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Mecklenburg County school board ramps up squabbling
SoVaNow.com / June 19, 2013Infighting among members of the Mecklenburg County School Board became public at Monday night’s meeting as members battled over everything from the handling of a potential after-school program at South Hill Elementary to whether to establish a finance committee.
Tempers flared from the first request, which came from South Hill Elementary School assistant principal Michelle Eisenhower. The school wanted approval to contract with Champions, a Williamsburg-based company, for a before-and-after school program at the school. Trustee Glenn Edwards, who already knew the answer was “no,” asked Eisenhower whether the opportunity to operate the program had been first offered to any local business.
In response to Edwards’ questions about the cost, Eisenhower said it ranged from $7 to $35 per student per week, but could not say what costs the school would incur. She also claimed this was comparable to area programs. However, Charles Clary, who owns United Tiger Martial Arts in South Hill, said his before-and-after school programs cost $25 per child or less and do not use any school resources.
Trustee Sandra Tanner spoke in defense of Champions, since she was the one who, last February, asked the Board to consider using the company for a countywide before and after school program. She’d first learned of the company at a Virginia School Board Association Conference.
A survey done by the schools at that time found little parental support for the Champions program and so the Board decided to “pass on the program,” Edwards said. Eisenhower disagreed, saying that South Hill Elementary School had a need for the program unlike the other schools in the county.
Kim Jennings, who was at the meeting on behalf of Champions, faced an awkward moment when a parent, William Martin, asked the board to explain why Champions’ website listed South Hill Elementary School as a program site, even before the vote. He handed out a copy of one of Champions’ web pages that he printed out on Thursday.
Jennings called the listing an inadvertent error, saying they were proactively working on licensing and other requirements associated with starting up at a new site, which she said takes 60 days. “In order to be ready for the first day of school, Aug. 19, we had to take certain steps with licensing and such.”
Kristine Martin of Ebony, added her opposition to using Champions instead of existing local programs, such as the YMCA, MC Kids, and Sunshine Station.
The Board voted 5-3 in favor of the program, with Debra Smiley, Dora Garner and Glenn Edwards opposing. Dale Sturdifen was absent.
The arguments among board members continued when Trustees were asked to approve payment of the bills for the month. Garner asked why Dr. Melody Hackney, the incoming assistant superintendent and current Charlotte County superintendent was paid $4,200 while still on Charlotte County’s payroll. School Superintendent Dr. James Thornton answered that it was for her “invaluable” consulting services as the teachers are trained in project-based learning. Garner then asked if Hackney would continue her consulting work, but with other counties, once she is employed in Mecklenburg. Thornton did not respond, but Tanner said, “We cannot tell our employees what they can and cannot do during their vacations or on their days off.”
Edwards wanted to know why the school system spent more than $100,000 on new furniture for project-based learning (PBL), and why each school purchased the furniture separately instead of in bulk. Thornton assured him that the schools acted within the law. Later, PBL coordinator Karla Gravitt told The Sun that, while the school system might have saved some money had they made a bulk purchase, they would have been forced into a “cookie-cutter situation” with all the furniture being the same instead of addressing the specific needs of each school as it moves forward with implementing PBL. “In order to promote collaboration, we needed to replace desks with tables, for example,” Gravitt explained.
Edwards also shared a letter he received from a constituent claiming that the school system had overspent its operations and maintenance budget by between $40,000 and $90,000. He never received a response to his questions about how or why this happened. He’d asked, was it for energy-related expenses for which Mecklenburg pays a consultant and an employee over $120,000 to turn off lights, or was it for cost overruns from the janitorial contractor, Service Solutions, which cut the janitorial staff in half and pays the remaining workers $7 per hour. Thornton acknowledged the deficit but said the school system had the money to cover the additional expenses. It simply needed to transfer the money from one area of the budget to another.
The most heated discussion came when Edwards questioned a new procedure: Instead of presenting a request for information to Thornton, a board member must bring it to Board Chairman Robert Puryear. He will poll the board to determine if there is sufficient interest in the topic and, if so, he alone will direct Thornton to research the requested subject. No board member, aside from Puryear, will be allowed to utilize Thornton for information-gather purposes.
