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Band on the run

SoVaNow.com / April 10, 2013
Time for some spring cleaning — if, for no other reason, to clear out the backlog of recent headlines.

To wit:

Ever since Caesar did his part to immortalize the date on the Roman calendar, the Ides of March has been associated with treachery, tyranny and the necessity of watching one’s back. Funny, then, how the timing roughly matches up with the mid-March meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board, at which School Superintendent James Thornton faced an uprising over his plans to put the county high schools and middle schools on a four-by-four classroom block schedule.

The highlight of the meeting, for Thornton bashers at least, came when a Park View student, Alyx Powers, challenged the superintendent’s claim that the new class schedule would result in improved academic performance among students. Without delving into the finer points of her argument, it can be said without hesitation that Powers showed admirable pluck (insouciance?) in sticking up for the silent party in this debate, the faculty. “Teachers feel their jobs will be terminated if they disagree with you,” said the Park View student government president to the division superintendent, in front of the School Board and everyone else in attendance that night.

Girl’s got guts, that’s for sure. We could probably run with the Roman emperor metaphor for, oh, forever, but doing so would represent a cheap retort to at least a part of Thornton’s intention with the schedule change: to push the curriculum past the minimum standards that now exist with high-stakes testing. Good for Thornton for trying to shake up the status quo. The sooner our educational system moves away from drill-and-kill mode, the better.

No option of a classroom schedule will ever be perfect. Conceptually, one can imagine the advantages of breaking up the school day into longer classes, with more time for teacher planning, to produce a richer, more challenging secondary school curriculum. Extended classroom periods also would fit hand-in-glove with Thornton’s emphasis on promoting career and technical education, a worthy objective. Unfortunately, the four-by-four block schedule also has serious pitfalls, a notable example being to make it very, very difficult for students to take math continuously throughout the school year.

Then there’s marching band. Whatever its other virtues, the block schedule would make it impossible for students to take band classes over consecutive semesters, seriously degrading the Park View and Bluestone programs. After eliciting an outcry from band students, their families and other supporters, Thornton softened his stance and offered up a hybrid, seven-block schedule that makes room for ongoing band instruction at the high schools. (It’s a different story, apparently, at the middle school level, where the four-by-four block schedule is set to go in effect next year, and where full-year band instruction would become a thing of the past). Whether this compromise will end up suiting anybody remains to be seen, but Thornton’s backpedaling in the face of fierce opposition recalls the old saying: if you’re going to aim for the king, best to kill him.

Band has attained kingly status for a reason: the programs at Bluestone and Park View are among the best things that Mecklenburg County schools have to offer to its students. (Snark all you want about lack of viable competition, but let it be noted that both high school band programs hold their own with the best in the state — as evidenced this year when Bluestone won coveted All-Virginia band honors, a first in school history). Educators can talk all they want about enlivening the curriculum with material that inspires and engages students, but one doesn’t further that cause by downgrading or outright killing a program that for many years has achieved exactly the goal that reformers are so intent to achieve.

Without claiming to understand all the tradeoffs involved in setting next year’s class-day schedule — and there are always tradeoffs involved — I think it’s fair to say Thornton won’t win many friends by seeking to undo a core part of the local school identity, especially at Bluestone, where band reigns supreme. Which begs the question: is winning friends something that the superintendent cares about in the least? To judge from the tone of the March meeting, the answer, at least in the popular mind, is no. And fair enough. School superintendents aren’t paid to be everyone’s buddy. Like everyone else, though, Jim Thornton has to pick his battles, and the success of any effort to recast education in Mecklenburg County will depend on convincing teachers and other parties to buy into the superintendent’s vision. On this score, Thornton clearly has work to do.

***

Star Scientific has become Virginia’s most prominent cash-bleeding company in the wake of press accounts tying the firm’s CEO, Jonnie Williams, to Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, both recipients of lavish gifts by Williams. Star, of course, has a local connection, having set up manufacturing operations in Chase City back in the days when the company was hawking its low-nitrosamine tobacco products (if you’re wondering what the big deal is with that, don’t worry, the marketplace had much the same reaction). Star arrived in Chase City in 2002, promising to create 315 jobs; today, the company is out of the tobacco business and is concentrating on its dietary supplement, Anatabloc, which it suggests (without much evidence) offers benefits for sufferers of Alzheimer’s and other conditions.

The Washington Post, which has pounced on the Star-McDonnell-Cuccinelli connection, came out with a story this week on how Star was eventually forced to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in state incentive funds when it failed to live up to its job creation promises in Chase City. We also learned this week that Cuccinelli has decided to recuse the Attorney General’s Office in a local tax lawsuit brought by Star. The AG’s office has been representing the tax department since 2011, when Star sued in Mecklenburg County court to get out of $700,000 in back taxes on its tobacco barns. (With interest and penalties piling up on bills that dates back more than a decade, the tax liability could be as high as $1.7 million, the company has told investors). The lawsuit has been conspicuously slow-moving, leaving some to wonder if Cuccinelli has been less than tiger-like in defending the state’s interests against one of his personal sugar bears.

Bowing to the inevitable, Cuccinelli finally backed off and appointed an outside firm to take over the case. The choice of pro bono counsel, however, is a bit curious: one of two lead lawyers is William Hurd, a partner at Troutman Sanders in Richmond and a former Virginia solicitor general. Hurd’s credentials are impeccable, no question about that, but at the same time he’ll be representing the tax department in Boydton, he’s also serving as lead counsel in a lawsuit brought by current and former members of the Mecklenburg County School against the Virginia State Police. The case involves the failed (and, it should be said, misguided) prosecution of trustees Lewis Ashworth, Eddie Callahan, Billy Driggs, Thomas Coleman and Glenn Edwards in the wake of the not-so-Fab Five’s ouster of then-Superintendent Frank Polakiewicz in 2008; the case centers around alleged overreach by the State Police as it probed accusations against the school board members. The case is too long and complicated to unpack here, but it’s also drawing to a close, with Hurd in the thick of battling the Attorney General’s office on the State Police dispute at the same time Cuccinelli has tapped him to defuse controversy in another case that originates in Mecklenburg.

A little cozy perhaps?

***

Last week in this space, I wrote that Star is being investigated for possible stock irregularities by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Actually, the probe is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. My apologies for the error.

On an unrelated note, but in a like-minded vein of striving to keep the facts clear and untangled, when Congressman Robert Hurt writes in his column today that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has offered a budget that “strengthens and protects retirement safety programs,” what he really means is that the House package privatizes and voucherizes Medicare, turns Medicaid into a block grant program that would be subject to the mercy of the states, and ensures even less retirement security and greater burdens for families with elderly relatives than at any time since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

Always happy to help Rep. Hurt present his positions more clearly to the public.





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