Council, School Board at an opportune moment

Published 10:49 am Wednesday, September 21, 2016

To the Editor:

I usually do not write about political matters. I can get in enough trouble writing about faith and Christianity without delving into politics. However, several items in the Sept. 16, 2016, Tidewater News have prompted me to write.

On Friday, we learned that both the Southampton and Isle of Wight County schools are fully accredited for the 2016-2017 academic year. However, two out of the three schools in the Franklin City Public Schools were not accredited. Franklin High School should be commended for its full accreditation.

Similarly, this letter is not meant to be critical of the heartfelt efforts of the principals, teachers,and especially the heroic efforts of the volunteers in the S.P. Morton Elementary School and the J.P. King Middle School. Instead, it is meant to be critical of the Franklin City Public School Administration and the School Board for displaying a spirit of obstinacy.

Prompted by the disappointing news, I visited the website and learned the following information: Isle of Wight County Public Schools rank as the 17th best school district in Virginia (top 13 percent of all districts). Southampton County Public Schools rank as the 21st best school district in Virginia (top 16 percent of all districts). Franklin City Public Schools rank as the 111th best school district in Virginia (bottom 15 percent of all districts).

Expenditures per pupil were as follows: Franklin $14,791. Southampton $11,768. Isle of Wight $10,846. In fact, the top-ranked public school district in Virginia (Town of West Point) spends only $11,888 per student. (Source: Education Week. Map dated April 18, 2016).

On the same page of The Tidewater News, we learned that the Franklin City Council declined to give the School Board an additional $480,000 toward its operating budget.

This was due to the School District’s reticence to either comply with the request of the State Board for specific plans to address the lack of appropriate financial controls in the Central Office of the district discovered in a recent audit or to participate in a third party audit.

According to the paper, Councilman [Greg] McLemore disagreed with council’s vote, saying “The school board is satisfied that they have addressed all our concerns. We have no authority to tell them how to spend the money that they have. Our two duties are to appoint and to fund. If the school board does not plan on participating in any audit, I think that we are just being stubborn and wasting the taxpayers’ time.”

Sorry, Mr. McLemore. Council’s very duty to fund implies a corollary duty to the taxpayers who pay for the funding to make sure that those funds are being well-spent. The arbiter of that determination is not the school board, but rather the Council who bears the responsibility. The question is not whether the school board is satisfied.

The question is whether the Council is satisfied that the money is being carefully spent and properly accounted for. As for me, when it comes to such matters I tend to trust the judgment of the two members of Council who are certified public accountants, and the members of Council who have been leaders in the business community and themselves have served on school boards.

It seems clear to me that, for whatever reason, Franklin City Public Schools are not producing outcomes which reflect the funds being spent. I know that our schools serve a challenged population. But similar challenged populations also exist in the neighboring counties which are apparently doing a much better job of educating their children for three to four thousand fewer dollars per pupil per year.

Instead of a recalcitrant reaction to the State Board of Education’s request for a plan of action to address the lack of financial controls in the central office and refusal to participate in a third-party audit, the Franklin City School Board and Administration needs to display the humility and willingness to learn from other school districts who are having better results. This willingness to learn from other districts befits an organization which is spending lots of taxpayer money without producing the desired results.

I believe that both the City Council and the School Board are at a kairotic [opportune] moment where new opportunities to change and improve are possible. We are at a moment where crucial decisions can be made that can impact our community for the better.

These decisions will only be possible if the governmental organizations approach one another with a cooperative spirit and reasonable attitudes. I have not seen evidence of that positive demeanor in the recent past from the School Board or Administration. I am in hopes that with changes in the leadership of the board and the council the days of obstreperousness may be behind us.

Quoting the prophet Isaiah, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “We read in the Scripture, ‘Come let us sit down and reason together,’ and everyone here has met that spiritual mandate.

There comes a time when we move from protest to reconciliation and we have been misinterpreted by the press and by the political leaders of this town [Chicago] as to our motives and our goals, but let me say once again that it is our purpose, our single purpose to create the beloved community. We seek only to make possible a city where [people] can live together as brothers [and sisters.]”

All of the members of Council and of the School Board have the single purpose to create the beloved community.

And instead of defiantly refusing to cooperate both with the Council and the State Board of Education, the school board and administration needs to “sit down and reason together,” to put the appropriate internal controls in place for the central office, to be totally transparent about what has happened in the past, and assurances to make sure it will not happen again, to certify that money is spent for the purposes for which it was appropriated, and to be faithful stewards of the resources entrusted into your care.

Edmund Pickup Jr.