefs and no Indians.
He also announced that he had filed suit against Underwood and Mattox in Goochland Circuit Court alleging that they violated the Freedom of Information Act. He is seeking court costs and damages.

Jane Christie contended that, at the end of the day, the 2011-12 school budget will be the flat budget that Underwood and the school board requested at the start of the budget brouhaha early this year.

Christie also contended that Underwood is in the process of filling the position of director or elementary education, which has been vacant for years, to the tune of $130,000 in salary (about two and one half teachers) and benefits, while firing teachers due to lack of funds.

Underwood explained how the programs had been saved, moving this position here and that there made the whole thing sound like a complicated shell game. Given the plethora of mandated reporting requirements and state, local and other funding sources, this is how it’s done.

“It’s not pretty, but we made it work,” said Underwood f the final budget, which seems to have been put together in the past week in spite of the fact that the school system had a good idea of the amount of available funding late last year.

Enraged parents, who are quite clueless about the workings of the local government budget process, demanded that the school board get its act together force the board of supervisors to fork over the money to fully fund the school budget.

They do not understand that Goochland does not have the money to give the schools. They have no idea that every other county service, including law enforcement, which makes everything else possible, and fire-rescue charged with saving lives and protecting property, are also running on fumes. These parents apparently are blessed with secure incomes and totally unaware that there are many people in Goochland living on very modest fixed incomes that cannot afford a tax increase of any kind.

Indeed, young parents who came of age during a period of prosperity in this country proudly wave their sense of entitlement with no clue that the money to pay for everything they demand that other people pick up the tab.

Happily, there were no demands to find a way to pick the pocket of the pesky rich folk who, though a statistical anomaly, allow fatuous journalists to declare that Goochland has one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation and is therefore a rich county. In reality, a significant portion of Goochland’s population lives below the poverty level. Goochland Social Services are being swamped with new clients forced to seek help by the bad economy.

Indeed, there are a few very wealthy people in the county who are thoroughly hosed by the tax man.

All that aside, the Board of Supervisors‘ failure to put an aggressive economic development plan into place a decade ago as part of the creation of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District has left the county cupboards nearly bare and facing a huge debt burden.

The fracas over the school budget was dreadful; the fear of parents trying to ensure that their kids’ education is not irredeemably broken, heartbreaking. Frustration and resulting anger on the part of parents, which caused some of them to speak out of term at the meeting, is understandable, but does not justify breaching the order of a public meeting.

At one point a parent shouted a question from the audience and was ignored. “You work for us, answer,” he yelled and was ignored. This sentiment was undoubtedly shared by many in attendance.

None of this needed to happen. It was caused by a long standing void of leadership on the part of the school board, which is unaware that Underwood works for them and that they are responsible for her actions.

The real mystery is why Underwood and the school board made no effort to collaborate with teachers and parents to craft a budget based on available funds to preserve the most programs, fire the fewest teachers and eliminate low priority items in the budget.

Instead, constructive suggestions were ignored and ridiculed; teachers and parents were allegedly bullied into silence by school administration and the community at large lost faith that their tax dollars allocated for education were wisely spent.

Next year, there may be new faces on the school board. The challenges will be the same. Unlimited funds will not flow from county coffers for education because the money just isn’t there. Going forward, implementation of new attitudes and approaches to problem solving in the school system are vital. A more transparent process will let everyone know just how dire the situation is. This could create greater support from the community and parents. We have to work together but we can’t do it in the dark.

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