A small group of citizens and four administrators from Clarke County Public Schools met on Tuesday night to discuss the future of the county’s International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs. One School Board candidate was present at the meeting. And while no School Board members attended, one School Board member still managed to make her presence felt.
About a dozen county citizens involved with the educational funding support group, Concerned Citizens of Clarke County (CCCC), met at a private residence on Tuesday evening to hear Clarke County Superintendent, Dr. Michael Murphy, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Lisa Floyd, Clarke County High School Principal Jeff Jackson and International Baccalaureate (IB) program administrator and language instructor, Thom Potts express their views on the state of the IB and Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum as well as the future of IB and AP at Clarke County High School.
Based on questions posed from the group, Murphy described a school system that has experienced significant funding cutbacks and continues to struggle with an uncertain funding future.
Murphy cited advanced program testing fees, which had been paid by the school system prior to 2008 but were then eliminated, and participation in the Mountain Vista high school program, which focused on students with engineering aspirations, as examples of damage caused by funding cuts. Murphy said that between the Mountain Vista program and advanced program testing fees alone, the school division has lost around $200K annually.
Murphy said that stipends for sports programs have also seen cuts, but not to the extent that the advanced education programs have seen.
“From 2010 until now, if I understand, the funding for gifted education and IB has been cut from $100K to $10K,” one citizen asked. “During the same time how much has funding been cut for the athletic expenditures? Has it been 90%?”
“Oh no,” Murphy replied. “It goes back to what I said earlier. What do we value, what are our priorities? Athletics and stipends in general have taken some cuts. But, it certainly hasn’t been 90% in any one area or category. It’s the opposite. Our stipend budget may be down 10%-20% but that’s for a $230K-something budget. So, you could be looking at $20K-$25K over the last three years.”
Murphy said that “stipends” are used to help cover not only athletics but VHSL athletic competitions, Knowledge Bowl, musicals and other extracurricular activities. Stipends are also used for other requirements like webpage design and instructional assistants working in teaching roles.
However, Murphy cautioned that pitting advanced education programs against athletic programs can be very divisive in a community and said that the root of the problem was elsewhere.
“I think that the root cause of the conundrum we’re in is that we are a very poorly funded school district,” Murphy said. “And I know that there are folks out there that will debate that until the cows come home. But Table 15, which is the indicator that the Virginia Department of Education uses, puts us at 119 out of 132 [Virginia school districts].”
“We’re as close to the bottom as you can get,” Murphy said. “Nine years ago we were $53 less than the state average in the Commonwealth. We are about $1,800 less per student than the state average right now, which is about $3.6 million dollars. In the last decade we’ve seen our funding slowly and continually decease. And I certainly wouldn’t advocate that if $3.8M appeared tomorrowâ€¦ I probably would want to put it in the bankâ€¦ and have a lot of conversations because, to be perfectly honest with you, in my opinion, this is what’s missing in Clarke County. It’s the conversation. It’s the ability to sit down and dialog with people who are concerned about their kids and education and where all of this is going. ”
“But when you consider that we are 119 out of 132 in funding but that we are 20 out of 132 in our ability to pay, it’s a horrible argument,” another meeting attendee replied.
Murphy pointed out that the cost of switching from advanced programs already in place to something new would also be very expensive, a task, he said, that none of the administration looked forward to doing in a down economy.
Murphy and his school administration have recently found themselves at the center of a broader, division-wide School Board review aimed at determining whether the school system should continue to support advanced educational programs, and if so, to what degree. Since no formal School Board decisions have been made regarding the mix of future advanced and vocational programs, at least one School Board member has expressed concern about school administrators meeting with citizen groups prior to policy decisions being decided.
At the conclusion of Tuesday night’s meeting, CCCC co-founder Laura Dabinett read an electronic mail message from an unnamed Clarke County School Board Member.
“The School Board has not been informed about any of our employees’ presence at your meeting, and would not have known about it without your e-mail.
You should be aware that the Superintendent and the employees indicated are not speaking on behalf of the School Board, and their answers may not represent the board’s position.
Your group has been very helpful for our school division financially, and your continued efforts in this regard are greatly appreciated. May I urge all of you to come to both our 2nd work session and our retreat.”
The Clarke Daily News has learned that the message originated from School Board member Robina Bouffault (White Post).
“There is a Board work session on October the 5th at 9:30 in the morning at Enders Fire Hall for the purpose of setting Board goals,” Murphy replied. “This is a task that I have tried unsuccessfully to do over the last three and a half years on multiple occasions. But the Board has decided now that it’s time to set goals as they move into the twilight of their tenure as a Board.”
“Are these goals binding on the next Board,” asked unopposed White Post School Board candidate Chip Schutte.
Murphy continued, “Chip will remember the letter that his School Board received a few months before the last election where basically the old Board was told if they passed or made policy decisions between the time of the election and the time of the new Board they’d be sued. And not much took place during that time. Which I thought was an interesting play on democracy.”
Murphy concluded, “History’s important, but also integrity is important. And Jeff and Thom and Lisa and I are here because we have incredible integrity and we don’t need permission to meet with community groups in our community. You are our constituents.”
Murphy and the other administrators received strong support from the CCCC members who appeared to unanimously endorse the funding needed to support and rebuild both of the school division’s advanced programs.
“I want to keep both the IB program and the AP program,” said Chip Schutte after the meeting. “I’ve been talking to college admissions programs with my children and I think that I know what they are looking for. We have to have a balanced program.”
“The IB program offers a wonderful educational approach and I am behind it always,” said CCCC co-founder Laura Dabinett. “I also think that the AP program can be a stepping stone into IB. The funding for the programs needs to be reinstated.”