Archived Story

Primary responsibilities

Published 9:49pm Tuesday, September 17, 2013

One of the foundational tenets of public education in Virginia is the concept that decisions about local education are best made at the local level by people who will be held accountable by their neighbors and friends for those decisions. The concept is at the root of Virginia’s local school boards and gives reason for school boards to be elected, as they are in Suffolk.

But an elected school board whose members are discouraged from suggesting ways to improve a city’s educational system has nominal leadership, at best. An exchange during last week’s meeting of the Suffolk School Board should give voters in Suffolk reason to ponder just what sort of leadership they want from the people they have elected to oversee public education in the city.

Member Linda Bouchard found unanimous support for a motion at Thursday’s meeting to prioritize a 5-percent raise for teachers and assistants during the next budget cycle. But when she suggested that School Superintendent Deran Whitney explore the possibility of outsourcing portions of the maintenance and custodial services within the system, she found surprising resistance, and her motion was narrowly defeated.

Member Judith Brooks-Buck distilled one set of objections in her comment: “I can’t imagine taking away from one (group of workers) and saying, ‘Business could do it a better way.’”

That objection reveals a desire to protect the educational system, rather than a focus on education itself. School boards should always remember they exist to ensure a quality education for students in their districts, not to provide guaranteed employment opportunities for hundreds or thousands of non-instructional workers.

Local school districts should employ as few non-instructional workers as necessary to efficiently operate their schools and support the teachers who provide the actual service that is expected from public school systems. If private enterprise can provide maintenance, custodial or even transportation systems cheaper and more efficiently — thereby freeing more funds for the important core service of teaching children — then a school board has a duty to examine having those services provided by businesses.

It is somewhat disconcerting to find some Suffolk School Board members seem to have lost that focus.

Even more disconcerting, however, is the other objection that was raised to Bouchard’s motion — that she had not cleared her proposal with the school superintendent before bringing it up in a public meeting. “I think some of this should have been brought up with the superintendent prior to this meeting,” member Enoch Copeland said. “What we are discussing, I think, should have been recommended by the superintendent. Therefore, I can’t support the second motion.”

To be sure, school board members rely on their superintendent to make recommendations about education based on his or her professional experience and training. But their primary responsibility is to voters, taxpayers and students, not to the superintendent. They should never feel they must vet their ideas for improving education with system administrators before raising them in an open forum.

  • RobertEStephens

    Thank you for bringing this issue of irresponsible discourse to the public’s attention. Governor McDonnell recently published an Op-Ed reminding citizens, educators and administrators that the VA Constitution requires every student receive a quality education. ( In Suffolk, we continue witnessing events and actions in the SPS that defend and protect the status quo, by not acknowledging that many students are failing. Recent proposals and recommendations such as those put forth by Board member Bouchard to make systemic improvements, helping to bring about much needed changes are continuously rebuffed…without consideration for the long-term costs to students and the community.

    As the Governor stated…, “Defending the failed status quo will not help a single child get a better education”. Parents, Teachers, taxpayers and all educational stakeholders should be VERY concerned about this level of myopic thinking…SERIOUSLY!!!

    Suggest Removal

  • chief601

    Well said.

    Suggest Removal

  • jhuxster

    The situation with the School Board mirrors that of the city government. NO ONE wants to be responsible for anything and are always passing the buck.The school board passes to the superintendent who pretends he will look into it. If it doesn’t work, it’s always someone else’s fault. I’ve long decided that no government agency exists for any other reason than to insure its continued existence. Look at what has happened in our central office–they eliminated 13 positions and then added 19 new positions declaring they were streamlining operations. The school’s website says there more support staff than teachers–indicating where the priority lies. More to the point, the district says the student to teacher ratio is 25 to 1 but the district has more than 1000 teachers for 14,000 students. I keep asking the question but no one ever answer–where are all these teachers? Probably in non-teaching positions. Every action taken by all levels of city government in this community has one design–to grow the power bases of those in government. More often than not, it’s the unelected overlords (i.e. city manager and school superintendent) who are benefiting at the citizens’ and students’ expense.

    The same radical concept needs to be applied to the school board as to city government. If the school board refuses to lead, then fire them (don’t reelect them). The next time the superintendent tells the board “they should speak with me first” they should tell him–don’t let the door hit you on the way out. It’s time for these unelected, arrogant and obstinate bureaucrats to be reminded–you work for US we don’t work for you. And, when then leave–no severance and surely no recommendation they do to others what they have done to us!

    Suggest Removal

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