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Pastors question layoffs, opportunities for African-Americans in school system

SoVaNow.com / June 12, 2013
A trio of clergy at this week’s school board meeting revived issues raised at last month’s meeting about layoffs, morale and unresponsiveness. Once again, they were met with trustees’ assurances that their numbers were in the phone book and that hiring was colorblind – but that they could not discuss employees by name.

The Rev. Frank Coleman, the Rev. Byrd Blackwell and the Rev. Kevin Chandler came with dozens of supporters, but fewer than the overflow crowd of several hundred last month. The pastors, all in the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, requested that their association of ministers meet with trustees as soon as possible.

Coleman, of First Baptist Church on Ferry Street and the local NAACP, accused the board of “empty rhetoric, arrogance, diversion and literal falsehood,” and for rewarding employees with demotions, layoffs, forced retirements and non-renewed contracts. “You respond by saying that all are free to call you. But, hello, why would people already intimidated by you call you? That is why I am speaking.”

“You accuse us of emphasizing the negative and not the positive because our district has achieved great things through our teachers, administrators, staff and students …. That is precisely the reason why we are speaking today. For in spite of the great work of your employees, you choose to reward them by demoting them, cutting them, no longer renewing contracts and forcing them to retire.”

Blackwell, of St. James Baptist Church in Scottsburg and moderator of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, said 85 percent of school layoffs are African-Americans, and said African-Americans were overlooked for principal positions.

Chandler, of Trinity Baptist Church, urged trustees to put children first in their decisions and to “deal with the issues that are before you.”

Board members countered that they are accessible to anyone who wants to voice concerns and that, when it came to individual employees, they could not legally discuss specifics of their employment.

“Our hands are tied,” said trustee Faye Satterfield, adding that a disgruntled employee or former employee could “go out in the community and tell anything they want to, and we can’t respond to it because it’s a personnel matter.”
Board silence “may appear rude,” conceded board member Cheryl Terry, who added that the board often had “heated discussions, pleading with one another,” running until 11 p.m. and midnight in closed-door sessions about personnel. “We’re fighting on behalf of people whose jobs are on the line.”

“Make sure that you have your facts correct,” she said.

“If I got fired for some reason, I may not want you to know why. If I didn’t get a contract the next year, I may not want you to know the embarrassing reason why. And [the board] simply cannot discuss some of those things,” she said.

Noting that she herself was a woman of color, Terry pointed out that Halifax’s two largest schools (the high school and the middle school) are lead by African-Americans.

“ … I can assure you that I do my very best to make sure we’re not making our decisions based upon the color of someone’s skin. We worry about they job that they’ve done, period,” said Terry.

Board Vice Chairman Dick Stoneman waved his hands at the several rows of teachers and administrators, some of whom are African-American, saying, “We do not discriminate. … That just doesn’t happen.”

Trustee Dr. Roger Long lamented that the school system had been forced to cut $11 million in the last four years, which wiped out eight jobs in the central office and 126 across the division.
“We’ve had to cut it to the core,” he said.

The discussion was in part a reprise of last month’s meeting, when Coleman; his wife, a teacher; and another pastor raised similar concerns, including what they said was the forced retirement of Beverly Crowder, then in a central-office position, plus the system’s cancellation of the Local Retirement Option Plan, or LORP, which was used to entice long-serving personnel into retirement with the offer to earn 20 percent of their salary while continuing to work part-time. One hundred and five retirees unhappy with that move have filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract; a first hearing is scheduled for July 1 in Halifax County Circuit Court.

In a related move, trusteed votes unanimously to cancel out a bank account earmarked for the early retirement incentive plan. It holds $16,000, said Jay Camp, the system’s finance director.

Board Chairman Kim Farson was out of town and absent from the meeting.

In other action, the board:
• Heard a report from Executive Director for Administration Valdivia Marshall on proposed changes recommended by the Virginia School Board Association. They include linking teacher, principal and administrator evaluations to student test scores; holding “safety drills” instead of fire and tornado drills; and changing policies about personnel probationary periods.

• Got word from Supervisor of Secondary Education Frosty Owens that Halifax County High School was ranked 11 out of 100 schools in the nation in W!SE High Schools Teaching Personal Finance. Halifax schools preceded the state in mandating a personal finance class.

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