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The usual victims

SoVaNow.com / March 14, 2013
Halifax County Public Schools has a pleasantly spiffy website, but might I suggest a firmer commitment to truth-in-advertising? The motto atop the home page, “Children First For A Better Future,” is, again, pleasing, but somewhat lacking in the candor department. As we prepare for a new round of budget cuts that inevitably will degrade the quality of education in Halifax County, how about this:

“The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.”

A frequently-repeated and favorite bit of Internet snark, that one. Alas, it would serve as a sadly appropriate catchphrase for the county school system, and public schools in general, at a time when we as a society insist on taking cues from people who think that cutting school budgets and other instruments of government represents the height of civic accomplishment. What fools these mortals be.

You can point fingers in any number of directions — the School Board, the Board of Supervisors, Richmond, Washington, your next-door neighbor — but first, it helps to know what is being lost with the systematic defunding of our schools, what the options for dealing with a never-ending stream of unpleasant trade-offs imply for the future, and who the losers are likely to be. That last one is easy enough: It’s the children, of course, the ones we profess to care so much about.

Yet every competition must have a runner-up. That’s where we return to the question of morale: Who better to testify to the uplifting force of beatings than our teacher workforce?

Teacher slagging has become the great American pastime, rhetorical paeans to the profession by office-holding smooth-talkers notwithstanding. It was the motivating force behind the so-called education reform package that won passage in the General Assembly this session, its glide path eased by the fact no one seemed to know, or much care, exactly what the legislation was supposed to accomplish in the first place.

Two features stand out for me. The first is that, from now on, Virginia schools will be assigned a letter grade, from A to F, to give folks a better idea of how individual schools are performing. This might be useful if schools were evaluated using something other than the data that have been misapplied ever since high-stakes testing became all the rage. My second favorite feature of the bill is Virginia’s embrace of Teach For America. This is the program that enlists the Best ‘n’ the Brightest to take a break from their career trajectories on Wall Street and parachute into the classroom, apply their awesome storehouse of intellectual brilliance and noblesse oblige to the challenge of educating the poor little half-wits, (but little training), and depart with the warm feeling of knowing that because of them, the world is a better place. To which I say, good luck with that.

While Virginia’s 134 local school divisions breathlessly await the fruits of this latest “reform” coming out of Richmond, there’s a more immediate problem to deal with: No money, no help, plus a world of needs. Sounds like an excellent time for another beating! The School Board learned this week it is still a half-million dollars short of balancing the budget, which likely spells further personnel reductions. (Already penciled into the next budget are $639,000 in “potential staff adjustments,” as the Central Office euphemistically puts it.)

Superintendent of Schools Merle Herndon, who appears to be a real stickler for process, has given ample indication there would be blood-letting ahead, particularly as she devoted a fair number of early days as superintendent to the task of clarifying and codifying the school division’s reductions-in-force policy. Rut-roh. I guess, on balance, that I kinda admire Herndon’s directness when it comes to cutting payroll, four-fifths of the school budget. Her predecessor, Paul Stapleton, took great pains to finesse the problem of a costly workforce with various schemes to avoid having to actually lay off employees. It looks like those halcyon days may be coming to an end.

The chief mechanism that Stapleton and school trustees used to avert pink slips was the Local Option Retirement Plan, the LORP that launched a thousand early retirements. (OK, not a thousand. But there were 145 veteran employees who stepped down for the promise of the early retirement benefits that LORP provided.) The point of LORP was to lower payroll costs by greening the workforce, incentivizing higher-paid, experienced staff to retire and replacing them with younger, cheaper hires. This approach — along with natural staff attrition — minimized the year-to-year disruptions that a layoff-first policy can wreak, but whether it was good for the quality of education in Halifax County is another matter. (Some of those senior-most teachers were among our best teachers.) We, of course, know what Herndon thinks of LORP: At her instigation, the School Board abruptly cancelled it. Stapleton always had the reputation, among teachers, as a bit of a tyrant, while Herndon brings a softer, more deliberate style to the Central Office, but when it comes to giving people the shaft over money, you never know who will turn out to be the teacher’s pet.

Of course, in fairness to both superintendents, it’s pretty tough not to be the son-of-rhymes-with-witch when all your choices are bad and the available policy responses are designed to manage decline, not reverse it. Let’s just plop this frog into a slightly warmer pot, shall we? Think back to the headline recommendation of the Prismatic school efficiency study: close two elementary schools and save nearly $3 million. The stink that would ensue should the School Board and Central Office ever choose to go that route would be enormous, and no one seems in any hurry to take the first step. Yet at some point, it will become impossible to squeeze further budget savings from downsizing the workforce as opposed to downsizing the entire system. I wonder if we haven’t passed that point already.

It’s tough, as nothing more than an interested observer who went through the county schools a generation ago, to avoid the sense that we’re kidding ourselves with the usual upbeat assessments about the state of the county schools. (Stapleton could be especially maddening in this regard, with his standard pitch that Halifax produced more high school students playing at the college level than any other school division in America.) When I look at classrooms nowadays, I see harried teachers, dubious organization, and good kids, by and large, who too often are being failed in ways that are difficult to pinpoint. Admittedly these are all impressions that are less than data-driven. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a secretary of education to know that starving schools of resources is hardly a strategy for fostering educational excellence.

At last check, the projected budget shortfall for county schools was $449,779. What’s the cure for that, lopping eight to ten positions? It might not seem like much in the context of a division with more than a thousand employees, but the trend is ongoing, worrisome, and not going to get better unless people demand change. Meantime, the Board of Supervisors, the only purse-string holders at this point with the discretion to give more money to the schools, has been content to sit back and do nothing. Do its members want to be known as agents of Halifax County’s decline? If so, they should do us the courtesy of being honest and say so.







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