It’s time to start over

Published 11:48 am Saturday, September 14, 2013

Today’s front-page story is beyond alarming.

It details the findings of the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) that the Franklin School Board and key central office leadership have failed to implement a number of key objectives set forth due to the schools’ statuses as accredited with warning. This is a clear indication there has been a failure of leadership in almost every conceivable facet of the city’s school system. The information provided in the state’s reports makes it very clear to this columnist that the time for talk is over, and that the time for action is now.

Division Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle has been on the job since 2009. During that time, test scores have plummeted, all three schools have lost full accreditation, and the employee turnover rate has been astronomically high. And yet after all this time on the job, Belle continues to deflect blame to her predecessors. But in this case, that is simply not true. The state’s findings are based on initial on-site academic reviews initially conducted on Nov. 6-7 of last year, and follow-up visits made on April 24-25 of this year, to see what recommendations from the initial site visits have been implemented. This report had nothing to do with the condition the schools were in when Belle was hired, only whether she had implemented the state’s recommendations and Standards of Quality (SOQ) in between visits. In too many instances, the state determined she had not.

The types of infractions documented in a letter and report sent from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright, to Belle and Franklin School Board Chair Edna King on June 27, are simply egregious. They range from the fact that intervention plans for students failing SOL tests had not been implemented to the central office instructional leaders claiming they had been discouraged from spending time in the schools. Belle indicated those claims were untrue, stating, “We’ve been there more than ever.” Whichever the case may be, someone’s not telling the truth. In either case, it’s a problem. Moreover, this report was not made available to the full school board until Aug. 5; a full month after the superintendent and school board chair received it. Wright’s letter states, “The review revealed evidence that the failure of the schools within the division to achieve accreditation status is related to division-level failure to implement the SOQ as indicated below.” Holding back this type of information for such an extended period of time is unconscionable. The other school board members should be outraged, as well as the taxpayers they serve.

A separate report, written on March 15 by Dr. James Lanham with the VDOE, details numerous infractions found during a licensure and human resources review conducted on March 8 and 11-13. When questioned regarding the fact that the report states numerous employees were unlicensed or teaching outside of their endorsement area, Belle said, “That’s not a true statement. Anyone who is not licensed fully is at least provisionally licensed.” The state report, however, indicates that there were 13 significant findings related to licensure, assignments and reporting. These findings show not only that several employees are teaching outside of their endorsement areas, but also the fact that the principal of S.P. Morton Elementary School, Dr. Debbie Harris Rollins, did not even hold a valid Virginia license with an endorsement in Administration and Supervision as of the March site visit. The report also states her licensure application was not submitted to the VDOE until Jan. 23, 2013, six months after accepting the position. This is completely inexcusable and unacceptable. These failures in oversight fall squarely on the shoulders of Director of Human Resources Gail Wade, as well as those of the superintendent to whom she reports.

The infractions outlined in these and other reports all indicate an ongoing lack of oversight and leadership in the school system, and those responsible should be held accountable immediately. In my opinion, the school board should immediately remove Belle and Wade. Both have demonstrated an astounding lack of ability to effectively lead, and those failures have brought Franklin Public Schools to the brink of chaos. Both have done significant damage to the communities’ confidence in the school system, and allowing them to remain in place will only exacerbate the situation. And after removing them from their positions, King should resign. The school board has ultimate authority on all decisions relating to the schools, and allowing this situation to continue for as long as it has clearly demonstrates a lack over institutional control over the employees it is solely responsible for hiring. King is the head of the school board. She must be held accountable as well.

These types of wholesale changes will present other challenges, but are absolutely necessary if we are to have any hope of saving our schools. The time for discussing these changes has long passed. The time for them to be acted upon is now.

TONY CLARK is the associate publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at