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Abuse of discretion / August 06, 2014
We interrupt the dog days of summer to bring you the latest vim and vigor:

Hard to believe, in a way, but the majority of the Mecklenburg County School Board has gone ahead and extended the contract of Superintendent of Schools James Thornton for another two years. Why, you ask? Beats me. Beats almost everyone, actually. Even if Thornton didn’t inspire near-toxic levels of public opposition — which he does — the contract extension would make no sense. The School Board could have taken the same action next year, after the 2015 countywide elections, without missing a beat. Were the trustees worried that Thornton might leave prematurely if his deal weren’t sweetened? Please.

Instead, what we witnessed at Thursday’s School Board meeting was group political suicide. I don’t know of another way to describe the action taken by the six trustees who voted for the extension. (In case you were wondering, the pro-Thornton faction consists of board chair Robert Puryear, vice chair Thomas Bullock, Mary Hicks, Debra Smiley, Sandra Tanner and Joan Wagstaff.) I imagine there are lots of folks who view the controversies that continuously swirl around Thornton and wonder what all the fuss is all about, but I don’t think the School Board’s latest move is terribly difficult to decode. The current Board majority may not call the shots after next year’s elections, when at least some of its members are unlikely to survive the wrath of voters, so they’re locking down Thornton now. It’s a decision that flaunts the public will and likely will end up costing the taxpayers a bundle of money. Not good. Awful, really.

I’m still at a loss to figure out what motivated this preemptive strike. One possible explanation for the School Board’s surfeit of generosity is that Thornton does more than just talk a good game — although communication is actually one of his weaknesses — about the direction of the county school division. There’s a lot to applaud in some of his curriculum initiatives, including Project-Based Learning as long as it’s done right. (Admittedly a big “if.”) Frankly, I think it’s a mistake to fixate on schools’ accreditation status in measuring educational progress, because it’s a dubious benchmark. A better standard is the more subjective one: Has Thornton shown the leadership required to turn much-touted innovations into real gains? The evidence thus far weighs heavily towards “no.”

Let’s start with the obvious: the aforementioned, toxic political environment that Thornton has created for himself. I’m no fan of the Board of Supervisors, because its members can usually be counted on to do nothing to help the School Board when any opportunity arises, but Thornton has done a truly epic job of ensuring the supervisors won’t lift one extra finger to improve local schools. (No, not that finger.) In the grand scheme of things, the Central Office’s decision to throw away perfectly adequate classroom furnishings and monkey around with procurement rules is more a budget misdemeanor than a crime, but the whole business rankles for a reason — it’s as if contempt for the supervisors (and public opinion, too) motivated Thornton’s every move.

A bigger problem, though, is the way the superintendent has gone after people inside the system, instilling an atmosphere of fear and distrust. We can talk about educational reforms till the cows come home; if teachers and principals aren’t on board with the changes, good luck getting them to work. And consensus-building can’t be achieved simply by drumming dissidents out of the system.

School Board Chairman Robert Puryear this week defended the decision to lock in Thornton for another three years by seeking to turn critics’ arguments around on them: Who, after all, is at fault when Mecklenburg County students fail to perform up to statewide standards? Leaving aside the usual socioeconomic factors, to say nothing of the tendency on all sides to cherry-pick the numbers, Puryear states a simple truth: Mecklenburg schools are hampered by a chronic lack of support, as evidenced by miserly annual school budgets and disgraceful facilities at the middle school and high school levels. It’s more than a little rich, though, for Puryear to sing the money blues in the context of committing Mecklenburg County to pay dearly to buy out James Thornton’s contract in the (likely) event a new School Board is elected in 2015 and opts for a new superintendent. How large a financial hit will the next batch of trustees incur as a result of this unwarranted and unwise decision? Three-quarters of a million dollars? A million-plus? There’s no shortage of good uses for the money.

Shame on the current Board for abusing its discretion for no good reason — and at great potential expense to the taxpayers.

A friend let on this week that he was already starting to get bored with the parade of horribles out of Richmond, a.k.a. the trial of Bob and Maureen McDonnell on public corruption charges. (We’re finishing up Week One of the proceedings with several more weeks left to go.) Have you heard the latest? Maureen’s lawyer claimed she had a crush on Jonnie Williams, the Star Scientific impresario and briber of Virginia’s First Couple. Oh heavens to Betsy: Presumably the point of this revelation is to absolve the McDonnells of something so grimy as selling favors for gifts, love being an oh-so-more tender explanation.

How about Jonnie’s expensive tastes, including a $5,000 bottle of cognac that he poured over a fire? (Williams, the prosecution’s star witness, told the jury he wanted to see what would happen when the high-priced liquor hit the flames — a moment of intellectual curiosity that I will admit has always eluded me.) Unto itself, the Maureen McDonnell show has been quite a spectacle; Monday’s testimony brought forth the news Mrs. McDonnell attempted to sell Ann Romney, would-be First Lady of the U.S.A., on the curative powers of Star’s flagship product, Anatabloc, for Mrs. Romney’s multiple sclerosis. Is this sort of thing boring to you? Or just deliciously tacky? The answer is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

The charitable view being generally the best one, I feel like I should make a confession: Why heck yes I am enjoying this trainwreck! Clearly, this makes me a bad person. But admit it: You’re probably enjoying it, too — who besides a McDonnell loyalist wouldn’t take at least some satisfaction in seeing a conniving politician (and wife) brought down a peg or two? (On the other hand, I do wonder what Jonnie Williams’ former employees and associates in Mecklenburg County, from back in the days when Star Tobacco operated a tobacco warehousing operation in Chase City, think about his admittedly elastic testimony. Do feel free to write in with your thoughts!) By the way, if you want to see what the McDonnell apologists have to say about the matter, do be sure to read Frank Ruff’s column. According to our senator, Bob McDonnell should be applauded for promoting Virginia businesses, including those that lined his pockets to the tune of $165,000, while the previous governor, now-U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, punked Southside Virginia because he failed to successfully recruit Apple Computer to Mecklenburg County. Yes, I know: Ruff is making even less sense than usual.

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the trial, aside from the small matter of Virginia’s chief executive being an out-and-out fraud, is the wife-slagging taking place in full view: They don’t make buses that could run over Maureen McDonnell any more viciously than the legal team for the defense. True, the ex-First Lady, through her own actions, comes across as a harpy, a greedhead, a weirdo and all that; yet except for the harpy part, the same can be said of Governor McGrift. Was it really necessary to make poor Maureen the fall gal for the governor’s downfall? I don’t think so. I have no idea what the McDonnells’ lawyers are trying to prove with their Blame Maureen strategy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the jury thinks better of absolving married defendants who so conveniently turn on each other.

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