Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hope on the horizon

School board on the cusp

A relative handful of people attended an October 20 Chamber of Commerce forum for school board candidates, but they got a clear picture of what’s wrong with our current school board.

Phil Daniel of WZEZ 100.5 FM moderated both forums. “The good doctor Phil,” did an outstanding job of keeping the discussion on schedule.

Incumbents contended that current difficulties are the result of budget cuts; the whole kerfuffle over the past few school budgets was generated by a handful of parents who got crabby when their favorite programs were cut. They touted their experience and dedication to delivery of a quality education for all county students as justification for reelection but gave few examples.

Challengers by contrast offered a wide range of innovative approaches to the problems faced by Goochland schools that do not necessarily include increasing property taxes.

The very fact that new people are running for every school board seat clearly indicates widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Once again, as the bland nature of questions put forth offered copious shelter for incumbents, challengers used the opportunity to paint a clear picture of what can be accomplished with a new school board.

Subjects covered were general and, for the most part, ignored the question of the superintendent.

Incumbents never explained why the school system failed, for at least the past two budget cycles, to prepare proposed budgets based expected actual revenues. Instead, the schools presented budgets far in excess of expected revenues and demanded that the supervisors raise taxes to fund them.

(An October 23 revelation by District 3 incumbent supervisor Ned Creasey that the schools had about $1 million left over at the end of the last fiscal year gives credence to allegations by challengers that the school budget is essentially based on magical thinking rather than hard facts and real numbers.)

Incumbents in Districts 4 and 5 did not seek reelection. John Wright faces no opposition in District 5. Beth Hardy and Phil Davis, both excellent candidates are running for the District 4 seat.

Several challengers compared this year’s election to Goochland hiring a team to lead the schools for the next four years.

The new candidates bring complementary skill sets to the task.

Only Penny Palen, who entered the race to ensure that District 2 incumbent Ray Miller, allegedly a member of the Bowles/Quarles clan, faced opposition, offers little in the way of real world experience.

Palen’s unsuccessful suit against the school board to prevent another extension of the superintendent’s contract indicates that she is not a team player. Palen’s involvement in or schools and commitment to excellence in Goochland education is commendable. However, if she truly wants Miller replaced she must withdraw from the race and throw her support behind Kevin Hazzard. A three person race works in Miller’s favor.

Hazzard brings impressive career credentials and boundless innovative energy to the table. Suggestions he presented during his brief comment period included establishing a junior ROTC program in Goochland, which could be done with no cost to the school system. The leadership and personal discipline skills taught by such a program are useful no matter where a student’s life path leads.

Hazzard, who has skills and connections in the education and information technology worlds also believes that it is possible to ensure that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, have access to some sort of broadband connection so that they can keep up with their school work. He contended that Goochland schools currently do nothing to prepare students for the skilled labor market.

Michael Payne, District 1 challenger, who is a vocational tech teacher in Henrico, strongly believes that removing vo-tech opportunities from the Goochland curriculum has hobbled many students from reaching their full potential. Payne contended that all students can benefit from this kind of pratical learning opportunity, which sometimes makes the importance of “classroom learning” like math more accessible by illustrating real world applications.

All challengers have children in Goochland schools and well aware of the good and bad in our educational system.

John Lumpkins District 3 challenger got a round of applause when he advocated keeping the library at the high school open for student use all day.

All of the challengers said that the school budget should focus on teachers, which they believe are the foundation of a good education.
Hardy said that our teachers should be respected as professionals and be able to speak openly about their concerns without fear of reprisal. She believes that fresh eyes on the schools and new leadership will provide the inspiration to get things back on track.

Davis concurred stating that our schools need to create a supportive environment to untether teachers from restrictions that prevent them from using all of their skills to light the fire of learning in our kids. Goochland schools, he said, are at a turning point. People are fed up with incumbents saying the same thing year after year and never getting things right.

Lumpkins knew there was a serious problem with the school board when the supervisors imposed a holdback on some school funds following repeated failure of the schools to comply with requests for explanatory budget information.

All challengers repeatedly took issue with the lack of school board discussion before voting on issues. Indeed, attend a school board meeting to see the term “done deal” in action.

The challengers will bring new energy and insight to issues that face our schools and regain citizen trust. The incumbents just need more of your money to fail to accomplish what they’ve failed to accomplish in the past.


Pat said...

And for heaven's sake, don't give any credit at all for the successes of the SB over the past decade including the increased participation in AP tests, the increased graduation rates, the great SOL test results for Randolph, the full accreditation for Goochland schools - all with less to work with... No, none of that counts. All that counts is "the whole kerfuffle generated by a handful of parents who got crabby when their favorite programs were cut."

