Opportunity for change

Published 8:39 am Saturday, June 9, 2012

The opportunity for sweeping change doesn’t come along very often.

Yet in the case of Southampton County’s Public Schools, the stars and planets have lined up that change is a certainty.

At the end of this month, the careers of the Superintendent Charles Turner and School Board Chairman Russell Schools will end. Each has served more than four decades.

Perhaps it is fitting that having served together for so long and having seen the schools through so many challenges and changes, that they retire together.

They have seen our schools through the growing pains of integration and the endless quest for adequate funding. Increasingly oppressive federal mandates as outlined by the government’s No Child Left Behind program, and the state’s Standards of Learning tests, which require teachers to prepare students all year for a handful of standardized tests, have fundamentally changed the way educators teach our children.

The job of educating children is becoming more challenging and complex, yet for all the obstacles that have been presented, Southampton County’s schools are fully accredited and continue to make impressive strides in test scores and graduation rates.

Turner and Schools deserve a fair amount of the credit.

And after 80-plus years of combined service, it is time for new leadership.

It’s a highly unique opportunity to replace the two most high-ranking members of an organization, but that’s exactly what residents of Southampton County have had the opportunity to do. And it’s an opportunity that likely won’t present itself for a long time.

But in a changing world that requires fresh ideas and new ways of doing business to remain competitive, it’s an opportunity we have to take advantage of, and it’s important we get it right.

The superintendent’s position has been filled. Dr. Alvera Parrish, superintendent of Petersburg City Public Schools, will replace Turner on July 1.

I trust, primarily because I have no other choice, that the school board did a good job in selecting the new top administrator. And I hope, because I have a son in the school system, that she is up to the job.

But with funding challenges that have led to a reduction in staffing, and the likelihood that the board will be facing similar budget constraints in the future, the job facing the new superintendent will be a challenging one. Parrish will need to do a masterful job in earning the trust of the county board of supervisors and not just the school board if she hopes to build bridges with the governing body that controls her purse strings.

And she will also need to do a good job of creating partnerships with parents and teachers. If she does, she likely will find success.

Who replaces the school board chairman will unlikely be known until later this summer. Jim Pope would like to replace Schools as the Capron District representative on the school board, but as a newcomer is highly unlikely to be tapped in the leadership role.

Tenured boards typically prefer to promote from within their own ranks to best maintain the status quo. But I hope this school board recognizes the opportunity they have to reinvent themselves as a more progressive and forward thinking organization, and not merely cling to the way things have always been done.

That way of thinking is good neither for the school system nor the children they are charged with educating, and is unlikely to yield the type of results those parents and county taxpayers will find satisfactory. The board has developed a reputation over the years of being somewhat defensive and combative when given constructive criticism from outsiders.

An open mind and a willingness to listen to outside opinions and ideas will go a long way toward creating a positive relationship with those who have an interest in the results their decisions produce.

So we find ourselves at a crossroads. Two giants in Southampton County public education have called it a career, and I, for one, am grateful to them for their years of dedicated service.

But I look at their retirement as a beginning, not an end. It is an opportunity for our schools to chart a new and even more successful course for the future, one that includes unprecedented community involvement and participation by all stakeholders in our school’s success.

It is a unique opportunity indeed. And I hope we get it right.