VDOE tired of excuses

Published 11:25 am Friday, February 28, 2014

RICHMOND—Superintendent of Education Patricia Wright said the Memorandum of Understanding the state board is setting for the Franklin City School Division goes against everything she believes in, as she prefers to set three to five items for boards to focus on.

The memorandum VDOE is proposing has 26 items, some of them immediate actions and others that should be addressed for the long-term. Wright said she could not leave items off because she does not have the authority to allow Franklin to not be complaint with the law.

“I have never seen a report like this, and I have been here for 29 years,” she said. “The problems are systemic.”

The Franklin City Public School Division was on the agenda for the Virginia Department of Education’s Board of Education, and a few members of the Franklin school spent two days in Richmond before the board. Franklin City Public Schools were on the agenda as a first review of the findings from the division-level review and a memorandum of understanding. An action was not requested and will not be until Thursday, March 27.

Over the two-day period, state board members questioned Franklin representatives on topics including hiring practices, setting policy and transparency.

Hiring Practices

In terms of hiring practices, the state board, including President Christian N. Braunlich expressed particular concern.

“I think it is safe to say that Franklin city is in the danger zone, in terms of its school system,” he said on Wednesday at the committee meeting. “People don’t wake up one day and they are here. It takes time.”

Braunlich asked what was causing the hiring problems, was it bad or no policy, policies in place that were not followed, or were they in place and the central office and school administrations were not following through?

“What you have is in somewhere north of 10 instances, the law says X, and the Franklin City Public School Board did something else,” he said.

Dr. Kathleen Smith, director of the office of school improvement, explained that all three issues were taking place.

“For example, when we interviewed principals, they expressed concern over who they were told they could hire,” she said. “They had concern that they were not always given a choice over hiring people that were endorsed in the area that they were endorsed in.”

School Board Chairwoman Edna King explained that since the review took place in November, they have taken care of 99 percent of the personnel problems. She also said that the board has since created a policy that states that they will not hire anyone who does not have all of the credentials in place for licensure.

“I appreciate you talking about how you are going to climb out of the hole,” Braunlich said. “But I am more concerned with how you got in it. If you can not identify how you got in the hole, you run the risk of falling back in.”

King responded by challenging Smith’s timeline, who said the issues started in 2009.

“This problem began prior to that,” she said. “In 2006, Franklin may have lost 53 percent of its staff. We have worked on improving morale. We have happy teachers and very excited principals.”

“I’m hard-pressed to think that having a school system under review is great for morale,” Braunlich responded.

King said that staff was devoted to getting out of this.

“We have people who are invested in turning this around,” she said.

Vice President Winsome E. Sears brought up personnel at the board meeting the next day. As a parent, she was appalled seeing that 16 classes were taught by teachers not highly qualified, and that 10 were taught by people not properly endorsed.

“Saying someone is endorsed in a subject matter is saying this person has content knowledge and skills for competent practice,” she said. “Tell me as a parent, what you are going to do to ensure that the status quo is going to change?”

King said when that review was conducted, they did not have a completed IPAL report – which stands for instructional, personnel and licensure – from the department of education, which they did get two weeks ago. The IPAL showed that 99 percent of the teachers were highly qualified, she said.

“What you have said to me is that the Virginia Department of Education is at fault?” Sears asked.

State board member Diane Atkinson said that the IPAL report is supposed to be a late report, and that the division should handle it before then.

“A phone call to check verification or to check credentials would have handled this,” said Atkinson, adding that a board needs this information when it decides to offer a contract.

Setting Policy

Joan E. Wodiska, a state board member who was a long-time school board member in Falls Church, was disturbed as a former member of a local school board.

“I am deeply concerned as a school board member who wants to ensure the public trust of school boards being advocates for the advancement of children,” she said, speaking about an item in the AdvancED review that addresses concerns for the school board to set policy. “I say with the greatest respect that I need you to do more.

“When you don’t do the job, it erodes confidence in school boards. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.”

Ward 1 representative Will Councill, who was present for the committee meeting, said he was not aware of a situation where the board did not set policy, so he asked her to clarify.

Wodiska could only go by what was in the report, which she said was scathing. She encouraged him to speak to AdvancED for specifics.

“I do think some of it may be unfair,” said Councill. “I also do not believe we micromanaged personnel or the superintendent. I certainly didn’t mean to.”

Wright said even if the school board was setting policy, it was clear that the policy was not being enforced.

“You may have something on paper, but if you don’t follow it, it is just a nice thing to have,” she said. “If you have something on paper and you are not practicing it, then it is not policy.

“I believe that you feel you are doing the right thing. I don’t think anyone gets up and goes to work to do the wrong thing. I think there is a lack of understanding of state laws and regulations.”


Sears said that in the AdvancED review, there was quite a bit of focus on the lack of transparency.

“That is concerning because you are there to serve the community, and the parents don’t know what is going on,” she said. “It seems that the city council who appointed you doesn’t know what is going on. Certainly, the teachers are not getting the feedback that they need.”

King felt like there was a miscommunication with someone on the AdvancED team, because she feels the board is transparent. She said that School Board Attorney Taylor Williams is competent, and that he is persistent in assuring what is and is not closed session material.

“It must have been someone who was surveyed during the AdvancED visit who did not really know,” she said.

Sears pointed out that the AdvancED document clearly states that it got the open session issues from interviews with school board members, school division leadership and school board minutes.

King still insisted that the only time they go into closed session is when it relates to personnel, as that is the only way the attorney will allow it.

“We present in open session,” she said. “In many instances, nobody is there by the time we get to that point.”

Sears said that even if it is an AdvancED mistake, that there is at minimum a perception of lack of transparency.

“If in fact you are not doing that, a significant group believes you are. You know what they say about perception and reality,” Sears said. “This is definitely something that you need to clean up.”


Dr. Billy K. Cannaday Jr. said the market would be the true test. He asked are Franklin High School graduates able to compete in this global economy, to find a job or to get into college?

“It is not just about graduating people, unless you plan to hire all of these graduates,” he said. “At the end of 13 years, parents have hopes that their child will have a better quality of life than they did. They want their child to be able to compete with anyone. Not just in Franklin. Not just in Virginia. Not just in the U.S. But anyone else trying to get work. The data shows that is not happening.”

Cannaday also said he was tired of hearing excuses from King and the other representatives who have addressed the board.

“I really am upset about this issue,” he said. “You are defending and responding to elements of the review. Those are just symptoms of a really big problem.

“Stop trying to defend whether the data is accurate. I am less interested in your response. I am interested in what your children can do.”

Braunlich made a comparison that anyone on a school board would understand – an expulsion hearing. He made an example of a child coming before the board for fighting with a knife.

“If the child comes to us and says, ‘Oh, I used a knife. I didn’t know that was wrong. You didn’t tell me.’

“That’s not a glimmer of recognition of what the problem is,” he said.

He continued, stating that if the Franklin City Public School Board were students who have violated the law 10 times, that they would be up for expulsion.

“For you to tell me that we hired these people because you didn’t tell us they were not qualified is just an absurdity,” Braunlich said. “We have heard an undertone of that over several months. It’s not my fault. We are working on it.

“It is like a child killing their parents, and falls on the sympathy of the courts because they are an orphan.”

Braunlich said it was time to quit making excuses, and for the board to roll up thier sleeves and work.

“I can’t underscore enough that the sense we get from these meetings is that maybe we will be able to slide past it,” he said. “You are not going to be able to. You are going to have to use every tool that you have at your hand, and you are going to have to do what is right for the children of Franklin city.

“It is not about the board, nor the system, it is about the children. The children are everything.”