Phillips: School Board should invite more public participation

By Ragan Phillips

The School Board’s Mission Statement reads: “Hanover County Public Schools is a student-centered, community-driven organization that provides a quality education for lifelong success.”

The current members of the Hanover County School Board are, surely, dedicated individuals who favor a strong public school system. They are to be commended for their time and work that benefits our public school system. It is possible, however, that the current School Board has allowed itself to become trapped in practices from the past.

During most of the tenure of Stewart Roberson as Superintendent (ending in July 2011 after 16 years) the public schools flourished. Funding was strong with the County providing each year some 60 percent of its General Fund for education. Eight new schools were built and student enrollment was on the rise.

During this time, the School Board and the school administration managed affairs of the school while the parents and the public had, at least superficially, little reason for concern about public education As a consequence the Board moved ahead on issues, feeling no need or requirement to seriously engage the public in decisions regarding the management of the schools.

Both sides of the table were satisfied with progress in the schools and the practice of managing school affairs became, over time, one-sided in favor of the Board and administration.

But over the past five years the situation has changed dramatically.  School funding has declined. As a result, the ability of our school system to pay for services has been severely diminished. During the past school budget cycle the concerned voices of our classroom teachers were not heard by the Board of Supervisors. Since 2009, as education funding has been constantly decreased, over 325 positions have been eliminated from the schools.

As a consequence of all these factors our schools, our teachers and our students, if not actually in crisis, are certainly at the tipping point.

Here is the problem. Basking in the light of past practice the School Board appears to not be particularly concerned about communications with the public.  Two recent and very important issues underscore this “attitude” on the part of the Board. One example is teacher attrition and the second has to do with School Board goals.

To date the Board has failed to explain or even address the issue of teacher attrition in 2013. Goals for all schools were approved by the Board Aug. 13 without public input or comment. There is no apparent evaluation of these goals even after they have been established.

The 2013-2014 Goals were published, a few days after the formal approval by the Board, on the school system’s website. School Board Goal I E states, “The Board will participate in activities which promote public engagement, outreach, and accountability.”

In the case of these two examples one could argue that the Board has failed to meet the standard established by their own self-imposed goal.

Past practice, almost like tradition, becomes a way of doing business. The School Board may not be intentionally ignoring parents and the public. But the Board has an obligation to parents and the public to change its model for conducting business and allow more “open session” dialogue.

In My Opinion, there are at least two practical steps that should be taken. It is nearly impossible during the monthly Board meetings for the public to follow discussions. Board members receive a detailed briefing book, which the public does not have.

Presentations by school staff are often daunting in content but, again, the public has no copy of these presentations and does not have the opportunity to absorb the impact.

Consequently, the public is in the dark as to what is transpiring between the Board and school officials. As a result we “outsiders” give up and stop attending the Board meetings. This failure of communication between the Board and the public must be changed.

The second step would be even more important. The Board should convene a regular “Town Hall” type meeting where parents and the public are allowed to ask tough questions and offer suggestions for improving the system.

The Board’s Mission Statement, quoted above, includes the phrase “…community-driven organization…” The time is here for the Hanover County School Board to adhere to their own Mission Statement.

Mr. Phillips and his wife reside in Ashland. They have three grandchildren who are products of the Hanover County Public School System. Phillips can be reached at rtphil504@gmail.com.

Posted on Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 11:19 am