The debate over whether each individual school board member could call on Thornton for information first arose during the June 3 special meeting. During that meeting, Edwards raised objections to the e-mail issued by Puryear, which contained the following procedure:
“The proper procedure in the future should be to ask me about any topics of interest and then I will check to see if we have enough board members interested in the topic. If we do then I will have Dr. Thornton research it and present the information to us with a recommendation. I hope that proper procedures will be followed and that we work as a team to become a better board.”
At that meeting, Edwards claimed the e-mail established a policy contradictory to advice from the board’s lawyer. Telling the board, “You cannot deny me the opportunity to find answers to questions posed by the people who elected me,” he demanded that the procedure but put in writing and signed by the attorney.
In other business, again after much debate, the board voted against creating a finance committee to review school expenditures, but agreed to authorize Thornton to seek up to $200,000 from the Board of Supervisors for a consultant to begin the process of locating property for a single, consolidated high school and conducting a needs assessment and focus groups regarding the future school.
They also agreed to look into the cost of drug testing for all student athletes.
During the board member remarks, Thornton again addressed rumors “swirling around in the community” about three teachers that the rumor mill claims are leaving because they oppose PBL. Thornton said, “Heidi Barber, [Park View Middle School PBL history teacher] has been hired by Buena Vista schools to be their PBL coordinator. Amber Sheffield is getting married and moving out of county. Our loss is Colonial Heights’ gain. And Sarah Mills, [Park View Middle School PBL math teacher] just had a baby and is moving near her family.”
He also chastised the board for “playing gotcha” instead of acting “like adults” and for the betterment of the school system.
Finally, for those who question why the school trustees are now pushing the Board of Supervisors to spend money for a new consolidated school, he said, “look to the county’s budget. They have $8 million in capital funds that can be used for any project.” He then challenged supervisors to follow the lead of other counties that built new schools.
CommentsSo now Puryear has the god complex, thinking he only is worthy to decide what should be discussed. Then, if he decides the board is in agreement, he will take it to mr. Thornton. Just who does he think he is? He serves the public. It is time, past time, to get rid of Thornton and all his pocket-dwelling school board idiots, starting with Puryear. The only one who seems to sincerely care about the public and our schools is Edwards!
- By Marie on 06 / 20 / 13
CommentsAlso, I think Hackney, Thornton and Tanner need a refresher on "ethics training", not to mention a conflict of interest! Why is it that Thornton buys into third party programs???? How much is commission these days? The definition of unethical is using ones position for person gain!
- By Fred on 06 / 21 / 13
CommentsMr. Thornton has overdrawn his ability to be an intimidating presence in his position. Very soon it will be clear that he has misused his office, intentionally, for personal gain. Among his criminal liabilities are abuse of faculty and staff and private stake in a company which benefits from public funds at his discretion. In civil court, he should be persued for damages for defrauding the public school system and neglecting the present and future well being of students, facutly and staff under his charge.
- By Anonymous on 09 / 04 / 13
CommentsThe last I checked, schools were for the benefit of the children...not the adults that are supposed to be setting the example. And since when did the schools become part of "probation". My child was sent home with a paper for me to sign to verify child's information and come to find out tge actual purpose of that consent is for drug testing "selective chikdren" not for the child's " safety and security" which is what it states the paper is for. I saved picture of that paper for future reference if need be. Because that us falsely getting parents signatures for drug testing. Funny how school doesn't have money for fieldtrips and student supplies but they have money for new furniture and drug tests . I believe the new furniture was for the staff and not the children.hmmmmm
- By concerned parent on 11 / 26 / 13
CommentsWaiting to see what happens next.rumor going around that school gonna be installing new locks ( the type where you use card to swipe like at hotels). I wonder how much that gonna cost. School can afford that but CANT afford to replace old heating system that keeps breakibg down where children have to wear their coats n gloves in class.
- By concerned parent on 12 / 14 / 13
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