School leaders speak openly about education

Published 2:08 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Kelvin Edwards Sr. and Bob Holt of Franklin City Public Schools recently sat down with The Tidewater News to speak about what’s been taking place in the system since Edwards was named interim superintendent and Holt the chairman of the new school board.

Holt, who had been on the board of the previous administration, started off with praises for Edwards.

“From the time he was appointed, everyday literally I have had positive comments. I mean from staff, from parents, city council from anybody who has any interest in the city of Franklin school system compliments Kelvin. He asks questions. He wants feedback. He looks at all sides of an issue, and that’s working great. Teachers, particularly at the high school, are just bouncing off the walls they’re so excited over there. It’s just a whole different atmosphere. One of the first things Kelvin did was replace the principal, and that one act early on had a very positive effect on the whole division.”

Edwards’ decision, Holt said, was “a symptom of looking at the whole picture and taking it piece by piece. And that was obviously the first area he needed to look at. During this time there was no board, either. He had nobody to run stuff by. He did work with the state people, but they’re not going to get involved in a decision like that. I think it was just phenomenal.”

Edwards compared working without a school board to that of being in a tornado.

“Carefully — as you’re being whirled around — while you’re in that tornado, try to examine every aspect because one wrong decision will have you vigorously thrown out, and you will not know where you’re going to land,” he said. “We knew the board was forthcoming, and you would have to answer once the board was back, because no decision of any magnitude is without governance and that’s what Franklin city public schools governing body does.”

His impression of the new school board so far is a good one.

“I feel very comfortable [working with it]. I feel that the new board is coming together. Both sides, school administration and school board, approached this as ‘This is where we are, and we’re looking forward to moving forward.’ But of course always addressing things that we need to address that were from the past,” said Edwards, referencing as one example the Fiscal Year 2014-2015 audit.

“Under the leadership of this board under chairman Holt what we’ve done, is I think we have addressed each issue in a manner to a) keep the community informed; b) be transparent about our approaches; and c) any decisions that we make we want to put them publicly out there,” he continued.

He spoke of partnerships, of putting more about the school system out into the community, such as the upcoming coffee talks and periodic columns provided to the paper.

“That’s how we can keep the public informed and know that we are working together, and I might add, city council — keeping them abreast and informed, and that was one of the charges that was said when I was talking to chairman Holt.”


Changing the topic to the relationship Edwards has with the school board compared to the former board and superintendent, Holt said it would be counterproductive to criticize in any way the previous board or superintendent. He added that from his perspective what’s different is openness.

When they first got into their roles, the two committed themselves to clear communication.

“We agreed we would be open and honest and tell each other exactly what we thought and that’s what we’ve done. Kelvin tells me what he thinks good or bad and I tell him what I think good or bad. It’s been fabulous,” Holt said. “The board is the same way … We have a diverse board in terms of backgrounds and experiences and they have the same relationship that Kelvin and I do — they say what they think. I think in the past people were reluctant to say anything.”

But the chairman acknowledged he couldn’t diplomatically answer why that hesitancy existed. Bad-mouthing the former superintendent and board was not the goal of anyone present at the meeting.

Most of the time now the board and Edwards are in sync, he added.

Regarding the working relationship among the members, Holt said in his view he feels it’s too new to really know, but added that they ask questions and are enthusiastic. When they were sworn in they were ready to go the next day.

“We can have open dialogue,” said Edwards. “It’s a process of where we continue to build relationships, understanding the backgrounds of what each board member comes from, and one of our roles is to continually inform so that the decisions that are made are made collectively.”

Holt gave an example of the new members’ growing relationship with one another. In January, four of the five chose to ride together in a van to attend the Virginia School Board Association training session; the fifth had a legitimate reason not to accompany them. He had not seen such willingness in the past, and the trip together is a good sign to him. Further, their choosing not to spend money to stay overnight is also an example of the board’s awareness about money particularly with the budget crunch. This group is particularly frugal, Holt added.


Speaking of money, the topic of financial challenges revealed last fall next arose in conversation. Edwards said they’re still uncovering financial components, and they have the help of interim finance director Sheila Minor for two days each month.

