Eye on Greene County School board candidates

By Susan Gibbs

Candidates for the Greene County School Board spoke to the public Wednesday, October 7 at a forum co-sponsored by the Greene County Chamber of Commerce and the Charlottesville Area League of Women Voters. Harry Daniel and Larry Morris, who are running against each other for the At Large seat, and Sharon Mack, who is running unopposed for re-election to her Ruckersville District seat, aired their views on the teaching of creationism, preschoolers in handcuffs, Standards of Learning testing, and more.

Absent was Rodney Kibler, who is running unopposed for re-election to his Monroe District seat.

Daniel, a resident of Greene County for more than 30 years, recently retired as principal of the Greene County Technical Education Center and School, a position he held for more than 20 years.

Morris, a Greene County resident for most of his life, is senior pastor at Solid Rock Full Gospel Church in Barboursville. He believes that his 23 years serving the Greene County Public School system as a bus driver has given him insight into the workings of our public school system.

Mack moved to Greene 11 years ago from Indiana. She is a chemical engineer who is married with two sons in Greene County public schools.

The candidates were asked eight questions.

The first was about discipline:

In October last year a four-year-old student at Nathanael Greene Primary School with attention deficit disorder reportedly threw blocks, climbed over desks, hit, scratched and kicked the principal and the director of special education in the pre-K classroom. When the principal could not restore order, William Monroe Middle School Resource Officer Jason Tooley—a Greene County sheriff’s deputy–was summoned and the student was handcuffedand taken away in a squad car.

The Rutherford Institute—a nonprofit civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated—jumped in to represent the child, claiming that Greene County Sheriff’s deputies shackled him and forced him to talk to inmates as part of a scared straight approach.

According to the Institute’s news release, “School officials and the sheriff’s office not only defended their actions but actually suspended C.B. from the pre-K program and instructed his mother to seek ‘homebound instruction’ for him.”

The Institute said the response was excessive, unwarranted, and unnecessarily traumatizing. Its attorneys asked that school officials rescind the suspension, remove any indication of the incident from C.B.’s records, and implement policies making it clear that handcuffing, shackling and other similar excessive restraint techniques are never appropriate when dealing with children of tender years.

The specific question asked of the candidates was what they would do to avoid messy situations like this.

Morris noted that situations such as this are “hard to handle” and said that procedures should be put in place to deal with them, and that those procedures should be followed.

Mack said that the school staff must have “a very clear understanding of how to handle such a situation” and make sure that everyone is trained.

Daniel said that “serious infractions have almost doubled from last year” and that students need to know what the guidelines are, teachers need to know how to restrain unruly students, guidelines need to be followed and that all staff needs to be trained.

The second question was: How do you feel about teaching creationism along with evolution?

It should be noted that, according to Wikipedia, the status of creation and evolution in public education has been the subject of substantial debate and conflict in legal, political, and religious circles. Globally, evolution is taught in science courses with limited controversy, with the exception of a few areas of the United States and several Islamic fundamentalist countries. In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled the teaching of creationism as science in public schools to be unconstitutional, irrespective of how it may be purveyed in theological or religious instruction.

Creationists and proponents of evolution in the United States remain engaged in a long-standing battle over the legal status of creation and evolution in the public school science classroom.

Mack said that as a scientist, she believes that the school curriculum should follow scientifically-based studies, but, she added, “That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

Morris said that as a pastor, be believes that we need to get back to our roots and this is the right county to get back to it. “If we’re going to teach one, we should teach the other,” he said.

Daniel noted that, “Some people believe this and some people believe that” before saying that he would be okay with it. His personal belief, he said, is that all we were created by God, but he would not make that policy. He added that he thinks all students should hear both creationism and evolution.

The third question referred to the current economic state of the public school systems.

According to the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, although the recession technically ended in 2009, district budgets are not expected to regain their pre-recession (2008) funding levels until late in the decade, for a number of reasons, including: reduced local revenues from real estate taxes; lagging state budgets; Medicaid and other state programs with high cost increases; and reduced funding from the federal stimulus program.

To make ends meet in recent years, most school districts have had to make cuts that affect students more directly. These cuts include: laying off teachers, which in turn increases class size; cutting extracurricular activities; cutting professional development for teachers and staff; cutting instructional programs; eliminating field trips; adopting a four-day school week; eliminating summer school; and cutting courses not required for graduation.

