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Mecklenburg trustees extend Thornton’s contract

South Boston News
School Board members Sandra Tanner, Thomas Bullock, Robert Puryear, Mary Hicks, Debra Smiley and Joan Wagstaff (with hands raised) vote in favor of extending Superintendent James Thornton’s contract until June 30, 2018. Opposing the extension were trustees Glenn Edwards and Dora Garner. The vote to extend the contract was taken while there were two years left on Thornton’s current contract. / August 06, 2014
In the face of heated opposition from a large crowd on hand Thursday night in Boydton, the Mecklenburg County School Board extended the contract of Superintendent of Schools James Thornton for two additional years, until June 30, 2018.

Thornton will receive a base salary of $125,000, according to School Board Chairman Robert Puryear, plus an annuity for $9,000 and other benefits that he did not identify, claiming he had not yet seen the contract. The extension also includes a severance provision that requires the county to pay Thornton’s salary for an additional 18 months, beyond the term of the revised contract, should the School Board choose to terminate his employment before June 30, 2018.

The vote was 6- 2 with trustees Glenn Edwards and Dora Garner opposing the extension. Trustee Dale Sturdifen was absent, having previously notified Puryear that he would be unavailable for the July 31 meeting.

Most of the 20 people who spoke at Thursday’s board meeting did not call for Thornton’s ouster. Instead, they asked trustees to delay the contract vote for at least one more year — to give Thornton more time to prove that the changes he has implemented in the school system are having a positive impact on student achievement.

Speaking after the meeting, Thornton thanked the parents who spoke up, praising them for their passion, and promising to look into their concerns. Addressing the comments of a student who said she could not take band and calculus classes in the same semester, Thornton said he would look into the reason and try to find a solution.

At the same time, he questioned the timing of the concerns raised during the meeting: “Why did it take the reconsideration of my contract for me to hear about many of these issues?”

Thornton also expressed gratitude towards the School Board for supporting him as he works to instill more rigor and deeper learning into the curriculum of Mecklenburg County schools. “It took Mecklenburg County nine years to get accredited with the old SOLs [Virginia Standards of Learning tests]. I don’t expect it to take us nine more years.

“I expect us to do it very quickly like the rest of the region,” said Thornton. “But we are not going to stop and just focus on them [the SOLs]. We are going to continue our mission which is deeper learning and more rigor and getting our kids ready for college and the work place.”

Speakers who supported Thornton’s contract extension included teacher Wendy Thompson, Bluestone Middle School Principal Missy Shores, Bluestone High School Principal Chris Coleman, Project Based Learning Coordinator Karla Gravitt, Bluestone Middle School art teacher Todd Muller, and La Crosse Elementary School Assistant Principal Michael Camden.

Muller and Camden both shared examples of positive changes Thornton has made to the schools after becoming Mecklenburg County superintendent; among them are the New Beginnings program for at-risk students and the adoption of Project Based Learning.

Muller said, “I was using PBL [in his art classes] before it was called that, and I saw those kids learn.”

Muller also challenged the claim that before Thornton, Mecklenburg County schools were high-achieving. Muller said before Thornton, SOL test scores were manipulated to show an artificially high passage rate. Students who school administrators deemed unable to meet the rigors of the test were not allowed to take the SOL. Instead, Muller said they were dumped in an art class where there was no SOL test.

Also speaking in support of the superintendent was his daughter, Kelsey Thornton, a student at Bluestone High School. Saying she was there contrary to her father’s wishes, Kelsey Thornton shared her personal experience of seeing her father, late at night, “sitting in the kitchen talking to [Director of Secondary and CTE Instruction] Kristy Somerville and [Deputy Superintendent] Melody Hackney, and researching” the latest on school achievement and best practices.

It was only when she decided to apply to Governor’s School that, Kelsey Thornton said, she developed a true appreciation for her father’s passion about deeper learning: “Colleges don’t want my SOL scores, but projects like my interpretation of [Edgar Allen Poe’s] “The Raven” help me write essays that colleges will consider.”

