Dismissed: Board informs Belle she won’t be rehired

Published 12:06 pm Saturday, February 1, 2014

FRANKLIN—In a 3-2 vote, the Franklin City Public School Board decided Thursday night at a called meeting to inform Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle that her contract would not be renewed after June 30.

There is a stipulation in her contract that she be informed six months before that date of whatever is the board’s intention. In December, the board voted to tell Belle that her contract would be renewed provided she meet three stipulations, and one of those was a satisfactory division level review, which the Virginia Department of Education placed Franklin under in October. The other conditions were a satisfactory academic review and a pass rate of an average of 70 percent of the preliminary Standards of Learning Achievement results across the division.

After going into closed session to discuss the performance of a specific individual, Ward 1 board member Will Councill proposed the following:

“I make a motion that the school board authorize Mrs. [Edna] King to send a letter to Dr. Belle informing her that because the division level review was not satisfactory, the school board does not intent to renew Dr. Belle’s contract as the school superintendent after June 30, 2014.”

The motion was seconded by Nancy Godwin, ward 2, and Councill, Godwin and Dawna Walton, ward 6, voted in favor of it, while Edna King, chairwoman, and Sherita Ricks-Parker, ward 4, voted no. Jeanette Austin, ward 5, abstained from voting, and Johnetta Nichols, ward 3, was absent.

Walton could not be reached for comment. Godwin, Ricks-Parker and Austin declined to comment.

When asked why she voted no, King declined to comment.

Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn said that the school board has a lot of hard work ahead of them.

“They not only have a system to bring up to standard and get accredited, but they have to find a good superintendent,” she said. “I just want everyone to know that we stand in support of whatever they need to accomplish this task. City Council has always supported public education and will continue to do so.”

Johnson-Ashburn said she has always taken the stance that the council has no authority over the school system, so she did not want to overstep her bounds.

“I want to be able to support the school system to bring everything back to standard,” she said. “I think that’s what the focus should be, is making the system the best it can be, and in getting a superintendent that will help do this. The focus needs to be on our schoolchildren.”

Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham said that they made the first of many hard decisions to come.

“I think we’ve got to make some changes in moving forward,” he said. “We need some different coaches. I still believe that.”

Cheatham said he had gotten the feeling that the citizens wanted change, and that he was disappointed that the vote was not 100 percent.

“I was happy to see, though, that they did make a decision to start trying to move things forward,” he said. “From here, I think they are going to have to be more involved to show some progress by April.”

That month, VDOE representatives will be back for a follow-up to the division level review.

Ward 2 councilman Benny Burgess said he agreed with the decision that was made, and now it was time to move forward.

“It is not about a person or a position, it is all about moving the kids forward,” he said. “We have removed that discussion from the table now. Half of the people want to talk about Dr. Belle, and if it’s her fault, and others think it’s not her fault. If you are arguing whether or not Belle is the problem, you are not focusing on the issue about what is best for the kids.”

Burgess said at this point, it’s time for the community to come together.

“We need to support the schools,” he said. “That can be done in a lot of different ways.”

Ward 3 councilman Greg McLemore said informing Belle that she would not be rehired was a good first step, but that changes on the school board would be necessary before the problem is fixed.

“The board finally took a decisive action to change something, since Dr. Belle is to some degree responsible,” he said. “But I don’t want to rejoice now. Unfortunately, I’m scared because the next superintendent will be selected by the same school board that helped get us in this mess.”

McLemore said he wished the council would hold them accountable, and ask some members of the school board to resign, so that council could get some people more experienced with K-12 education matters in.

“That is what I tried to do before when voting on individuals,” he said. “I did not vote for any of these people. I asked, ‘Can’t we re-advertise and get some more experienced candidates?’ I felt like we should not give up until we had tried as hard as we can. But Raystine said no – we’ll go with what we have.

“In private business, if you don’t get qualified people, you advertise again. You do all you can do before you give up.”

The school system needs to look for someone with experience in turning similar systems around, and if nothing changes on the school board, McLemore said, they would need someone who could run the system without the help of the school board.

“Unless we get lucky and find a superintendent who can operate without needing guidance from the school board, I’m not sure that anything will change,” he added.

Ward 4 councilwoman Mona Murphy could not be reached for comment, and ward 5 councilwoman Mary Hilliard declined to comment.

Belle has served as superintendent for the Franklin City Public Schools since 2009. At that time, all three schools were fully accredited, though in 2008, J.P. King was in its final year of being accredited with warning for history and math.

During the 2009-2010, 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, all three schools were fully accredited. Standards of Learning scores, however, had been dropping during those years, and in 2012-2013, all three fell into accredited with warning status, and J.P. King became a priority school, which is a school that ranks in the bottom five percent of all Title I schools. The graduation rate at Franklin High School has also declined since the 2011-2012 school year.

“At one time, the schools were not in this situation,” said Dr. Kathleen Smith, director of the Office of School Improvement, at a previous meeting. “Scores haven’t always been a problem…it started in 2009-2010 and has deteriorated.”

For the 2013-2014 school year, S.P. Morton Elementary was downgraded as a priority school. SOL scores also declined further, as FCPS statistically ranked last out of the 132 school systems in Virginia.

“It was just time for a change,” Councill said after the meeting.