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Virginia Journal of Education


A Seat at the Table

A longtime teacher and administrator experiences education as a school board member.


by Karen Whetzel

It seemed like a good idea at the time. In June, I retired after a 38-year career with the Shenandoah County Public Schools, and I thought if I ran for the school board, I could continue working for students and public education. So I jumped into the election. Lessons learned long ago in VEA training served me well; I knew a little about fundraising, organizing and getting out the vote. Community members, including teachers and other school employees, volunteered to help me.

As soon as I had enough signatures to get on the ballot, volunteers and I started raising money, putting out signs, talking to others about my candidacy, looking up phone numbers, putting mailing labels on postcards and sorting them by zip code, and many other election tasks. Two parents who had not always agreed with my decisions as a school principal called and asked for yard signs.

I bought magnetic signs for my car so that I could be advertising wherever I went. The signs also served as part of a “float” when I decked out the car and rode in the New Market Fourth of July parade.  With a limited budget, I decided to put several small ads in local newspapers, and do a postcard mailing to registered voters in the district. I almost forgot to move signs to the polling places the night before the election; a friend called and reminded me.

Last November 3, Election Day, was probably the longest day in my life! The polls opened at 6 a.m. and it was chilly. I spent all day at the largest precinct in New Market, where my opponent, an incumbent, was also campaigning. She gave out a flyer as voters went in; I had a copy of my postcard which I held up and said, “You should have received this in the mail.” If they hadn’t, I gave them a card.  Many voters said they had received it. As the sun got warmer, I peeled off some of my layers of clothing, but as the sun went down, it got cold again.
 
When the polls closed, instead of watching the returns, I hit the road to Alexandria, where I was doing a training session for the Department of Education the next morning. Along the way, I started getting phone calls. The first was from my husband, who reported that the local television station was projecting me as the winner. Other congratulatory calls came; I had to let calls go to voice mail as talking on the phone while approaching the Beltway at night was too hazardous for me! I stopped for gas and a take-out dinner, checked messages and returned a few calls. Folks were saying I was definitely the winner. Arriving in Alexandria around 10 p.m., I listened to more messages, made a few calls, reviewed the training materials for the next day, and went to bed.

The next morning, the Northern Virginia Daily showed the vote count: I had defeated the incumbent 1,203 (63.7 percent) to 678. Congratulatory e-mails flooded my inbox. I was mostly relieved that the election was over.
 
In December, I was sworn in at the courthouse, and my first official school board meeting was in January. I felt strange being in the front of the room looking out at the audience, most of whom were colleagues of mine when I worked at the central office during the 2009-10 school year. (Several even made faces at me in an attempt to loosen me up!) Our documents are all on computer at the meetings, and I had to adjust to scrolling down the agenda instead of keeping up with paper items. I’ve served on several boards, but this was the first time I used a computer to go through materials at the meeting. We approved a meeting calendar presented by the superintendent. By the time the meeting was over, we had elected a chairman and vice-chairman, and the snow was falling fast. I hurried home.

When I became a school board member, I took the advice of Bill Holtzman, a local businessman and former school board member, and established an advisory team. I served on his team many years ago and admired his effort to get advice from teachers. Mr. Holtzman stressed that for the concept to work, members needed to be assured that their comments would be confidential. I decided to include all stakeholders for my team, and invited teachers, parents, instructional assistants, a secretary, a custodian and community members to join. I sent out a list of budget cuts proposed by the superintendent to the team to get their input. Our first advisory team meeting was snowed out, but we did have a lively discussion by e-mail.

In February, the school board held a budget work session prior to our regular meeting. The superintendent presented a new option: we could save money by cutting our kindergarten program to alternate days and thereby eliminating half the kindergarten staff.  He also proposed an Early Retirement Incentive Program, which he said would save money if retirees who took it were not replaced. We went line-by-line through all his proposals, with each of us indicating whether or not we could support that cut. After the meeting, I got many phone calls and e-mails opposing the kindergarten cuts. Since I was a teacher in 1975 when our school division added half-day kindergarten, I knew how challenging alternating kindergarten groups could be, and I assured everyone that I could not support this idea. Other issues on which I got a lot of feedback were cutting all non-IEP instructional assistants, reducing some extended contracts, eliminating assistant athletic directors, salary reductions and a shortened instructional year.

In March, we had another budget session, held in a school cafeteria because of the anticipated crowd. We were seated around a table instead of facing the audience as we do at meetings at the county government center; I felt strange facing away from the audience. Later, I heard that some in attendance had trouble hearing the board members speak. We continued line-by-line down the proposals for cuts as before. As the budget process progressed, I received numerous calls and e-mails from teachers and other employees, as well as from parents and community members.

Shortly after that meeting, my advisory team met for the first time and reviewed the budget process to date and the agenda for the next board meeting. I was pleased with the discussion and the advice they gave me. One parent e-mailed me later that he felt uncomfortable speaking about cuts with teachers there who might be affected, so I encouraged him to contact me privately if he wished.

The superintendent presented his budget at the regular meeting. Applause erupted from the audience when teachers and others learned that he was not recommending any staff cuts or salary reductions. One item which was somewhat hidden in the presentation was cutting the assistant principal position at the smallest school (the middle school serving my district). Immediately following the meeting, teachers at that school approached me about their concerns.

A public hearing on the budget was held a week later. The hearing was quite quiet, with only about a half-dozen speakers. In April, school board members voted to approve the budget with the assistant principal at the small school added back. I was pleased, as I knew that eliminating the position would have a major impact on the students.
 