The shortfall now appears to be approximately $235,000; the former estimate was about $480,000.

He explained that there’s a school improvement grant of $220,000 available, and the school division has not yet received all of its monies from grants that have been sent out out on the table.

“We don’t count them until we received,” Edwards said.

He added that Minor has looking through all the components and an accurate report is anticipated to be made during Thursday’s meeting.

To clarify, the shortfall hasn’t shrunk, but been covered. That $235,000 is in existing shortfall after the $490,000 carryover funding was granted by city council to cover the first chunk of the debt. The total shortfall is more like $700,000-plus.

As another way to save money, the school division is not filling positions where retirements and resignations have taken place in operations.

“We’re doing everything in our power not to touch instruction,” said Edwards.

Holt said the finance function in the past were not well supervised, and as a result the financial statements were not accurate.

“That created the problem,” he said.

Where did the money go?

Both men acknowledged the shortfall occurred because of not enough money coming in combined with overspending. Edwards reiterated that the shortfall was more a matter of revenue falling short rather than overspending.

[After the meeting, he emailed that “of the $700,000 shortfall, approximately $450,000 was due to revenue shortfall and the balance was spending.”]

Also there were maybe some misconceptions. “Maybe you think you’re going to get some revenue from bringing students back, however, looking at the whole picture that did not occur,” said the superintendent, who agreed that the budget was not adjusted accordingly.

Underestimating revenue and overestimating expenses will be a philosophy for the next year’s budget, “so they’ll be a cushion on both ends,” Holt added.


Concerning student performance and how to improve it, Edwards had set up a meeting with the principals to present to the board on Jan. 5, the Standards of Learning test preparations they do.

“You would not believe the programs we have in place to help kids do well in the SOLS,” Holt said.

There’s consideration of making a community presentation.

“We’re still under a memorandum of understanding with the Virginia Department of Education, and we want to continue to work hard and get full accreditation in all schools, and the memorandum doesn’t go away until that happens,” said Edwards.

The high school has had full accreditation for the past three years in a row; J.P. King Jr. Middle School has been challenged in the reading, so it’s partially accredited, as is S.P. Morton Elementary School.

The superintendent continued, “Starting last year, we have put a lot more emphasis on that PreK-2 component of reading, because that is where our biggest deficiency has come from in Franklin city.”

With the partnership of Catapult Learning, there have been strides made in scoring.

He also said growth is witnessed from fall to spring in the assessments for Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening.

[Edwards later emailed: “The PALS assessment is administered three times a year. Fall, mid-year and spring. The initial screening determines the benchmark for growth. The mid-year screening provides a gauge for re-teaching if necessary and the end-of-year screening will indicate the growth.”]

More parental involvement at the elementary level is needed. At J.P. King, there’s already a program with parents.

[The superintendent again emailed: “In addition to the great job the PTA at SPM and Parents and Partners at JPK, we need volunteers and mentors to assist our students.”]

“I think we’ve got a phenomenal group of teachers. They work hard and are dedicated,” said Holt.

The superintendent added the school division has a “phenomenal group of administrators, such as principals. We’ll meet the standards of the MOU, the promised land of accreditation.”


Just as the school board and Edwards have been working better, the same can be said for the school division and council. Holt called the relationship with council as “fantastic … I’m convinced council will give what they can [for the next budget].”

The public should also be aware of the charged atmosphere in the system.

“I think they need to know how excited we are,” said Holt. “I’ve just seen a 180-degree turnaround in enthusiasm and excitement. People have smiles on their faces. They step lightly. It’s just a whole different atmosphere,” and that includes both schools and central office.

“We’re keeping an eye on teaching and learning,” added Edwards.


For the search of a permanent superintendent, the VSBA will help with the mechanics — send out the announcements, receive applications, do initial screenings, such as qualifications the board sets. They’ll do some reference-checking.

“I can guarantee you our board will do some reference-checking of our own,” Holt said. “We’re not going to leave that important facet to the VSBA.”

Edwards acknowledged that he is qualified to seek the position, and is “still exploring” the possibility.