High school teacher Brenda Anderson Diggs received a phone call letting her know about a meeting in Tappahannock involving discussion of various issues with Essex County schools.
“As an educator and a concerned citizen of Essex County, I wanted to come and see what was going on, how Essex felt about it and what Essex wanted to do about it,” Diggs said.
She wasn’t alone—over 70 citizens, ranging from former teachers to current teachers to parents to local officials, attended the community meeting held Tuesday night at First Baptist Church.
The room was packed and people were still coming in, open seats becoming harder to spot. Some took to standing.
There would be no solutions tonight, moderator James Cary reminded those in attendance. Rather, this is where the public would be expected to share their frustrations, criticisms, concerns and questions about the school system, he said.
“It was thought that those people who had questions and situations could come together,” Cary said. “Then we could approach the school board with these questions intelligently.”
And the frustrations and worries came out—teachers were being told to resign, citizens had heard; students were being bullied by students and even teachers; an issue with the school transportation policy still has yet to be addressed; there were behavioral problems in the classroom; important education programs had been cut; custodial staff were being cut from positions while there was talk of Essex County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Burckbuchler getting a $30,000 raise, they had heard.
Cary noted when one of the speakers, Essex County resident and concerned parent Jacob Plummer, said “he heard” about some of the instances that had him concerned.
“There are so many people who ‘heard,’ or who told other people,” Cary said. “But here, [we] give you the chance to tell your story.”
School Board Member Keren Ellis, who attended the community meeting along with fellow member Denise Hammond, said they did not give Burckbuchler a $30,000 raise; instead, he received the same 2 percent raise as other staff, she said.
According to the adopted budget for the 2014-15 school year, the superintendent’s salary is listed as $141,372 (p. 57), up 5 percent from last year’s listed salary of $134,640. While higher than the $137,333 that was in the proposed 2014-2015 school budget (p. 57), the listed increase in the superintendent’s pay was a roughly a fifth of the rumored amount.
Other issues presented were the high teacher turnover, the incident surrounding Angela Mosley’s resignation from the principal position at Essex High School, the rotation of school staff to different positions from what they had. Citizens at the meeting wondered why so many teachers had left.
According to their website, Essex County schools is currently seeking to fill 25 positions that include but are not limited to a high school principal, four athletic coaches and 12 teachers.
In a media release shared by Burckbuchler from April 21, the superintendent announced that Tappahannock Elementary School principal Patrick DiSpirito and Essex Intermediate School principal Angela Gross would trade places. In addition, assistant principals Princess Blanding, Essex High School, and Fontella Calhoun, TES, would switch positions. No promotions or demotions were listed within the announcement.
“Change is a healthy, reinvigorating process that any organization must undergo to meet new realities and continue to advance,” Burckbuchler said in the release. “I am optimistic that these are the appropriate changes for ECPS as we seek to accomplish our student-centered goals.”
But Diggs said, “If you take and shuffle those folks around … now you’ve taking away the support, so then you’re leaving the Chief Executive Officer with no one, no allegiance, with no forces to help keep it going.
“I, too, have that concern as a teacher and as a parent how removing administrative staff and/or the assistant principals, etc., etc. is going to increase the SOL scores,” Diggs said. “Essex High School in the past 14 years has had 10 assistant principals … Doing the same thing and expecting a different turnout is ludicrous. I don’t see it.”
Former Essex County school teacher Carrie Bier said that being a teacher was all about building relationships, and that the school system’s current atmosphere is not conducive to building those relationships.”
“With the current administration, those relationships are being ripped apart because of the turnover and getting rid of teachers who are capable of building those relationships,” Bier said.
Many of the job listings were asking for teachers who could present a positive environment, Bier said before asking about the alleged atmosphere with which they were presented.
“If we cannot voice any opinions of concern, we are blacklisted and we are looked upon as being bad and evil,” Bier said. “You want somebody in your classroom who knows how to teach those critical thinking skills that the kids are missing … and they need to know what they may be up against in life in general.”
Tappahannock resident David Rector received arguably the loudest applause of the night when he said that after speakers had called on the school board, the superintendent and the county board, they were sill leaving one person out of the equation—God. Rector stressed to the clapping crowds that they put God back into the schools.
At the meeting, Burckbuchler said he appreciated being able to listen to the citizens’ concerns.
“My agenda is very simple, and that is our mission speaks to serving our students. It is unacceptable from my perspective to have failure of over 50 percent of our kids,” Burckbuchler said. “That is not what is going to move forward this community. This is not going to move forward our kids as they go forward.”
Burkbuchler encouraged those in the room and in the community to come speak to him.
“I would welcome the opportunity to speak to you one-on-one or in small groups or whatever venue that is appropriate,” Burckbuchler said. “I want to listen to your input.”
After the meeting, Burckbuchler said in a phone interview that partners who could support the students were desperately needed.
“We need to be talking about the future and not the past in order to make improvement, and we need everyone to be part of that solution,” Burckbuchler said. “It can’t just be the superintendent, it can’t just be the school board, it can’t just be the principals, it can’t just be the faculty; we all have to work together with the community to make improvement.”
Burckbuchler took away from the meeting that communication between the community and the school system wasn’t necessarily happening.
“Anything we can do to help and aid in communication would be great, because I don’t think everybody’s getting the right information, and then obviously there’s some other information that might be personnel-related which we can’t discuss in public,” Burckbuchler said, adding that the schools have significantly increased the amount of information that the public can access, but “for whatever reason it’s not reaching everybody in the community.”
Burckbuchler spoke to providing additional opportunities for people to ask questions and get responses.
“I’m considering holding forums periodically to where certainly anyone would be invited,” Burckbuchler said. “If they want to talk about something, we can talk about it.”
The next meeting
The next Essex County School Board meeting will take place this Monday at 7 p.m. in Essex High School.
Lorraine Justice, a concerned parent, encouraged the people at the meeting to not just come when there is an issue, but when organizational bodies such as the Parent-Teacher Administration and Essex County Board of Supervisors hold meetings.
“We really need to be there to voice our concerns on the front end, so when these issues happen, it’s not a great big uproar,” Justice said.
“It’s not for us to get together when the house is on fire,” Essex County resident Carole Harris-Harper agreed, “but before it’s burning.”
–A follow-up story is slated to appear following the Monday school board meeting in an upcoming publication of the Northern Neck News.