Some districts have managed to trim personnel costs while minimizing teacher layoffs by instituting furlough days, freezing salaries, and reducing health and retirement costs. But the financial handwriting is on the wall: In upcoming years, more cuts will be necessary.

The moderator noted that (in many districts) technology is replacing such courses as art and music, and asked each candidate how schools can accommodate technology as well as the other subjects.

Morris said that students should be able to study a variety of subjects, and that the community needs to be involved.

Mack said she is a strong proponent of the arts, and that there are ways for teachers to be creative and incorporate (art and music) into their curriculums.

Daniel said that he would not advocate dropping music and art, nor does he want to stop the skill programs.

The fourth question was: Do you think we need an armed resource officer (sheriff’s deputy) in the elementary schools?

Mack said that the county’s public school system has made some appropriate improvements, and that only professionals should be armed—not teachers or administrators.

Daniel said, “Absolutely. We should have an armed resource officer in each of our six schools.”

Morris said, “Absolutely, positively. Every school should be guarded that way. We can’t play dumb anymore. We need to do our best.”

The fifth question was about whether or not the candidates though Standards of Learning (SOL) testing had been taken too far.

According to Wikipedia, SOL is a standardized testing program in Virginia public schools.

Before they were implemented, the tests required to graduate affected the student, not the school. To graduate from high school, a student only needed to pass a sixth grade level test.

As a result, 24-25 percent of new college freshmen needed remedial help. This level of literacy was unacceptable for the demands of the 21st century. The SOL set the bar higher for test-oriented education and performance-driven results.

The SOL set forth learning and achievement expectations for core subjects for grades K-12 and represents what many teachers, school administrators, parents and business and community leaders believe schools should teach and students should learn. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), schools, and school systems routinely receive essential feedback on the effectiveness of implementation and address effective instructional strategies and best practices.

The SOL is supportive of and in direct response to No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002. That same year Virginia tried to adopt an education plan known as the Common Core of Learning. A largely parent-driven grassroots movement opposed the Common Core of Learning, arguing that it held no meaningful education plan and seemed to be putting more emphasis on behavioral issues than education issues. After a debate the Common Core of Learning was discarded, to be later replaced by the SOL, which was created through a process involving parents, teachers, and common citizens.

In June 1995 VDOE approved the SOL in four core content areas: English; mathematics, science, and history/social science. Students were to be assessed in English and mathematics in grades 3-8 and upon completion of certain high school level courses. Science and history SOLs were to be administered in grades 3, 5, and 8 and at the end of completing high school courses in these respective subjects.

The SOL became the springboard for adhering to the new No Child Left Behind law. They were used as the basis for evaluation of administration, teachers, and students in public schools.

In September 1997, the Board of Education established new Standards for Accreditation (SOA) for public schools in Virginia that link statewide accountability tests to the SOL and hold students, schools, and school divisions accountable for results—which directly affect the schools that administer them as much as the students.

If a certain passing rate was not met each year, the school could lose its accreditation. This set higher standards for employment and puts more responsibility on teachers and administrators to focus on areas of learning that are fundamental to the SOL. The published results of the testing would also help parents looking for schools with high achievement for their children—which would put further pressure for success on school administrators and teachers.

In 1998, the first year of SOL testing, only 2 percent of the Virginia Commonwealth’s public schools met the standard for full accreditation. The percentage of schools meeting the state’s accreditation standards increased to 6.5 percent in 1999, 22 percent in 2000, 40 percent in 2001, 64 percent in 2002, 78 percent in 2003, and 84 percent in 2004.

In October 2005, the state reported that 92 percent of the Commonwealth’s 1,834 schools received accreditation ratings for 2005–2006, with students meeting or exceeding state achievement objectives on SOL tests and other statewide assessments in the four core academic areas.

On January 14, 2010, the Board of Education announced that personal learning plans would be created for each middle and high school student to align the student’s course of study with academic and career goals.

Controversies regarding the SOL have been in existence since the beginning.

The initial creation of the SOL caused extensive debate around both the validity of the tests and the administration of the process. Debate became more heated by VDOE’s and the Secretary of Education’s refusal to reveal information about tests or how the tests were created. VDOE was concerned that releasing actual tests would encourage “teaching to the test,” while parents and educators were concerned that tests would be poorly written and not test the targeted subject material.

