QZAB funding brings back bad memories

Published 10:35 am Saturday, October 25, 2014

Just walk into the Franklin City Public Schools with an iPhone and you’ll know they are still behind the technology curve. If you were to have walked into one of the schools in 2013, you wouldn’t have found a wifi signal at all. Now, there are a few strategic points set up for the offices and certain classrooms.

For that reason alone, and for many other reasons that you might not notice unless you’ve been in a building of a technological up-to-date school recently, it was great to see Superintendent Willie J. Bell make an attempt at acquiring the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds made available by the Virginia Department of Education.

These funds could amount to $1.8 million dollars of interest-free money, as lending agencies receive tax credits from the federal government for taking on the loans.

The QZAB money could buy laptops for both teachers and students, more access points for the wifi, Smartboards, and tablet computers and carts. There are also several buildings that could be upgraded with these funds, including many efficiency-related items such as HVACs.

The problem comes when Bell said that notification for these funds would have come back in November, which was well before his appointment. The only reason he was able to get a jump on this option before they went to the next school district is because a VDOE representative informed him at a meeting in Norfolk in early October.

“It was just lucky that I stumbled upon it,” Bell said Monday at the joint meeting between the Franklin City Council and the School Board.

Which brings us back to last year. City Manager Randy Martin said he first heard of the option in late spring this year. He didn’t hear it from the school board or the superintendent of the time, however, he heard it from Davenport & Company, the mutual financial advisor for both the city and public schools.

Martin was told at the time that the door was closed on it, but when speaking to Bell, VDOE decided to allow Franklin to pursue QZAB rather than giving the option to the fourth district in line.

New city council member Frank Rabil then turned the question on everyone’s mind to School Board Chairman Edna King. “Was it a decision the school board made to not pursue the funds?”

“It was not presented to us as a board,” King said Monday. “This was the first time we were made aware of it, during Mr. Bell’s administration.”

It seems as if she is willing to let former Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle take the blame for not trying for the funds. But there is the qualifier there, “as a board.” There may be nothing to that qualifier, but it certainly sounds suspicious.

We won’t dig into the qualifier, as it is not something we can prove. However, even taking it at face value, it still raises questions about King’s leadership. She voted to keep Dr. Belle as the superintendent back in January, so you would at least think she would have a good working relationship with the former superintendent.

Yet, it seems that may have not been the case, and once again the school board chair is painting herself as clueless about what is going on in the district. Will she, as a leader, ever take responsibility for what went on to get Franklin into the situation it is having to dig itself out of?

At least, it seems, someone will take action.

“I surely did not want to leave the funds on the table,” Bell said Monday about the potential for helping his students with the upgrades that would come with these funds.

While it will be a hurried effort, qualifying for QZAB could make the difference in giving the children a 21st Century learning experience.

That’s really all that matters, going forward — the students. But one has to wonder if the superintendent could do a better job with a school board chair who didn’t keep getting in her own way.