I'll be voting for Mattox. I saw him at two forums and in each case it was clear that his primary concern was for the school and the students. His opponents' primary concern was for finances. While that's important, I want my SB candidate to have as his primary focus - the kids.

Dean Young said...

Pat, all I have to say to your comment is that you saw a different group of candidates than I did. Since the primary function of the School Board is to ensure that the schools are managed and funded to deliver the education our children need and deserve, I am amazed that having a board candidate concerned about finances would disqualify them in your mind. If you really care about the kids then you will ensure that we not only get AP participation up but that those that participate are actually educated to pass the AP tests and LEARN THE MATERIAL! It is great that the SOL scores went up at Randolph, but they also dropped at Goochland and Byrd in minority and disadvantaged categories. By the way, I would credit the increase at Randolph to leadership from their principal who does some very specific things that increase not only scores but student learning. If the board wanted credit then they should take the lead in getting all the schools to use the best practices that work everywhere. And full accreditation? That is not a goal but a minimum standard. If we EVER have schools that couldn't reach the accreditation standard then you would see much more than a kerfuffle.

There are many segments of students that seem to be left out. There are few willing to set higher expectations and use our limited resources to meet them. The one heartening thing I heard from all of the challengers is that they all expect more from our schools....and realize that they will need to find ways to get there that are not all about getting more money.

If you are happy being a decent school system that serves most students then by all means, vote the incumbents. If you would like to have schools that educate ALL students and actually prepare them for the world they will have to compete in, then I would suggest you vote the challengers. I know I will.

I heard it directly from all the incumbents. It's not so bad....it could be worse. Well, I for one am not willing to settle for good enough and I know our kids deserve better. I couldn't agree with the above assessment of the candidates more.

Pat said...

Thank you for your note Dean. Conversation and discussion is healthy and what it's all about. Our society has become focused on duality - being at different poles, when in fact, life is really all about what takes place in the middle.

My point - and I always seem to have trouble making my points I guess - is that there are two sides to every story.

My problem with Sandie's blog is that she only covers the negative. She didn't mention any of the positive things that have happened. No credit is given for those things that the current administration has achieved. I saw many of those positive achievements as my son went through the system, so I know it's not all bad.

Frankly I too would vote for newcomers in some of the other districts - I like Hazzard for example; however in my district, I looked at both candidates and my personal "feeling" was that one candidate was all about the kids, and the other candidate was all about himself. That's just the way it came through to me and I've learned over the years to trust my gut and my feelings. I guess I was trying to be diplomatic when I said that Lumpkins seemed to be all about finances rather than students, but in reality, what I "felt" was that he was all about himself, and it was that which disqualified him in my mind. That really came through at the Tea Party forum I attended.

As to the AP tests - please see the new post on the Superintendent's Notes blog on the school web. When you increase participation as much as they did this past year, yet only have a minor (3%) decline in pass rates in spite of that huge increase in participation, I see that as a move in the right direction. I would be very surprised if the pass rates don't follow suit with the increased participation rates as time goes by and they get better at it.

You talk about learning the material, but who was it that spoke repeatedly of rigor - Mattox did, not Lumpkins.

You applaud the improvement at Randolph, but does anyone get credit for changing principals in order to effect that change?

I agree with you that some of the candidates were on the defensive - after all, they've been under full-scale attack for a couple years now, and they have done a terrible job of communicating their reasons for decisions and educating the community about the where's and why for's of those decisions. That to me is their biggest failing, and I heard little or nothing concrete from the newcomers about how to address that going forward. Most seemed to agree that the current SB format for audience participation doesn't work, but nobody proposed a different way to do it.

To summarize - I want to see fairness. I recognize that Sandie is not a reporter any longer and is not required to leave out her personal bias when she writes her blog. I think it would be advantageous if she worked just a bit harder to give some air time to 'the other side of the story' before jumping to her own conclusions. Often it's a good way to go about it. You put up the other side's story, and then you talk about what's wrong with it. I'm in sales, and that is a very effective technique. It can backfire though, if it turns out that the competitor actually has something good worth talking about, and that I think is the concern here. In this county, we have people who are unwilling to even look at that other side of the story, or even to allow others to put it out there.

I'm a fighter and I respect those who fight back when attacked and bullied, and I am not pleased that the current administration has chosen to curl into a ball and let themselves get kicked around. I understand it though - that's what we teach kids to do at school when they are bullied, and I guess it pervades all the way to the highest levels.

Can we agree that we all want what's best for the kids, and that the best way to make decisions is to look at the WHOLE story?

W. Kevin Hazzard said...

Thanks Pat for the detailed follow-up message. Your evidence-based approach to solving the problems in our schools is going to mesh really nicely with Dean's after the election, I can tell. I'm looking forward to working closely with both of you to make the road ahead a bit straighter.