Because teachers and administrators are evaluated based on students’ SOL performance, there has also been concern that teachers will focus their teaching on SOL subject matter and omit much of the overall learning that is necessary in school.

According to the candidates, they already are.

Daniel said, ‘We test too much, (putting) stress on students and teachers … the SOL requirements continue to increase, the opposition continues to increase.”

Mack said she understood the original intent of the SOL, but that “tests have gotten excessive and that legislation has been put in place to decrease them …there is room for improvement.”

Like Mack, Morris said he understood the initial intent, but that the SOL is “too broad … they make everyone too even … everyone should be treated equal, but everyone is not equal.” He added that some students with disabilities might be frustrated.

The sixth question was: If elected, what specific change or changes would you push for?

Mack said she would like a later start time for middle and high school students, that it has been proven that with a later start time these students perform better. She also said she would continue to push for appropriate staff compensation.

Daniel said he would not “come in with the attitude that everything is broken and needs fixing.” He explained that it is up to the schools to make policies according to what the school board recommends, but he would like to see competitive salaries and benefits, and to concentrate on a retention program. Perhaps referring to anonymous complaints of harassment that have surfaced from time to time, Daniel said “We hardly ever lose any (staff) for money. We need to have town hall meetings with teachers.”

Morris said he would “look for incentives for teachers whose kids test well, and that they needed to be treated better … “with dignity and respect.”

The seventh question was where would you advise making cuts (to the school budget)?

Daniel said he did not know right now. “Each school goes through a grueling process (of cutting) before turning (the figures) into the central office, which goes through another grueling process. He would like to see the composite index—which determines a school division’s ability to pay—appropriated correctly, and unspent money put back into the schools.

Morris said that without looking at line items, it was hard to say what to cut. Like Daniel, he said that he would like to see unspent money put back into the schools. He said that when he was a school bus driver he was told to spend all his money, or lose it.

Mack said that was “always the million dollar question.” She explained that there is no easy way to make cuts, that the school board has tightened its belt, and trimmed over the last several years. “We scrutinize every line; try to be as efficient as possible … I would consider contracting (services) out as long as it doesn’t cost local jobs.”

The eighth question was: Do charter schools have a place in Greene County?

By definition a charter school is a publicly funded independent school established by teachers, parents, or community groups under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority. An example of alternative education, it operates independently of the established public school system in which it is located.

According to Wikipedia, Minnesota wrote the first charter school law in the United States in 1991. As of 2011[update], Minnesota had 149 registered charter schools, with more than 35,000 students attending. The first of these was Bluffview Montessori School, opened in 1992. Some specialized Minnesota charter schools include the Metro Deaf School (1993), Community of Peace Academy (1995), and the Mainstreet School of Performing Arts (2004).

Since then, 43 states and the District of Columbia have approved the formation of charter schools. As of the 2014-2015 school year, 6,700 public charter schools served about 2.9 million students throughout the country, and more than 400,000 students remain on waitlists to attend the public school of their choice.

Laws governing charter schools vary greatly from state to state. These differences largely relate to what types of public agencies are permitted to authorize the creation of charter schools, whether or not and through what processes private schools can convert to charter schools, and whether or not charter school teachers need to be certified and what that certification consists of.

Charter schools were targeted to be a major component of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Specifically, the act specifies that students attending schools labeled as under-performing by state standards now have the option to transfer to a different school in the district, whether it is a state, private, or charter school. The act also suggested that if a failing school cannot show adequate yearly progress, it will be designated a charter school.

In Virginia, legislation approved by the 2014 General Assembly in HB157 and HB276 states that in the conversion of an existing public school, students who attend the school and the siblings of such students shall be given the opportunity to enroll in advance of the lottery process and the requirement that at least one-half of the public charter schools per divisions shall be designed for at-risk students does not apply.

Today, there are nine public charter schools operating in Virginia. There are two in Albemarle County, two in Loudon County, three in Richmond, one in Virginia Beach and one in York County.

Morris said the issue would have to be addressed one on one.

Mack said she does not have much experience with charter schools so she can’t give a good answer, but “it doesn’t seem like it fits.”

Daniel said, “No, not in the near future. We don’t need another split of federal and state dollars—but people should have choices.

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