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In My Opinion: Are Hanover’s fertile fields in jeopardy?

Posted on Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

By Ragan Phillips

Once upon a time there was an old man who lived in a very pleasant country. Fields in this country were well cared for and produced an abundance of outstanding products. Many people wanted to live in this country because of its beauty and the wonderful benefits of those productive fields.

But, one day, a silent, cunning plague began to take root in this beautiful country. The fertile fields began to receive less care and attention. Some of the fields, during the dark of night, were quietly covered with monuments of sticks and stones. The old man worried about this plague and voiced his concern. He noted that by not caring for the fields the country would, in time, be robbed of the bounty received from the productive fields.

But the good people of this country were very busy with their lives. They looked out at the fields and it appeared they were still well-cared for and fertile. The old man, with his outrageous concerns, was, after all, just an aged curmudgeon. The good people smiled indulgently and went on their merry way.

Here are the questions about the Hanover County public school system that must be asked and then answered: Is the public school system of Hanover County, the fertile field of the story above, being slowly neglected? Will this school system stop producing an abundance of productive, responsible adults? Are monuments, in the form of new courthouses, being built in place of badly needed repair to 75-year-old schools? Has some kind of stealthy plague taken hold?

I respect the work being done by the HCPS administrative team under Superintendent Jamelle Wilson. I believe these people have their heart and soul into bringing excellence to the education system. The majority of the Hanover County School Board are dedicated to this same goal.

But, in my opinion, the school administrators and the School Board are, in essence, handcuffed by obstructive procedures and controlled by the board of supervisors. The board seems to have been handed a script of how to operate that is no longer relevant in today’s world.

Let me cite several examples.

Obstructive Rules: If you attend a school board meeting you will see there is an agenda item for “Public Comment.” Residents and parents speak about a variety of issues during this public comment period. The board listens politely but remains silent. There is no response to these comments either at the time of the comments or at some future date. The public comments are, in effect, much like speaking to a brick wall. If a concern is voiced by a county resident – a taxpayer, by the way – shouldn’t the board be responsible for providing an answer to the expressed concern?

“Public Square” meetings would allow civil discussion between the school board and county residents and parents.

Capital Improvements: Last year the five-year Capital Improvement Plan, approved by both boards, called for $80 million in funds for improving our aging schools. This amount included $55 million for the badly needed repair of four 75-year-old elementary schools. In this year’s five-year plan the capital funds for the repair of those four elementary schools has been eliminated, thereby reducing the plan to $25 million.

An explanation by the school board as to the reason for this dramatic reduction has yet to be forth coming. In the meantime the board of supervisors has moved ahead with the approval of a $44 million in capital funds for a new courthouse that will be completed in 2016.

Third Party Control: During the Feb. 4, 2014, discussion of the FY 2014-2015 budget, school officials made several interesting comments. First, it was observed that the schools were faced with “finite resources.” Then an official noted “…the county asked us to work with their funding plans…” And then, later, an official mentioned that “…the public has raised questions about the decrease in capital funding…”

Let’s consider each of these comments. It is certainly true that every organization is faced with “finite resources.” But who defines finite resources? If the goal of the school board is to bring in more teachers and reduce the class size why doesn’t the budget ask for, say, an additional $5 million to move toward those goals? Supervisors may very well reject this request but at least the need for the funds, to meet the approved and worthy budget goals, would have been stated.

When you couple this “finite resource” comment with the next comment, you begin to understand that it is  the county that defines and controls the “finite resources.” To the extent that is true, then school officials and the school board are “handcuffed” in putting forth a budget that actually meets the needs and goals of the public school education system. The school budget, it appears, is being set not by the approved goals but by the dictates of the county and board of supervisors.

And, as to the final remark about the rationale for the $55 million decrease in capital funding for our schools? The question was certainly raised…but it was not answered.

In the Western world we define the pictorial maxim of the three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – as a failure to face or to act against impropriety.  If our School Board members are, in fact, “handcuffed” then perhaps they are also restricted from seeing, hearing, and speaking about the problems facing public education in Hanover County.


About the Writer: Ragan Phillips and his wife, along with their two dogs, reside in Ashland. Their three grandsons have 34 student-years in the Hanover County public school system. The writer encourages comment and criticism of his article and can be reached at rtphil504