Tuesday, April 19, 2022

VA: The Attack On Frederick County Schools

Here's a story about another form that attacks on public education can take, and why local elections matter. It's not just state legislatures that can try to micromanage schools. 

When Glenn Youngkin won the race for Virginia governor, he swept along plenty of GOP conservatives into office with him. That included relatively small scale races like the race for Frederick County Board of Supervisors, which saw a raft of GOP candidates carried into office. 

Frederick County is the northernmost county in Virginia (named for Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales). The 2020 census shows a population of a little over 90,000; there has been steady growth for years (the 2000 census counted 59,209 residents, and back in 1960, it was 21,941). As the population has grown, the whiteness of that population has diminished; in 2000, the county was 94.99% white, and in 2020, that percentage was down to 78.47%. Much of that shift seems due to Hispanic/Latino residents.

The county is largely conservative, and the campaign was reportedly largely positive. But the new supervisors joined a group of conservatives already on the board to aim toward a new confrontation with the Frederick County School District board. The first shot fired came on February 9, when the Board of Supervisors voted 6-1 to have the county's attorney work up a plan for funding alternatives to public education. Supervisors noted they had heard from community members who want school choice, and by a remarkable coincidence, many of those parents were at the meeting (including some of the 44 families who, the week before, sued the district for continuing a mask mandate). Said one supervisor, "It is past time that our citizens had the opportunity to direct their students to get an education that best meets the thoughts, ideals and values of that family." Said one member of the public, "I ask that you consider cutting their funding in any way you see fit..."

At their meeting two weeks later, the Board of Supervisors indicated they wanted to teach the school board a lesson, demanding a line-item breakdown for the district's proposed FY2023 budget. "I think they need to deal with the consequences...unless they want to justify their operating fund by showing us the numbers. We need to see what they're spending the money on beforehand," said the board's vice-chair, Doug McCarthy. 

The district has asserted that a complete breakdown of every dollar spent is on the website; the supervisors say that's beside the point--they want to know what the district plans to spend each dollar on.

So first, the supervisors removed four items from the Capital Improvement Plan (including the building of a new high school). And then, earlier this month, they decided to slash the county's contribution to the school district budget by $22 million, from $97.5 million to $75.5 million. Supervisor Shawn Graber argued that the cut was not deep enough. And when the county treasurer pointed out that this would create problems for the district with things like trying to hire new teachers, Graber replied "To your point, Mr. Treasurer, I don't care." 

The superintendent issued a statement that such a cut would require either across the board salary cuts or the firing of 293 teachers. Didn't matter. Some supervisors were still just pissed that there was not enough transparency or detail in the district's budget. And if you're wondering what kind of detail they're worried about--well, prepare to be not surprised.

Graber said he has not received a line-item budget from the school division that shows “where every dollar is going.” He has numerous times expressed concerns about the school division potentially using taxpayer dollars on critical race theory or other similar programs. On Wednesday he reiterated his support for cutting $60 million from the schools.

Despite the "disdain" and "mistrust" that some supervisors have for the school board, at least one member from each group was able to meet and discuss. But there continued to be problems with misinformation, like the supervisor who insisted that the district's pre-K classes cost $6 million-- the correct figure was $613,152 (listed right there in the budget). Meanwhile, surrounding school districts are proposing salary increases for their teachers far greater than what Frederick County has budgeted. Good luck recruiting and retaining teachers.

Not a new issue for Frederick County, where some of these same supervisors just two years ago were complaining that the school system was just too darned expensive and should be cut. And back then Graber was already concerned about things like Deep Equity, a company brought in to help develop culturally responsive teaching practices. On that group, Graber said,

I don’t know if any of my fellow board members are aware of what’s in there, but it is a deeply racist, very Communistic, Marxist-type of program from what has been shared with me by teachers who have been told that they have to participate in the program.

That was in February of 2020, before Christopher Rufo had taught guys like Graber they could call this Communistic evil stuff "critical race theory." 

As news of the cuts spread, so did anger and conflict. A change.org petition to reinstate the budget cut drew support. Letters to the editor were written, and commented upon. " I would hazard a guess that the Grabers and the BOS are what they accuse schools of doing.....indoctrinated." "Sovine and the school board refuse to do their jobs...All that has happened is we have enough BOS members to end this charade." 

The supervisors met on April 13 to consider possible budget scenarios. Around 375 members of the public showed up, well past overflow capacity for the room. Citizen comments took two and a half hours, with calls for full funding and for budget transparency. 

"My daughter is a junior at Sherando, and four of her six teachers are not coming back next year." 

"You will proceed to talk about how much you appreciate teachers and all they do while at the same time presenting ideas that are clearly not supportive of the work teachers are doing. Please do not patronize public educators in this community. They see right through it. I want you to know that your actions hurt people." That from a district middle school principal.

The student who started the online petition said he has "never been so disappointed in an elected group" and blamed the cuts on an "unreasonable political agenda." And this zinger-- "You as a white board want so badly to feel marginalized."

Supervisor Graber did not show up for the meeting. McCarthy and two other supervisors said they had had productive conversations with school board members, but that productivity doesn't speak well for the supervisors:

“And they discussed a proposal that would contain clear language forbidding the teaching of CRT in our school system,” McCarthy said. “And I’ll be clear, they both stated that they don’t believe it’s being taught. So they had no fear of saying they would forbid CRT, and I commend them for at least having that conversation.”

The good news is that nobody at the meeting supported the $22 million cut. Board members split between a proposal giving the school district what it asked for and a proposal giving the district about $2 mill less than it requested. So the bad news is that the budget hit a stalemate. And people--specifically teachers who were thinking of coming to work at the district--have noticed there's a mess. You do not recruit and retain top quality teachers by demonstrating how little you value their work and how willing you are to upend the school system and promote instability to score political points.

Virginia is not the only state that allows this kind of micro-mis-management by county officials who are not even elected to run a school system; North Carolina saw a similar scenario unfold when county officials in Johnston County decided they wanted to weed out any of that indoctrinatin' stuff from the school system and were willing to grab the purse strings and hold the education of local students hostage unless they got their way. But it's a bad idea wherever it crops up, and a reminder that local officials suffering from CRT panic can be just a dangerous as state and federal culture crusaders. Pay attention, and vote. 

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