Looking to the future

Published 11:19 am Saturday, June 13, 2015

The week before voting on the at-large representative for the Franklin City Public School Board, three members of council were at Partners in Progress.

The event, which was largely a pep-rally designed to build excitement about the achievements the city and Southampton County had in attracting business, featured Virginia’s Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones.

Among his five keys for success in building the business presence in communities, two of them directly related to education, and a third did indirectly.

“Talent will be the game-changer,” Jones said.

Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn was there, along with Ward 6’s Frank Rabil and Ward 2’s Benny Burgess, and the mayor even gave a welcome. In it, she talked about the small steps the city took this past year in being able to keep 77 jobs local.

A few days later the mayor helped the city take several steps backward by caving into social pressure and being the decisive vote to reappoint Edna King on the at-large seat.

Certainly, on paper, she’s got experience. King was a teacher for 30 years, and she served part of her time in the Franklin division. She has been on the school board for six years and chair for two.

The problem with that resume is what’s happened in the past six years. Certainly, King’s not entirely responsible for the underperformance of the district under the leadership of then-superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle, but she voted to keep her on this past year, even after all of the evidence was presented. Belle had recently failed to perform on one of the three rubrics the school board had laid out for allowing her to keep the job.

If King would have had her way, the system wouldn’t have experienced some of recently touted successes. Any major upswing is based on conjecture, as many of the numbers presented publicly have not been for the faint of heart.

During the past six years, the division’s schools have sunk into last place, only to have been overtaken this past year by Petersburg. King’s resume includes all three schools being accredited with warning, and two of them became priority schools — the bottom five percent of the state. Again, she’s not completely responsible for these declines, but it happened under her watch.

Her leadership on the board has also included a breakdown in transparency with city council and The Tidewater News; confusion from members of the school board and herself on basic state code that’s part of the standard operating procedure; and a principal at S.P. Morton Elementary School being hired, fired, and hired again because of a breakdown in protocol for a Memorandum of Understanding with the state that they had just approved. That’s not even to mention the failure surrounding keeping the former principal of that school due to reported conflicts of interest in the system.

Speaking of the MOU and the Virginia Board of Education, she was also a poor representative for the division in Richmond. As they worked on perhaps the most expansive Corrective Action Plan that the state board has ever placed on a division, members of VBOE accused King of making excuses and not accepting responsibility for the division’s children.

The CAP covered every level of operation in the district that had failed students, including, but not limited to, the school board, human resources and curriculum.

All of this under King’s leadership, as the school board ultimately approves all hires and the recommended curriculum. It’s not to say that she’s personally responsible for all of this, but it all happened while she was the chair or leading up to her becoming chair.

Yet she got the job, and many cited experience as the factor. To take a quote from Ward 5 Councilwoman Mary Hilliard, “If I would hire someone for a job, I would want the most experienced person I could find.”

If this were a private venture, someone with King’s experience would have been laughed out the door. You could have almost taken anyone off the street and had a better candidate.

But a random person off the street was not the choice the city had. It had Chuck Lilley, a 25-plus year businessman who had graduated from the district, sent his children there, and who was one of the first people to volunteer at the schools when the division was in the trouble that occurred under King’s watch. In a division facing an extreme budget crunch, he could have been an incredible asset.

Perhaps not as the chair, but someone else deserves that opportunity, as a good chair with true knowledge of education could have prevented a lot of the bad that happened. Even an average chair wouldn’t have voted to keep a superintendent who, after watching the system sink, blamed the children for the failure.

There’s been a lot of talk about spending too much time looking in the “rear-view mirror” lately. The rear-view mirror can be important, though, as it can alert you to the dangers coming from behind.

As Spanish philosopher and novelist George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We only hope this decision, made almost assuredly along racial lines, doesn’t doom Franklin’s children and the city’s future business prospects.