Elections always rile people up. They start good conversations, they expose our city leaders, they bring important issues to the surface, and they get regular old citizens’ attentions. Well, at least for a few hours. Maybe less. If we’re lucky. I decided that since I got a bit involved in our city’s election this year that I didn’t want to lose that momentum. There are a lot of things that I care and complain about between elections and I decided that voting just isn’t enough. So, I gathered a few people from around our city and we all went to a school board meeting last night. Afterwards, we met at Streats, an amazing local pub, and discussed what we heard– some of our concerns and some of our solutions. It might sound boring on paper, but we sat for 2 hours after the meeting and energetically dialogued about all that we had learned and witnessed. And we’re ready to go back next time.
Since none of us had ever been to a school board meeting before, we had no idea what to expect. I half expected to be grilled about my attendance and the board members to be sitting on pillars of smoke. But really, it was a small room, the board sat up front, the smattering of attendees sat facing them just feet away, and board member Brad Robinson snacked on chips, browsed on his phone, and appeared to almost nod off a few times. It wasn’t bad at all.
Superintendent Report: The superintendent Dr. Boone gave her report, which was just a pretty lengthy video that displayed a few amazing programs that some of our students throughout the district have participated in and enjoyed over the last several weeks, from pre-k to high school. Programs such as Young Scholars, the Learning Barge, Military Child assemblies, and ODU Little Feet. It was very encouraging to see children learning in such diverse ways that enabled them to practice and apply learning standards and not just sit and memorize them. Dr. Boone ended the video, I mean her report, by saying that these programs are “wonderful hidden secrets in Norfolk Public Schools.” Her closing words stopped me in my tracks. Why in the world would such amazing programs be touted as “hidden secrets”? They should be front and center! Every parent, child, teacher, and administrator should be made aware of these programs! They need to be plastered on posters, sent home in backpacks, hung on school walls, placed on the front of the website, and put on the lips of teachers who encourage every student to participate. Maybe these “hidden secrets” would attract more parents and students to our schools and help to support the students that we have.
Public Comment: The most interesting part of the meeting is definitely the public comment portion. Anyone can speak. You just have to sign up and stand at the podium. The various cares, concerns, and personalities of the parents and children in our schools were on full display. A couple citizens spoke about the recent increase on budget travel for professional development seminars in response to a story that was recently covered by The Virginian Pilot and stirred up a bit of a furor. A woman gave a gripping testimony about her 1st grade son being bullied by both students and staff at his elementary school and how his case has been brushed off by administrators and members of the board alike. He has not been to school since April 15th because his torment at school is so bad and she called on the school board to act and investigate. Many people shook their heads and were obviously disgusted by the board’s lack of action in the interest of her son. Maybe a Pilot article will need to be written for her to get their attention.
Monthly Financial Report: Finally, when Dr. Thornton, the district’s chief operations and finance officer, gave his monthly financial report to the board, that’s when some of the most contentious moments arose. Board member Dr. Gabrielle drew his attention to the year to date expenditure on daily substitutes. The board budgeted this year for $846,874 to be spent on daily substitutes for teachers. As of May, there is $309,272.73 available for schools to use for substitute teachers. This is extremely important to point out and to understand. During the election, many teachers attended the candidate forums and raised their concerns that their morale was low and that substitute teachers were virtually impossible to get because there is no money for them. Teachers complained that they could not go to professional development workshops, which the board is spending around $100,000 on for themselves, because there is no money for substitutes to watch their classes for them to go. Well, as we see in the budget, that just is not the case.
Dr. Gabrielle pressed Dr. Thornton on this issue. He explained that money is allocated to each school based on need. If they use all of their funds for substitutes, then they may request more with proper vetting from him and the superintendent. Did you catch that? Dr. Boone jumped in to defend this disparity between funds budgeted and funds expended by suggesting that schools need to be vetted for accountability that teachers just aren’t abusing their time off from school instead of doing their jobs. Our superintendent said that. I’m sorry, but when was the last time that you ever heard of a school teacher taking super fun days off of school at the city’s expense? Right now, teachers can barely get sick days, and if they do, their students are divided up into other classrooms, loading more students into other teacher’s classes. All with $300,000 of available funds for substitutes. Dr. Gabrielle pressed further and asked if principals or schools are being penalized if they request more money for substitutes. He insisted that this is not true. But I’m not quite sure I believe him. Dr. Gabrielle is correct. This needs to be clarified and corrected. The money is there. It just does not seem to be handled correctly by our superintendent, officers, and administrators.
Board Travel Funds: As for the increased travel funds for school board members, I am hesitant to be so critical. I can see the need for practical and quality training for our board members. However, let’s be honest. $100,000 for a few board members to travel to Denver, Miami, and Boston, to name a few, is out of this world expensive. Do you know what kind of vacation you could go on for $100,000? Like, you all better come back with a tan having spent that much money. But, if they insist that this is necessary for the betterment of our public schools, I’m going to request the following:
- A written report from each attending board member.
- This report needs to explain in detail the sessions and talks that they attended.
- Give a description of the new research and skills that they plan on implementing in our schools.
- How this information and training will directly impact our division, our schools, and our children.
- Any new areas of growth that needs to be focused on in our school district that have been brought to their attention.
These reports should be given during board meetings and put on their website for the public to read.
Conclusion: All of us that attended the meeting together learned a whole heck of a lot. My husband looked at me during the meeting and said, unsarcastically, that this was really exciting! We got to see our city leaders run our schools. We witnessed their personalities and their decisions and their questions and have a much better understanding of our schools. And we plan to do this every month. I do hope that you will come with us next time! This is how we can better support our city and our schools.