Special to the Mirror by Northampton County School Board Member Randall Parks
Recently an article was published in the Mirror concerning teacher retention which generated many responses from the citizens of Northampton County. It was indeed refreshing to see the interest and passion demonstrated by our citizens. Unfortunately, many of the responses demonstrated a lack of information and knowledge which bedevils those of us who are intimately involved in establishing and carrying out the policies and programs in our system.
As stated in the article salaries are indeed a large reason for teachers leaving our system to move to a more lucrative position. I know this fact first hand as my daughter taught at Northampton for several years and left for a $10,000 raise in Norfolk. Our HR representative attends job fairs in which the school districts on either side of her offer salaries from seven to ten thousand more as a beginning salary and even more for administrators. Many times our notifications for openings as teachers or administrators are either unanswered or answered by only one or two applicants. Many of our hires are those applicants who were unable to secure jobs in better paying areas and as a last resort took a job in our system until they were able to get a position anywhere else. With such a differential in salaries we are “behind the proverbial eight ball” with nothing we can do to change this fact. After the change to an elected school board, we the newly elected school board, desperately wanted to give a raise to the teachers who had not had a step raise for several years. Each of the three years we have been on the board through some creative budgeting by our finance department and our superintendent, we have been able to give a step raise to our teachers. Unfortunately, we are still well behind the other school divisions in our region as we are the lowest paying one. You must be asking yourself why this fact is true. Since 2009 the state of Virginia has lowered its commitment to public education from 36% of the state budget to 29%. This decrease has cost our system almost a million dollars a year which in the case of smaller systems such as ours has proved well, nothing short of catastrophic. In addition, and perhaps even more important is the method used by the state to determine those monies distributed to each school division. The formula used is called the composite index and according to this formula Northampton County is richer than Accomac County, Virginia Beach, Newport News, Gloucester, Harrisonburg (home of James Madison University), Lexington (home of VMI and Washington and Lee University) as well as many other localities in Virginia, thereby resulting in less money per student than those “poorer” systems. This “fact” is surreal to those of us entrusted in providing the best education we can for our children. Anyone with half a brain can see how ludicrous this situation is and wonder how can the composite index be so wrong and worse yet continues to be used in its present form to literally cheat our children out of the education they deserve.
Many of our new teachers come from Pennsylvania and other states to our north and in their own words are here for just a short time until they get the experience necessary to get a teaching position back home. Our beautiful Eastern Shore with our low salaries simply cannot counteract this situation no matter what else is true. Much has been made about the demands of lesson plans as well as the incessant pressures caused by that test known as the SOL. Unfortunately, our system has been under the thumb of the state department of education for the past several years. The demands they have placed upon us are real and continuous. We, the present school board and administration have little choice except to follow their dictates. We have tried to minimize these demands as we have purchased the lesson plans from a consortium in southwest Virginia and with some tweaking of the specific plans according to that teacher’s situation (the kids they have that year and their needs) hopefully have been able to reduce this particular onerous demand somewhat. Lesson plans are a reality and are part of the job and is something which cannot be eliminated. Frankly I as a former teacher understand the teachers point, as I believe anyone can be fooled on paper as to what is happening in their classroom but by continually observing a classroom the truth will be obvious.
Teacher support was another important topic raised by teachers. We have only one employee (again money) whose specific job is to monitor and help new teachers in their quest to become an effective teacher. She does an excellent job as can be attested to by those teachers she tries to help. Also each new teacher is assigned an experienced teacher in their school to provide support and help when needed. There are times when someone hired to teach is simply not suited for this profession. We all know this to be a fact as each of us had at least one of those during our school career. No matter how much advice and other help is provided to this person, they, simply because of personality, lack of passion for the job or a myriad of other reasons are not a teacher and never will be. When those individuals leave it is called addition by subtraction. The statement was also made that there was fear of intimidation among the teachers if one spoke his or her mind. Nothing could be further from the truth as the school board and the superintendent have and will always be open to legitimate complaints from all our employees without fear of any consequences. We defeated that type of behavior when we chose an elected school board.
The statement was made that teachers are not respected nor consulted about policy and other demands made without their approval. When first elected to the school board, one of the first things I proposed was to re-examine the dress code as I felt the existing one was absurd. Some colors were allowed (pink) and others (purple, red, etc.) were not as well as other ridiculous dress code policies. The group which changed the code was comprised of myself, one representative from the central office and the rest of the group was made up of teachers and administrators from each school. We made common sense recommendations to the school board which were accepted. Last year a proposal was brought to the school board to change our grading system to a ten-point scale which is used almost universally by the other school divisions in Virginia. This proposal came from teachers and administrators. The board agreed with the proposal and the change was made. Each year the budget proposals begin with the superintendent meeting with teachers and administrators at the building level to hear their concerns and suggestions. Unfortunately, because of our financial position, their creative ideas as well as those suggested by members of the school board are beyond our ability to fund them, even the less expensive ones. Obviously suggestions from new teachers are not given the same consideration as those from teachers with experience but to say that teachers are not listened to and consulted is simply not true. Also the fact that the state department of education has had so much control of our division during the last several years makes the possibility of actually consulting teachers or even school board members not practical.
Student discipline is a very important concern as well it should be to teachers, administrators, as well as school board members. This topic has been a concern to teachers since forever as it was during all the years I taught. There are legal restrictions which the administration must observe if the student is in Special Ed for example in which the same punishments cannot be meted out. We the members of the school board receive a monthly discipline report which we carefully examine to note any inconsistencies as well to determine if a particular child’s behavior is so unusual or bizarre as to indicate that the child definitely is in need of help. Unfortunately, the school system has had only one school psychologist (again financial limitations) to serve the needs of all our kids so we are hamstrung in these regards also. Consistent student discipline is an ongoing situation and probably always will be as long as humans are making these decisions.
Other complaints were made, some legitimate and some not. Teacher transfers are certainly not automatic as the desires of teachers is not necessarily possible. If the change is a positive for both schools or does not affect either school negatively consideration is given by the superintendent and in many cases the change is made. If the transfer negatively affects one of the two schools making it weaker, the change is not made, but a “pink slip” is not involved. Our superintendent is certainly very aware of the weaknesses as well as strengths of each of our building administrators and works with each of them in order to make them a better principal. This effort is an ongoing process and hopefully will bear fruit and the individual will become a better administrator. Also by the way, Virginia Beach had six schools not accredited last year as my son-in-law teaches at one of them, Larkspur Middle School.
The statement was made that the members of the school board must have their heads in the sand to not both know nor solve the problems we face. Does anyone out there really believe that we are both unfamiliar with the concerns raised and choose to do nothing to solve them. We went to the trouble to run for this position in order to make things better, does anyone really think we are happy with and prefer not having a real middle school, or not having the electives we used to have, or having teachers work under the daily pressures with such a pitiful salary, or like having 35 new teachers to try and find each year. If you truly believe this, then please get involved and run for the school board. Unfortunately, you will find that the financial situation we are in because of the dereliction of our state representatives will render our ability to make the changes we all want not possible.