Resident calls on board not to renew superintendent’s contract

Published 10:22 am Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An open letter to the Franklin City School Board:

You have a very important decision before you in the coming weeks. Six months prior to the end of her current contract, the School Board is required to notify our current superintendent, Dr. Michelle Belle, of your plans regarding her continued employment in Franklin City Public Schools. Her current contract will expire on June 30, 2014. As a parent of a recent graduate of Franklin High School, a second child currently enrolled at S.P. Morton Elementary, and a third child headed to school in a couple more years, I urge that you not offer Dr. Belle another contract. I have several reasons for my belief that we need new leadership for Franklin City Public Schools (FCPS).

I was in attendance at the recently held Joint Meeting of the School Board and City Council. When asked by City Council members about the reasons for the poor test scores of our school children in Franklin in comparison to their peers from across the State, Dr. Belle replied (and I am paraphrasing here), “the administrators are doing their jobs, and the teachers are doing their jobs… so… .” As her voice drifted off, I almost fell out of my chair. I was both shocked and disappointed at what I had just heard from the person who is supposed to be the very face of public education in our city. To me, what I heard Dr. Belle tell everyone in attendance that night is that our students and families are the ones to blame for the poor test scores we’ve seen of late. Not our teachers, not our administrators, but our school-age children. This blew me away coming from the person who should always be the biggest cheerleader and supporter of the children attending our schools. I likened her comments to the action of a prizefighter admitting defeat and throwing in the towel. It was so blatantly obvious that Dr. Belle was looking for someone else to blame that one of the Board members even felt the need to very quickly add that the Board believes every child can learn (again, I am paraphrasing here). Dr. Belle made similar comments when appearing before the State Board of Education. In that meeting, she bemoaned the fact that we have an unusually large number of children in our schools from disadvantaged families. This situation is no different than it was when she was hired a little over four years ago. Our student demographic is unchanged during this timeframe. The anointed leader of our school system should always emphasize the positive, and never deflect responsibility or blame onto the children we serve. Our students need a superintendent who always encourages them, and constantly reinforces the notion that they can, and will, be successful. I don’t believe we have that person in Dr. Belle, as evidenced by her recent public comments.

When Dr. Belle arrived in Franklin in 2009, all three of our schools were fully accredited and two of the three schools had made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in the year immediately prior to her taking the helm. AYP is the former measure of a school system’s success in meeting the mandates of the Federal “No Child Left Behind” program. Today, four years into Dr. Belle’s tenure, all three of our schools are accredited with warning by the Virginia State Board of Education (for the second consecutive year). S.P. Morton Elementary is warned in English and math, J.P. King Middle School is also warned in both English and math, and Franklin High School is warned in math as well. S.P. Morton and J.P. King are now both classified as Priority Schools, meaning they rate in the bottom five percent of all Title I schools in Virginia. Out of more than 1,800 public schools in the state of Virginia, there are 37 schools that are identified as Priority Schools for the 2013-2014 school year, and we have two of them right here in Franklin. In four short years, we have seen our previously fully accredited schools slide to the point where they are now very near the bottom of the state rankings. Dr. Belle, and others, will offer the excuse that the rigor of the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests has increased. While this is true, we need to remember that the same tests are administered in all school divisions across the entire state. Scores show that we’ve fallen faster in comparison to other localities, and as parents we now see our children attending the lowest performing five percent of all Title I schools in Virginia. This is nothing to take lightly. Children’s hopes for the future are at stake, as are the hopes of our entire city. A failing school system has a detrimental effect on the entire community, and will for many years to come. Something must change.

Not surprisingly, our SOL test scores have also suffered in Franklin under Dr. Belle’s leadership. Included herewith is a chart, which shows FCPS performance on the state SOL assessments over the past eight years. The blue vertical bar is inserted to indicate the point at which Dr. Belle was hired as our superintendent. The green blocks on this chart indicate years in which our student performance on a particular SOL test improved as compared to the previous year, while red blocks show places where our SOL test scores fell in comparison to the previous year. As you can see at the bottom of the chart, our test scores were generally on the rise before Dr. Belle was named superintendent. We had shown gains in twice as many test areas as ones where we had decreases (30 gains vs. 15 losses). In the time since Dr. Belle was hired (everything to the right of the blue bar), we’ve had almost twice as many areas where scores have decreased (22 gains vs. 38 losses). Today, we are swimming in a sea of red scores. We’ve lost all of the upward momentum which our community had been scratching and clawing to achieve before Dr. Belle’s arrival, and have now fallen into a period of general malaise. Are our children no longer as smart as they once were? I don’t believe this is the case. Instead, I see the overall decline in our test scores as evidence of a lack of quality educational leadership. There are other schools across the state who have been successful in spite of similarly challenging student profiles, and we have proven previously that we can also be successful teaching our kids here in Franklin. It is not our children who are the problem. It is our lack of educational leadership and focus. Something must change.

The former executive director of the Virginia School Board Association for many years, Dr. Frank Barham, enjoyed leading new school board member orientation sessions each year. In those sessions, he always encouraged new board members to keep their decision-making process simple. Frank Barham suggested that board members use a basic measuring stick on any matter requiring a board vote. He suggested that new board members ask themselves this one simple question: Is the item before me tonight going to improve or enhance the teaching/learning process in my school division? If you believe it will, then Frank said you should vote “YES” on the item before you. If you do not think the proposal before you will be of benefit to your students and staff, then he said you should vote “NO.” And board governance is really that simple, folks.

If the school board chairman proceeds according to state law, you will each be asked to vote before the end of December on whether or not you feel the school board should offer Dr. Belle another contract. Each of you must decide for yourself whether keeping Dr. Belle in place is going to improve or enhance the teaching/learning process in our schools, and then cast your vote. As you do so, remember that the children in our schools (mine included) are counting on you to act in their best interest. You are their voice in this discussion. Given our school division’s dismal performance on multiple metrics over the past 4-½ years, I believe the decision should be fairly obvious. As the State Board of Education bears down on us with the upcoming Division level Academic Review, we need a fresh start… and we need it now.

Thank you,
David Benton