It’s up to public to make school board answer for its actions

Published 10:20 am Friday, December 13, 2013

When starting this column back in July, the goal was to take a year off as far as wading into controversial issues.

The theory being that a year lets me better get to know the community, and that would help in getting up to date on all of the issues.

I’m going to break that rule.

On Tuesday evening, the Franklin City School Board voted to communicate to Dr. Michelle Belle that they would extend her contract should three conditions be met. That’s not my issue.

In that, I’m neutral. I haven’t been here long enough to weigh everything, nor do I have all of the data that the school board used to make their decision. To top it off, Belle has been good to work with. She’s professional and does get back to me, even on what I consider must be uncomfortable issues for her.

It’s the school board. I’ve put up with sarcastic comments in meetings directed at the newspaper, and getting most of them to comment on their actions is near impossible.

Now, on the first issue, it’s not that big of a deal. I can take it. I just thought people should know the kind of folks who are representing their children.

The second issue, however, brings me to my point, which is that I can’t hold them accountable if they are not accountable to anyone.

About a month ago, the Franklin City Council and the Franklin City Public School Board had a joint meeting. The school board dictated the agenda to the council, who put the school board members in place, and while councilors had their say, some were not allowed to say all that they wanted. They were only allowed to speak to the issues on the agenda.

To top that off, a few days earlier, a lawyer, Roger C. Wiley, hired to explain what the council could and could not do regarding the school board, said that there was basically nothing they could do as far as removing a school board member once one is in place, unless a crime is committed.

Wiley also pointed out that most school boards in Virginia are elected.

And after Tuesday’s vote and the subsequent response, or more so, lack there of, I believe that the school board should be elected in Franklin.

After repeated phone calls, voice mail messages and emails to Will Councill, Nancy Godwin, Johnetta Nichols, Sherita Ricks-Parker, Jeanette Austin, Dawna Walton and Edna King, I heard back from Nichols and King. I even gave them my cell phone number so they could reach me after hours.

If this were the first time, it wouldn’t be a concern. After all, people work and have lives. But, I have never gotten Councill or Ricks-Parker on the phone, nor have I gotten Austin on the phone since I did the initial story welcoming her to the school board.

And it honestly doesn’t take that long to return a phone call or respond to an email. I spent less than five minutes on the phone with King, and Nichols responded on her own time through the email I had sent her.

And I do want to add that I’m thankful to King and Nichols — they have always stepped up when I call on them, especially Edna King, who I have called on many times.

I understand why the others wouldn’t want to talk to me about this. It’s uncomfortable, and I get that. Despite a very public call to not extend the superintendent’s contract, they communicated to her that they would, albeit conditionally.

The public isn’t always right, of course, but it sure needs to know why decisions are being made. One way to get that is to go to the meetings, and I do recommend that the public attend the school board meetings. Another way is through the media.

While The Tidewater News has done its best in covering the school board, it can’t cover it as well as I would like when many stories end in “… declined to comment,” or “… could not be reached for comment.”

And I fear a lot of them will end that way going forward. School board members do not have any reason to worry about responding to the newspaper, and therefore the public, because at the end of the day they have no fear of losing their seats. Short of a school board member committing a criminal act, neither city council, nor city residents can remove these officials. Parents have no say in regard to the people charged with governance of Franklin schools, and I think that needs to change.

CAIN MADDEN is the managing editor of The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at 562-3187 or