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Opinion

Living up to the bargain

SoVaNow.com / February 09, 2017
Surely there must be few things more galling for a highly skilled professional woman than to be boxed into female stereotypes, but looking back at the soon-to-end tenure of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Merle Herndon, I have a hard time getting around the fact — openly acknowledged at the time — that her number one job upon coming to Halifax County was to clean up the mess left by her predecessor.

That, of course, would be Paul Stapleton: visionary, impresario, salesman extraordinaire, but not a school chief with a particularly firm grip on details. Stapleton’s showmanship often exceeded his skill at execution, and the gap was large enough to sour the public on what was going on inside the schools in the waning years of his reign. As long as we’re trafficking in stock notions, here’s another: newly anointed leaders typically represent a break from the status quo. In Herndon — a hard-working, hard-nosed administrator cut from a drastically different cloth than Stapleton — Halifax County got exactly what it bargained for.

Was it enough?

Four years on, one can make a strong argument that Herndon’s signature initiative remains her first big move: undoing the Local Option Retirement Program (LORP), a Stapleton-era ploy to shave payroll costs by incentivizing veteran teachers at the upper end of the salary scale to take early retirement. Halifax County’s program was unusually generous in comparison to the incentives offered by outside school divisions, and Herndon convinced the School Board to kill LORP — incurring the wrath of its beneficiaries, who justifiably complained about having pledged benefits taken away. Near the end of Herndon’s tenure, echoes of this dynamic played out with the School Board’s move (later rescinded) to reduce most coaching salaries. All this fit neatly with the imperative to wring whatever savings could be found from the school budget. None of it was especially directed at improving the quality of local education.

I’m not sure how much you can blame our school superintendent — or any superintendent — for this regrettable state of affairs. I’ve seen school superintendents go to war over money and resources with their local boards of supervisors, keepers of the local tax spigot, and I’ve seen school superintendents go along and get along as best they can with the budget powers-that-be. Whether one approach is superior to the other depends on a lot of different factors. One common trait in effective school superintendents, however, is an ability to set a clear agenda for what the local school system should be doing, and selling that agenda to the public. I’m not a big fan of the “vision” word because it becomes pretty trite with overuse, but yeah, there’s got to be some vision. And I never really got much sense of what Herndon’s vision for Halifax County Public Schools was supposed to be.

In a list of Herndon’s accomplishments with her retirement announcement, the top bullet point reads as follows: “Improving employee compensation has been a concentrated effort over the past five years with a total of 12.075 percent increase: 5.075 percent in 2012-13, 2 percent in 2013-14, 3 percent in 2015-16, and 2 percent in 2016-17.” As a commentator on our website corrected pointed out, this is a somewhat misleading way of looking at salary increases granted under Herndon. The largest single raise, 5 percent in 2012, was offset by a required 5 percent employee contribution into the VRS pension fund. So the upshot is certainly less impressive than what Herndon describes, to say nothing of the fact these pay hikes were mostly state-funded. And I realize this is very, very picky of me, but you don’t calculate the overall pay increase for a four-year period by adding up the percentages in individual years, one-by-one. Pay hikes are cumulative, and while I can no longer do math correctly at my age, a quick run through Microsoft Excel tells me that the cumulative increase in pay — the number Herndon presumably was shooting for — is more than 13 percent, not 12.075 percent. Yes, none of this matters one whit, unless you’re a high school student and mistakes such as these pile up on your SOL exam, with potential dread consequences. Math illiteracy: It’s for you and me but not for the sophomore behind the tree.

Carrying on further with this theme, I look forward to receiving phone calls from Dr. Herndon in her retirement whenever I fail to set a positive example for young people by committing some bone-headed grammatical error in this space. She probably won’t have to wait very long.

One thing you have to give Merle Herndon, and it’s a biggie, is that she conducted herself with class and decorum even when it became apparent that the School Board was beginning to sour on her tenure. Break-ups with top management can be ugly business, but not this time. With our School Board openly divided on the direction of the Central Office, the task of finding consensus on a replacement for Herndon might seem particularly daunting. Yet hiring a new superintendent can also be a clean-slate moment, provided trustees are able to find a suitable candidate. Trustees also need to think harder about what they want out of the local schools and how they plan to sell their vision to the public. It’s been a spotty effort so far.

***

A final, not-unrelated observation about the state of our schools: Halifax County and communities throughout the U.S. have much to fear with confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration. While DeVos’ ability to eviscerate local school divisions remains to be seen, there’s no doubt she and fellow ideologues would be more than happy to undermine and overturn the state’s traditional role of providing an adequate education for its children. The privatization schemes that DeVos has advocated throughout her atrocious public career would have a terrible impact on Halifax County schools if carried out, and our most vulnerable students would suffer the most. If you have a child who is having a hard time in school — whether because of a physical handicap, or emotional problems, or a learning disability, or whatever — you had better hope that the incompetence of the Trump White House gets in the way of its education policymaking goals. For those of you who voted for Trump, don’t say you weren’t warned. And nobody should be surprised by what may come next.

***

This week in the Virginia House of Delegates, a much-watched, much-feared bill that would have exposed hunters to civil fines for dogs running amok on landowners’ property failed by a single vote, 48-47. The legislation was patroned by Speaker Bill Howell, one of the most powerful figures in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, and supported by lawmakers primarily from populated areas of Virginia. On the other side were legislators, mostly Republican but also some Democrats, with districts that encompass rural areas. The entire Southside Virginia delegation in the House — Dels. James Edmunds, Tommy Wright, Danny Marshall, et al — successfully fought off the bill. But just barely. One of our wisest men ever, baseball legend Casey Stengel, once said that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, but it’s also hard to see how hunters will stave off some version of this bill in coming years unless the outdoorsmen community takes action to tamp down on rogue hunters who are ruining life for everyone else.

How this is supposed to work is anyone’s guess. I don’t hunt, so I’m in no position to know, but all in all I do agree the proposition that hunting is a noble pastime that helps to define the character of communities such as our own. Appeals to tradition, a talking point among lawmakers opposed to HB 1900, aren’t nothing. But neither is the right of landowners to be able to enjoy peace and quiet in their homes and on their farms, free of abusive dolts who believe they’re entitled to the run of other people’s property. Yes, surely only a minority of hunters falls into this category. But if the solution to the problem is simply to ask that people “work it out,” without resort to court proceedings and civil fines, then the onus for action lies first with hunters themselves.

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