As for the ways to clear up the communication problems, I've addressed that in various forums over the last few months. However, I didn't get a chance to talk about those issues during the Chamber meeting. You can find some of my thoughts about communication in the GEPA questionnaire responses I provided.

In short, I believe that we need to open up our budgeting process to scrutiny as the first step. I want every detail at the line item level (when possible) provided to the people on our website. The budget data should be in a Wiki style format that allows citizens to click on a line item and see a small flowchart or questionnaire that describes the thought processes we went through to ensure that the item was well thought out. This goes not just for expenditures but for revenue items as well. There are many mandate waivers available for our revenue sources and I don't think we're doing a good enough job of applying for those waivers as we could be. So if each revenue item were also annotated with a flowchart that shows that we did the work of looking for every bit of value, the citizens will be much more comfortable with the process we've followed. They should also be able to provide feedback (Wiki style) to let us know when we've missed something.

As Dean and the other budget subcommittee members pointed out in their recommendations, the budgeting process needs to mutate from an annual event to a perpetual one. The reason we have to leave so much money in the budget to be safe is that we really aren't operating against the budget at all. Dean, Elizabeth Nelson-Lyda, Jane Christie and others on that committee felt more than slighted when 3 of their 4 their strategies were interpreted as actions by the Superintendent who summarily removed them from the comprehensive plan altogether.

Jane did a good job of presenting the frustration of the committee members at the School Board workshop on Tuesday evening. She did so in a very calm, well-thought-out manner. Unfortunately, Ivan Mattox got belligerent on more than one occasion, literally shouting at Jane at one point during the meeting. My 11 year old daughter, who was attending the School Board meeting with me because she had a cheering competition in the High School that evening, asked me on the way home why that man in the middle was yelling so much. She wanted to know why he was so mad at the people.

Herein lies our communication gap, Pat. Ivan is a good man. I like him personally and we're all indebted to him for the many ways in which he serves our schools. But I don't think that serving our children as a School Board member brings out the excellence in his character. Nor does it use the best of his talents. I know that you'll probably still vote for Ivan and that's fine. We each have to go with what's in our heart and mind. But I know John Lumpkins well, too, and I think he's got what it takes for these next four years in particular to help us navigate through some difficult waters. Thank you for your consideration.

Dean Young said...

Pat, I appreciate your comments and think that Kevin is probably right...you and I are probably in violent agreement. I respect your opinion and it is, by all means, yours to take. I also go by my gut and my expreience and I am a pretty good judge of people. The point I was trying to make (and I also seem to have trouble making points clearly on occasion) is that I have learned to not only follow my gut but to judge by actions and results. Mr. Mattox is a good person. My intent was not to say that he was anything else. However, there is a difference between intent and results and we elect leaders to do just that...lead. And by lead, I mean to get results.

I know John Lumpkins as well and I don't think that the forum totally reflected where he is coming from. I can understand your impression but I would tell you that it does not reflect my experience so you might want to give him another chance. I also agree with your perception of Kevin Hazzard. I am firmly in his camp and would like to see all the members of the School Board take his approach to our problems.

I think that everyone wants what is best. I believe that Mr. Mattox wants what is best for our kids. However, it seems that until there was a challenge there was only the status quo. To be clear, I appreciate the positive things he has done. However, when he lists the things to be done I wonder why none of those have been acted upon for the past 8 years?

My biggest problem with all the members of the current School Board is the lack of leadership. It appears that they work for the Superintendent, not the other way around. If things like vocational education are needed, then why did they remove this when the new high school was built. The answer I received from Dr. Underwood was that it was all about technology and there was no student interest in anything else. This just doesn't jive with what I have heard from parents, kids and the School Board members now running for reelection.

I have also defended the current administration and tried to actually help them during the comprehensive plan process. The recommendations that we made regarding the budget would only help Dr. Underwood and the board communicate the details and impacts of their decisions more clearly. I think we could all agree that this is desirable. However, Dr. Underwood chose to gut those recommendations in the interest of not being boxed in and held accountable to them. This action alone speaks volumes to me....much more than a semi-plausible response to a detailed question. My experience so far has been a willingness to answer questions in the most convenient way to make the questions go away. My "gut" impression was that in Dr. Underwood's eyes I was not worthy of questioning her judgement and she was above giving a normal peon more than a superficial answer. When that answer didn't stand up to questioning, she basically shut it down and referred me to the School Board. That is really not a great way to treat someone who has always take the same approach you have and has defended her on many occasions.

I used to tell people that I was just not sure if she was a good administrator who has a communication problem or if she really is not up for the job. I think I am starting to realize that when it comes to a leadership position like the Superintendent or the School Board that it is not acceptable to be as challenged in the area of communication as our curent administration appears to be. Good leaders lead....by example, and through clear, honest and transparent communication.

Just my opinion.