Franklin Council reacts to VDOE news

Published 3:56 pm Tuesday, January 28, 2014

FRANKLIN—Following the joint meeting of the Franklin City Public School Board and the Franklin City Council this past October, Mayor Raystine Ashburn-Johnson said she was hopeful that improvement was going to be shown in the division-level review of the Franklin school system.

But after reading the report – in particular the conclusion, which called out city leaders – she put together a conference call with Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham, City Manager Randy Martin and Dr. Kathleen Smith, director of the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of School Improvement division, to clarify.

The concern of the call was primarily one statement from the AdvancED report, which stated, “The community must hold its elected and appointed leaders responsible for maintaining a focus on providing quality teaching and learning experiences for all students.”

“I have pause because we are limited and restricted by state law,” Ashburn-Johnson said. “So I wanted clarification on what they meant.

“Dr. Smith explained that AdvancED is talking to us, as far as holding us accountable as far as the appointment process of school board members. They are urging us to do everything we can in prompting citizens to come out and be part of the nomination process.”

Ashburn-Johnson said it is difficult to select a school board when only one person steps up to the plate, so council would have to work harder to make sure that their system in place helps encourage more nominees.

“We are going to have a work session about the things that we can do without interfering with the state law,” she said.

“Based on the report issued last week, our situation remains dire and, in my opinion, even more critical than indicated in the last report,” Ashburn-Johnson said of the school-level review conducted last year. “I have stated before that the success of our city in many ways will be determined by the performance of our schools. We need fully accredited schools, period.”

School board members were in Richmond for a School Improvement and Turnaround Conference, but they have called a meeting for Thursday at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the report in open session.

Ward 3 Councilor Greg McLemore said the council should be held more accountable for the situation, as they are the ones who appointed the school board. He has been saying this on the record since October at the joint meeting between city and the school board.

“They have agreed with the same thing I have been trying to get across,” said McLemore. “We appointed the board, and the board is not doing their job to standard.”

He said he couldn’t blame the school board because many of them were put there and should not have been. Many of them do not have children in the system, and many also do not even work in Franklin, so he asked what valuable input they could add?

“It’s a sad mess,” McLemore said. “You can’t blame them for knowing nothing about the schools, as they are not involved. Why were they put there? Nepotism or favoritism.

“Dr. [Michelle] Belle is the most knowledgeable person in the room,” he added about the superintendent.

“King is the second-most knowledgeable, but she is retired and out of the loop. They cannot correct Dr. Belle. There is not anything wrong with them as individuals. They were just put there, and they never should have been.”

He said that the school system should let Belle go because she is not performing to standard.

“Nothing against her as a person, it’s not her fault. You can’t blame her as long as she is making her board happy, as they are the ones keeping her employed,” McLemore said. “And it isn’t really the board’s fault, because they don’t have a clue, except Mrs. King. They don’t know what a workable plan would be to fix the system.

“They are also trying to make this a black-and-white issue. The only reason people are after Dr. Belle is because she is black.

“No, people are after her because she is not getting the job done. They want to defend her to the bitter end because they are pro-African-American,” McLemore said, referring to select members of the school board. “I am as pro-African-American as anyone, but I don’t want our children to suffer because they want to play the race card.”

Ward 5 Councilwoman Mary Hilliard said she picked up some things from the report that were already known, but there was one thing from the report she wondered about.

“I couldn’t figure out how they came to the conclusion that stakeholders are not aligned with the schools,” she said. “I think it was based on a drawn-up personal conclusion, that there were a lot of personalities in it.”

Ward 1 Councilman Barry Cheatham said that the report was sad and disappointing, but it was not surprising.

“I think the school board has got to sit down and make some hard decisions,” he said. “I would also like to see more people involved when we appoint school board members. You need more than one person to select from, and we don’t get that.”

Cheatham said that communication also needs to improve.

“We have got to have more communication between all of the stakeholders – the board, the central office and the city council,” he said. “We’ve got to get everyone involved. It is going to take a group effort to get everything back the way it was. We can do it, but it is going to take everyone working together.”