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Mecklenburg County Trustee: Let’s review Thornton’s contract / August 21, 2013
School Board trustee Dale Sturdifen unleashed a firestorm Monday when he asked to see the employment contract of Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton as a precursor to a discussion at the next board meeting on whether “it is cost effective to go in a different direction” by replacing Thornton as superintendent.

“I am an elected official. I don’t work for Thornton, I work for the people,” Sturdifen said Monday night during the open comment period for School Board members. “And the pulse [of the public] is they want to move in a different direction.”

The statement came after Sturdifen criticized members of Thornton’s instructional team for asking trustees to offer comments via a written questionnaire rather than in public on the school division’s new “Teach” document, a mentoring plan for teachers. “Sometimes I like to make my comments in public,” Sturdifen said.

Sturdifen, who represents ED-2 in the area of Chase City and Boydton, said he was frustrated with what he called “no consistency in the manner in which students in the county are being taught. Deeper learning, PBL [Project Based Learning], I don’t know the difference. Where is the consistency? Will we see the results in our test scores?”

The comments came in the same week that Mecklenburg County learned that six of its eight schools are now provisionally accredited, with warning, under state and federal testing requirements for students’ academic performance. Bluestone Middle School fell into the provisionally accredited category after SOL tests last year produced a marked drop-off in math scores (see related story, below).

Sturdifen said that instead of sending local teachers to California for training in Project Based Learning instructional techniques, “Why don’t we look at the schools in Virginia ranked in the top 10 or 15? See what they are doing?”

He then put newly-hired Deputy Superintendent Melody Hackney on notice that as the division’s expert on PBL, he expects her to deliver positive results in the form of an “upward climb” in SOL test scores.

“I have concerns … reservations about the implementation of PBL on a grand scale,” said Sturdifen. He promised Hackney that if there were no demonstrable improvement in test scores, he would call on her to answer the question, “Is this [the program and the money spent on PBL] worth it?”

Sturdifen’s remarks came after an extended presentation by a newly-created instructional team that will oversee implementation of Project Based Learning, which is touted as an instructional approach that emphasizes problem-solving skills and deeper learning over rote memorization and test prep methods. Hackney said the new system of mentoring teachers was created by her instructional team after hearing a story about Maasai tribesmen of Kenya whose standard greeting is, “How well are the children?” The team wants to answer that they are succeeding in a culture of excellence, building beautiful, quality work, Hackney explained.

This “culture of excellence” will be achieved by the 18-member instructional team, working in pairs, assessing and critiquing teaching methods of educators throughout the county, not just those involved in PBL, trustees were told. “It gives the teacher the opportunity to receive feedback on their teaching style,” said one member of the instructional team who spoke during the presentation.

Two instructional team members will travel to each school, sit in classrooms and observe teachers. Afterwards they will discuss, with that teacher, the extent to which he or she is adhering to the new “teaching rubric” for encouraging deeper learning. The concept is a staple of teacher education and is considered a best-practices method by most educators.

It was after this presentation on the new “teach document” that Sturdifen said to Hackney, Thornton and the new educational team, “You ask how are the children doing? Well, my first thought is how are the teachers doing? We have to make certain the teachers are taken care of as well.”

Dora Garner, speaking after Sturdifen, shared her concerns about the speed at which PBL was being implemented in county schools. “I was hoping we would go slower,” said Garner.

She also expressed concern that if school SOL scores do not improve, the state will take over the entire school district.

Discarded school desks draw Edwards’ ire

Glenn Edwards sparred with Thornton over another issue at the end of the meeting. He criticized the superintendent for allowing discarded school desks to be tossed into a pile at the school bus depot, instead of being stored. The desks were recently removed from classrooms after new furniture was purchased for teachers in PBL classes.

“They are probably ruined,” said Edwards, adding that the furniture has been exposed to rain and the weather for the past several days. After the meeting, Edwards mused that if the school division needed a storage space, “why didn’t we just keep Buckhorn [the shuttered Buckhorn Elementary building]?”

In a follow-up response, Thornton said, “In response to Mr. Edward’s concern about the desks, Wade Wilson, supervisor of maintenance, has informed me that the desks and two mobile units are going to be auctioned in the next three weeks.”

Sandra Tanner of La Crosse was the only trustee to come to Thornton’s defense. She said, “This board as a whole instructed Dr. Thornton, when we hired him, to place more emphasis on academics over sports,” which she claimed had been the main focus of prior superintendents. Tanner commenced reading a long list of Thornton’s accomplishments, all of which, she said, were consistent with the School Board’s charge to improve academics.

Tanner’s list of Thornton’s achievements, on behalf of Mecklenburg County school district, included:

Programs to honor students, such as the Student of the Month program, the “All A” awards and, academic letter jackets;

The number of students in dual enrollment has increased;

The on-time graduation rate improved to 87%;

The number of students graduating with associates degrees has increased;

Implementation of a program to ensure that courses are taught only by teachers with proper certifications;

Creation of HEROES and new beginnings programs [mentoring programs for at-risk students];

Salary increases for teachers;

Development of MCPS website;

Outsourcing of janitorial services to save money for the school system;

Hiring of energy management company to instill a culture of energy conservation, which will save the school division money;

In addition, Tanner said Thornton was hired because of his experience with building new school facilities.

She cautioned fellow board members on the potential costs of buying Thornton out of his contract, claiming it would cost in excess of $375,000. She also said he might be entitled to more money for alleged contractual breaches committed by school board members who interfere with Thornton’s duties as CEO of the school division.

Tanner went on to claim that one or more unnamed trustees have gone into schools and “badgered” teachers and administrators, inhibiting Thornton’s ability to run the school district.

“It blows my mind when I’ve put all this down,” Tanner said in reference to her list of accomplishments, “and read all the negativity. We’ve got to support this superintendent and these teachers.”

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Mr. Sturdifen is posturing for the board chairman spot. Before he starts making accusations maybe he needs to look into the mirror.


Thornton needs to go. You don't have to buy out his contract, just assign him another job. He should have a clause like teachers in his contract about duties as assigned by the school board. By pass both of them I agree totally with Sturdifen.


Sturdifen wants to pay the supt. out $375,000 to leave, it would be cheaper to get rid of Sturdifen and better for the schools. This is what is wrong with Mecklenburg schools, they keep running supertindents out of the county.

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