Published 9:44 am Saturday, December 14, 2013

When it comes to decisions being made about the Franklin City Public Schools, nothing surprises me anymore. Nothing. And that includes the school board’s decision this week to conditionally renew the superintendent’s contract.

For weeks I had prepared myself for this eventuality. Beginning with school board chair Edna King’s startlingly clueless appearance before the state board of education earlier this fall, all the way through the laughable dog-and-pony show put on at the joint meeting of the school board and city council last month, it has long been obvious that this board was not capable of making such a decision.

In fact, so inept has their handling of the schools’ current situation been that had they offered Dr. Belle a lifetime, guaranteed contract, it wouldn’t have been all that shocking. Why? Because, at the end of the day, their decision to conditionally renew her contract had nothing at all to do with the superintendent’s performance and had everything to do with politics.

Let’s be honest. What the school board did on Tuesday night was vote to fire the superintendent in a few months. The three requirements they set forth for allowing her to remain are virtually unattainable, thereby ensuring she will not remain much longer. The first two conditions that must be met are receiving a satisfactory academic review and a satisfactory division-level review from the state board of education. Anyone familiar with the state’s findings following its school-level review this year knows that neither seems very likely.

The third provision that the school board requires is what absolutely puts a contract renewal out of reach: attaining an across-the-board, division-wide passing rate of 70 percent or higher on the preliminary SOL results next spring. Let me put into context how unlikely it is that such a score can be achieved.

Last year, after the final SOL scores had been released, Franklin residents looked at the rankings and collectively sighed “thank God for Petersburg,” as that city’s dismal performance was the only thing keeping Franklin from having the lowest scores among the 132 school divisions in the state. This year, based on the combined SOL scores of all three division schools in the five core SOL tests, Franklin’s combined passing rate of 57.94 percent is the lowest in the state. Dead last. Behind Richmond, which earned the 131st spot with a passing rate of 58.02 percent and Petersburg, which has escaped the bottom of the list and climbed all the way to number 130 with a pass rate of 59.64 percent. Dead stinkin’ last. It would take a miracle of Biblical proportion for Franklin to even approach an overall pass rate of 70 percent.

So, if the school board voted to stipulate such unattainable goals as its terms for renewing the superintendent’s contract, why not just spare the citizens of Franklin the additional drama and fire the superintendent outright? One is only left to presume that there is a segment of the city the school board is trying to appease for political purposes. Given all of the available facts and evidence, of which there is plenty, no other reason makes any sense.

It was just one more example of the gutless, spineless leadership that is ultimately to blame for the downfall of Franklin’s schools.

Johnetta Nichols, who was one of only two school board members who could be bothered to respond to multiple requests for comment on the decision – albeit by email – stated it was made for the benefit of the children, so as not to disrupt the current process. Yet I say, with all due respect to school board members Will Councill and Dawna Walton who both voted against the motion to renew, that if this school board gave even a remote damn about the children of Franklin, it would be doing everything within its power to blow the current process to pieces.

But it has become painfully clear that it does not. And as I look around I’m starting to wonder exactly who does.

The vast majority of parents, given all the information in the world that their children’s schools are failing miserably, don’t bother to attend school board meetings and ask questions. The city council that selected the current board is afraid to make a statement demanding accountability from the school board it funds, hiding behind the pitiful excuse that there is nothing legally they can do.

The business and economic development community, which constantly laments the negative impact a failing school system has on the local economy, has sat on the sidelines as well. Not one civic group, organization or collection of concerned citizens has come forth to make it known to the board that the current situation is unacceptable.

In Isle of Wight County, when a school board member was caught forwarding inappropriate emails of a racial nature, everyone from the regional television networks to the NAACP rolled into town like rabid dogs ready to pounce. While in Franklin, an incompetent superintendent and a cowardly school board have driven an entire school system over the cliff and the only sound that can be heard is the collective sigh in Richmond of “thank God for Franklin.”

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