Speakers who opposed the contract extension painted a picture of a school system in disarray, a lack of consistency in the curriculum, with teachers being moved between schools without warning or explanation, class schedules that limit student choices, and an administration that has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

An emotional Casina Sandifer, speaking with her young son Lane by her side, criticized the School Board for not listening to constituents and for allowing Thornton to pursue what she called an inadequate academic agenda.

As an example, Sandifer said, she said she was teaching her son to write in cursive since it is not taught in school. Before leaving the podium, Sandifer’s son Lane told the trustees, “You ask ‘how well are the children?’ I’m not well. I’m not learning.”

The one teacher who spoke in opposition to the contract extension, Jennifer Elliot, said she was doing so because “silence will not solve anything.” She expressed frustration with the lack of “consistency when it comes to developing a successful plan of accreditation, and called last year’s class schedules “a logistical train wreck.” To Thornton, she said, “Your teachers are pouring the foundations and you are down at Morningstars [a reference to a home goods outlet in Clarksville] picking out the curtains. Let your teachers do their job and you will see a return to full accreditation.”

As to the claim, often expressed by Thornton and other school officials, that teachers are leaving Mecklenburg County because of inadequate pay, Elliot said, “There are teachers who will leave here and go somewhere else for half the pay. It is not about the pay. It is about the way we are treated.”

Former Park View High School student Colter Powers raised a list of other concerns: a School Board that is deaf to public opinion, the loss of experienced teachers, schools that are not fully accredited, reports of improper grade changing, lack of discipline of students to falsely portray a sense of improved school conduct, and low morale of teachers and school personnel.

He was especially critical of Thornton and the School Board on the question of low teacher morale, telling them “low morale means no progress is being made.”

Powers acknowledged that “some facts [about the county schools] look good on paper” but claimed that the bottom line, which he called the true measure, is that Mecklenburg County Public Schools once ranked near the top of all schools in the state in terms of academic achievement — and is now fifth from the bottom.

Using a sports analogy, Powers said, “In sports, when a team loses successfulness, you do not fire the team, you fire the coach.” He also challenged school board members to “ask not ‘how are the children’ [the school system’s motto] but how well are the children being educated.”

Before voting against the contract extension, trustee Dora Garner wondered aloud why the only people who spoke in favor of Thornton’s contract extension were school or county employees. “If there are so many parents in favor of this [a contract extension for the superintendent] where were they tonight?” said Garner.

Trustee Sandra Tanner countered, however, that she has heard from an equal number of Thornton supporters and detractors. She added that supporters have refused to speak up out of fear of being rebuked by friends and neighbors.

In casting her vote in favor of the contract extension, Tanner said, “Sometimes the right thing is not the popular thing to do and the popular thing is not always the right thing.”

In response to a question from trustee Glenn Edwards, Chairman Puryear initially said the terms of Thornton’s new contract were the same as with his current contract. He later qualified that statement after further questioning, acknowledging that while the base salary of $125,000 remained unchanged, Thornton now received an annuity of $9,000 in addition to a county car. Previously, Thornton was paid $9,000 because he drove a personal vehicle for school business.

Additionally, his old contract, with two remaining years of service time, had a diminishing severance payment schedule. The arrangement means that had the School Board waited one more year before voting to extend Thornton’s contract, a new group of trustees which may have wanted to buy out that contract would pay the remaining term, plus an additional one year’s severance or less, depending on when the vote took place.

Now, if a new school board wishes to terminate Thornton’s contract before it expires, the county must pay out the remaining term, plus an additional 18 months.

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It appears that the Mecklenburg County School Board has taken its cue from the Democrats in Congress who voted for the Affordable Health Care Act without having read the entire bill. How can one cast a positive vote to extend a contract when one has not even seen the provisions of the new contract? If a teacher gave a student a grade on a test without having seen the student's work, that teacher would rightly be in serious trouble. If a parent complained to a principal about another student but had no factual information to support his complaint, could the principal discipline the other student? How can members of this school board vote on a contract without having explicit knowledge of what is in the contract? Those members who voted to extend Mr. Thornton's contract should be embarrassed to call themselves school board representatives. How can any one of them in good conscious have voted to blindly sell the future of the children in Mecklenburg County?

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