The June meeting was the most difficult; the issue was the RIF (reduction in force) policy. In the fall before I was on the board, the superintendent had presented a new policy based mainly on performance (the current policy is based on seniority). The board had been split and directed the superintendent to go back and rework it. I was in the audience then; this time I was on the hot seat!  Based on my past experiences as a teacher and administrator, I support using seniority as the main criteria, because I expect the evaluation procedure to improve or remove employees who are not doing their job. Also, at a meeting of the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA), lawyers advised against using performance in RIF policies. One of the first calls I had received as a school board member was from a teacher on the Superintendent’s Leadership Committee saying that members were told not to use the phrase “RIF.” The teacher felt that the rubric to address RIF (called “Employee Performance Rubric”) was being pushed through the committee with school representatives feeling intimidated about saying anything negative.

Some school board members urged us to give the superintendent immediate approval to proceed with the Employee Performance Rubric; I was not ready to do so.  The superintendent indicated the approval was not on a RIF policy, but on whether to proceed with developing a rubric for other job classifications. I expressed my concern that teachers had not all had a chance to see the teacher rubric and respond; the superintendent said that all 980 employees had looked at the rubric and supported it.  Two teachers on the superintendent’s advisory committee, as well as a community representative, spoke out at the meeting from the audience in support. We asked for more time to study the rubric and talk to teachers about it.

After the meeting, I got calls and e-mails from teachers indicating they knew others who had never seen the rubric, and who did not support it. An association officer told me that the Shenandoah County Education Association had not been adequately represented and that many SCEA members had concerns. I received one very thoughtful letter from an SCEA activist who was retiring so would not be affected by the rubric, but made some eloquent points on how the process was handled and reasons not to finalize the rubric before a new evaluation process now in the works was developed.

The July meeting rolled around and the rubric was back on the agenda. The superintendent asked for a consensus to move ahead, not approval of the rubric or a new RIF policy. Community representatives from his advisory committee filled the room and were called on by the superintendent to speak on the process. Only one teacher, the SCEA president who had been recently added to the committee, was present. Since I represent District 1, I always vote first. Going first can be stressful.  When my name was called for an opinion on the performance rubric, I paused for a minute, and reluctantly stated that I agreed to let the superintendent proceed with the rubrics for other job classifications. Although I wasn't convinced that the majority of teachers supported the teacher rubric, the superintendent's leadership committee members who spoke publically indicated that teachers in their schools supported it. A vote on any change in policy would take place later in the year which would give me more time to listen to others. After all school board members agreed, the chairman asked the superintendent to include an SCEA officer on his advisory committee going forward, and to allow adequate time for all staff members to see any proposals. With more SCEA involvement, I hope that all teachers will be surveyed on whether they support the teacher rubric.

As I reflect back on my first several months on the school board, I have mixed emotions. One of my qualifications for serving on the board was my experience with many other boards over the years. I’ve served on the Appalachia Educational Laboratory board, the Virginia High School League Executive Committee, Valley UniServ board, Shenandoah Memorial Hospital Board, and my church council just to name a few. I’ve always enjoyed board service, even when there were tough issues to deal with and differences of opinion. So far, serving on the school board has not felt productive. Perhaps it was the tough budget decisions which dominated the beginning of my service.  Maybe I know too much about the school division and individual players after 38 years of working in the school division. I know the important questions to ask, but asking questions is not always appreciated by others. During one of my first meetings, I voted not to certify an executive session as I felt that issues discussed were not under the statement read when we went into executive session. In life, I have been very persistent in getting results. I plan to continue working hard, attending VSBA sessions (now at my own expense since the budget removed professional development for board members), listening to stakeholders, and doing my best to do what’s right for our students. And who knows, maybe by the end of the next six months, I will feel that I’ve made a difference!

Whetzel, a longtime Shenandoah County Education Association member, former SCEA president and former member of the VEA Board of Directors, retired earlier this year and is now a member of the Shenandoah County School Board.


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Members Voted In
An informal survey by the Virginia Journal of Education found, in addition to Karen Whetzel, at least 14 current and retired VEA members currently serving on school boards in Virginia. They are:

Randy Bailey, retired member of the Page County Education Association, serving on the Page County School Board;
Nancy Baker, retired member of the Martinsville Education Association, serving on the Martinsville School Board;
Patrick Bingham, current member of the Petersburg Education Association, serving on the Prince George County School Board;
Colette Blount, current member of the Albemarle Education Association, serving on the Charlottesville School Board;
Peggy Clark, retired member of the Frederick County Education Association, serving on the Frederick County School Board;
Elise Emanuel, retired member of the Williamsburg-James City Education Association, serving on the Williamsburg-James City School Board;
Legert Hamilton, retired member of the Dinwiddie Education Association, serving on the Dinwiddie County School Board;
Sharon Lucas, a retired member of the Page County Education Association, serving on the Page County School Board;
Morgan Phenix, a retired member of the Page County Education Association, serving on the Page County School Board;
Michael Reid, a current member of the Chesterfield Education Association, serving on the Amelia County School Board;
R.H. “Fay” Satterfield, a retired member of the Halifax Education Association, serving on the Halifax County School Board;
Jackie Sullivan-Smoot, a retired member of the Shenandoah County Education Association, serving on the Page County School Board;
Evette Wilson, a current member of the Chesterfield Education Association, serving on the Richmond School Board; and
David Wymer, a retired member of the Roanoke County Education Association, serving on the Roanoke County School Board.

 


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