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Mecklenburg County Trustees rally around target of ouster attempt / November 20, 2013

A majority of the Mecklenburg County School Board is rallying around one of their own, Joan Wagstaff, as the District 8 trustee becomes the target of a petition seeking her removal from office.

At Monday night’s meeting of the School Board, members voted 6-2 to have the school board’s attorney represent Wagstaff and any other currently sitting member should they face a similar challenge.

Only Dora Garner and Glenn Edwards opposed the motion. Wagstaff voted in favor, while not disclosing that the petition against her was the impetus for the motion.

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that a petition for removal from office, allowed under Section 24.2-233 of the Virginia Code, has been served on Wagstaff. At this time, the Sheriff’s Office has not served any other petitions against trustees.

While the Virginia code section is occasionally employed to seek the removal of elected representatives from office, past efforts to carry out the action have been unsuccessful. The code section requires a ruling by a circuit judge to remove an official from office; the code section notes that officials must display “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties” and lists offenses that can lead to removal, such as drug-related crimes and hate speech.

The Sheriff’s Office did not provide the source for the petition.

Edwards objected to the motion to allow the board attorney to represent Wagstaff, calling it a reversal of a policy put in place five years ago. Then, it was Edwards and four other former board members were accused of misconduct in office. They asked to have the school board attorney represent them, but a majority of the board, including Wagstaff, voted down the request.

The complaints against Edwards included allegations that he used his seat on the School Board for personal financial gain. The controversy subsequently prompted a criminal prosecution of Edwards and other school trustees that was ultimately thrown out of court

Edwards also questioned whether the decision to assume the cost of legal representation was a good decision financially. “Now we’re down $5 million” — a reference to an earlier statement in the meeting by Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton, touting the successes of the county school division despite a $5 million decline in funding since 2009. “Do we have this [the money to cover the attorney fees] in our budget. I doubt it, so then how do we vote for legal representation.”

Before voting, Edwards said he wanted a legal opinion from the board’s attorney asking if it was legal to obligate “this school board for an uncertain amount of money.” He said he was concerned about the legality of a vote to expend money in excess of the funds available, thinking it might be an act of malfeasance.

The vote to hire legal counsel for Wagstaff came without prior debate at the end of the meeting. The matter was not referenced on the meeting agenda.

Earlier, a heated exchange took place after Edwards asked to postpone a vote over a resolution to support changes to the SOL end-of-year tests. Edwards made the request at the behest of trustee Dale Sturdifen, who was unable to make the meeting.

Sturdifen, said Edwards, wanted the Superintendent to delay the matter for one month after confirming that it would not prevent the Virginia General Assembly from receiving the resolution in time to take action at the start of the upcoming term.

The resolution calls for the Virginia General Assembly to reexamine the format of the SOLs and to allow for alternative testing as a means of measuring student progress. Thornton explained it does not seek to exempt the county schools from administering the test. It instead calls for alternative testing methods that “more accurately reflects what students know, appreciate and can do in terms of the rigorous standards essential to their success.” Thornton added that over 40 different schools already adopted the resolution.

Trustee Thomas Bullock claimed that discussion about the resolution began in late August. However, Garner pointed out that the public was never privy to the discussions, which took place through a series of board member emails. “They [the public] should have a chance to hear about it before a vote, so parents come forward.”

In other business, trustees voted to give unused playground equipment to the town of Boydton for a park. The equipment is currently sitting in a field behind the central office. The town must assume the cost and responsibility for moving it, Thornton said.

Several teachers shared their favorable opinion of two PBL-related teacher training sessions, one involving Ron Burger, author of An Ethic of Excellence, and the other with Anne O’Toole an educational consultant to Governor Bob McDonnell.

The lesson, according to assistant superintendent Melody Hackney was that if the students are given time to draft, revise, refine, and really wrestle with their learning, they can produce amazing things.

Thornton gave an update on the School Board Goals as he and the board continue work on the new strategic plan. He compared baseline data from 2009/10 to 2012/13 data.

The purpose of the five-year strategic plan, said Thornton, is to develop will be to set new or additional goals that provide children with a solid foundation that will prepare them for the 21st century workforce. Thornton looked at five areas, dual enrollment, students graduating with AA degrees, advanced studies diplomas, total number of standard and advanced diplomas issued, and on time graduation rates.

In each category, the school showed a marked improvement despite a decrease in funding levels of nearly $5 million over the same period.

In that year, 176 students took dual enrollment classes, and 10 students graduated with an Associates degree before grading from high school. The on time graduation rate hovered near 85 percent and just slightly more than 39 percent of the students earned an advanced studies diploma.

Last year students took 417 dual enrollment classes, 53 student received their AA degree before completing high school, the on time graduation rate increased to 88% (the state average is 89 percent) and almost 56 percent of the students earned an advanced studies diploma.

One other figure, the percentage of students earning either a standard or an advanced diploma, Thornton claimed showed the success the schools were having on special education students. In 2009/10, 84 percent of the student population earned either a standard or an advanced diploma. By 2012/13, that number jumped to 93 percent.

Finally, trustees agreed to look into the need to change how it calculates student GPA’s and whether to give extra weight to honors classes.

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