Residents demand change in schools

Published 10:24 am Wednesday, October 23, 2013

FRANKLIN—Many people in the public want a change in leadership at the schools or a change in the way the schools are being led, and they have been wondering what the city could do.

So city leaders brought in Roger C. Wiley of Hefty & Wiley, P.C., in Richmond, who has a background in local government. He talked about what the city could and could not do in regard to the Franklin City Public School District Board.

Wiley said by law, the city is “pretty much” limited to appropriating funds to the school board, with the additional responsibility of appointing school board members.

“I was asked the hypothetical question, ‘Would council have the power to remove a member because of this perceived under-performance?’ The general answer is probably not,” said Wiley.

He said that in instances of malfeasance or the commission of a criminal act, the council would have the power to petition a circuit court to remove someone with a majority vote from the council.

Beyond that, the control is limited to appropriation. It can attempt to not fund projects it disagrees with by reducing what is given in specific amounts. But the school board does have the power to move around money to fund whatever it desires.

The city council has no direct power over the performance of employees or any aspects of school management. But, Wiley said, that they have not lost their voice.

“You can certainly express your opinion,” he said.

He said the best option was to have a face-to-face open discussion on what the school board is planning to do, which the city has scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 30, at 6:30 p.m., at a venue to be determined.

During the citizens’ forum, former school board member David Benton asked the audience how many people had children or grandchildren in the Franklin School System other than himself. Six people stood counting himself.

“There are, and I don’t have the exact number, around 1,300 children in the school system, and six parents thought enough to come tonight,” Benton said. “That’s the problem we face. The challenge for the administration, for the teachers, for the PTA, for everyone, is to try to reach parents who do not place true value on the education of our children.”

Diane Tobin said that teachers do not have the manpower to teach children one on one, but programs like Book Buddy enabled community members to do so.

“I have been volunteering at S.P. Morton, as a book buddy, this is my third year, and it has been one of the joys of my life,” she said. “To see one child look at me, and put the correct ‘S’ on the word, and it sounds like a plural word — it is great.”

She added that a person does not have to have a background in education because the program director provides all the materials that people need.

Despite how the program helps, Tobin said, there are only around eight people who volunteer for it.

“Some of these kids need one-on-one support,” she said. “The parents get up early, and they go to Smithfield or Suffolk or Norfolk to work, and mom is tired after cooking supper. But there are people out there in Franklin who don’t have a lot to do who should care and want to help with these kids.”

Benton said he respects that a lot of parents work hard and are tired, but he still thinks they could do more.

“I stay up at night and I do homework, even though my eyes are glazing over,” he said. “I don’t want to, but I do. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet. You do it because you care about your children and you want them to succeed.”

Benton said he knows the teachers are working hard, but instead of going forward, the schools are going backward, and for that, he thinks it is the leadership.

“We need some change in leadership,” he said. “What we are doing is just not getting it done right now.”

Asa Johnson of the Village at Woods Edge and Lynne Hubbard Rabil brought a different perspective. They do not have children in the system, but they care about the community.

Johnson said the Village is having difficulty hiring waiting staff.

“It is an ideal place for young people in high school to come wait tables,” he said. “But if they come in, if they can’t fill out an application, if they can’t spell the words we ask them to spell, or if they come in and look terrible or are not properly attired, we turn them away. I expect other local employers are having the same problem.”

He also worried about economic development. An honest answer about how the schools are doing would turn many businesses away, he said.

“Businesses wanting to open here turn away when they hear about the low scores and the low achievement,” he said.

Young people are not moving to Franklin, Johnson said, and he said the school system failing is not helping that.

“I’ve heard realtors say that if you move here, to put your children in private schools,” he said. “That’s a terrible indictment of the system.”

Johnson said he does not think it is money or the teachers.

“I am a member of a board on a local foundation, as is Edna King, the school chairperson,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, the foundation has given the schools $1.5 million. I don’t think we’ve gotten a good return on that money, if the SOL test scores are a good indication.”

Johnson said Village residents pay $100,000 in real estate taxes, $9,000 to $10,000 in sales tax, a lot of which goes to support schools. There are 78 employees and a payroll of $1.7 million. And all of this will go away if people are not around to move in. Johnson said he loves the Village and the City of Franklin.

“I wasn’t born here, but I’ll probably die here,” he said. “I want to make sure that our schools don’t kill the city. I want our leaders to do something, and hurry up about it.”

Rabil said it is easy to blame poor parenting, lack of money, teacher turnover or those that came before. She also said it was easy for the schools to tell parents to ignore the bad news.

“I think parents have to be confused, because otherwise, we would be screaming for change,” she said. “I believe both Dr. Belle and Mrs. King want success. But success takes long, hard hours of pure dedication. The likes that we have yet to see in the last three years. Hopefully, our school board will have the pure courage to take the steps to make change happen. We need new leadership… and we need it soon.”

The Rev. Ed Pickup said the system needs a radical change.

“We need to change the way we teach school here, specifically, for the economically challenged,” Pickup said. “I don’t want to sound critical, especially not against the teachers who have poured their hearts and lives into the children. I just think we need a radical change. Not just a step here and a step there.”

Joe Stutts of Franklin said he doesn’t have any children in the system, but that he got a great education from them in the 1940s and 1950s, and his children did in the 1970s when they graduated. He said that council needs to urge its appointees to find solutions and to hurry up.

“I am told it takes time,” Stutts said. “But children advance in years, in grade, as it is taking time. Are we saying that we can’t educate these children, so we let them go, as we are taking our time? Maybe we will do better with the next lot coming through?”

Ward 2 councilor Benny Burgess said he shared the same concerns as many of the citizens.

“I personally am dissatisfied by the performance and apparent violations of state regulations,” Burgess said. “We are leaving the children behind, as you all said. I look forward to meeting with the school board…, so we can hear their plan about what they are going to do to fix it and get headed in the right direction.”

Barry Cheatham, vice mayor and ward 1 councilor, said based on the meeting turnout of around 40 people, that when they are asking for people to appoint to the school board in the future, more than one person will come out for each ward.

“Volunteerism is important, and I hope more people will help out in the schools,” he said.

Ward 3 councilor Gregory McLemore said he felt as a member of the elected body who appointed the school board, that he owed the city more.

“I remember telling the council to resubmit for more names, to not just take it, but I was overruled,” he said. “The school system, as people have said, needs radical change.

“Franklin was the jewel of schools in the area. If we did it once, we can do it again, and it starts with leadership. The buck stops here. We appointed them.”

He said he wishes that he could say what the council could do to address this, short of saying there is nothing they can do about the leadership.

“I have a hard time accepting that there is no one to hold them accountable,” McLemore said. “I think they should be accountable to the citizens, or the elected officials at the very least.”

Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn encouraging people to come to the Oct. 30 meeting.

“As the mayor, I am concerned with the situation in our schools,” she said. “The clear objective is to return our schools to accreditation standards. It is on the division to supply students with tools they need to be successful in life.

“We usually get very little participation as far as people coming out and being interested in our join meetings. I hope you will come and see for yourself what is going on.”