School Board Schedules Planning Retreat as November Elections Loom

After nearly four years together the Clarke County School Board has set the date for a long envisioned, but never implemented “goals retreat.” Even so, the School Board may still face challenges in establishing meaningful goals given disagreements over exactly defining exactly which problems that the retreat is intended to solve.

Clarke County School Board (l-r) Dr. Mike Murphy, Jennifer Welliver, Babara Lee, Robina Bouffault, Emily Rhodes and Janet Alger - Photo Edward Leonard

At Tuesday night’s meeting School Board Member Robina Bouffaut (White Post) was the only School Board member to offer specific suggestions about what goals a retreat agenda will address. Bouffault also repeated her frustration that the school board still has not achieved the goals that it set for itself in from a 2008 “position paper.”

“Our position paper listed three main public concerns,” Bouffault said. “Number one, construction of a new high school – well we’ve taken care of that; Second, the need to increase the number of vocational courses; Third, performance requirements for more academically challenging courses.”

Bouffault said that the unachieved position paper goals make it clear that the upcoming retreat should focus on student performance and also on collaboration with Lord Fairfax Community College on ways to broaden vocational course offerings.

The planned goals meeting comes at an odd time given that at least two School Board members are voluntarily vacating their positions as the current School Board’s term ends with the upcoming November elections. Neither Robina Bouffault nor Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh) is seeking re-election. A third School Board member, Jennifer Welliver (Berryville), is being challenged for re-election by Berryville businessman, James Brinkmeyer.

The late term goals meeting highlights ongoing differences that have prevented the School Board from collectively agreeing on a long range agenda beyond the construction of the new high school.  A previous School Board “goals retreat” that had been in the planning stages since May, 2010 was canceled at the last minute in September 2010.  The previous meeting, which was to be held approximately 60 miles west of Clarke County, had been intended to allow School Board members to develop their vision for Clarke County Public Schools away from public oversight and with facilitation by an independent education professional.  Specific reasons for why the previous planning retreat was canceled are vague, however, at the time the Virginia FOIA Council issued an opinion that the private meeting would have violated the Freedom of Information Act.

At Tuesday night’s meeting School Board member Janet Alger (Russell) responded to Bouffault’s agenda request by attempting to gain a consensus on a more focused set of goals for the discussion.

“I think that we have to narrow the agenda into specific areas of need in terms of student performance,” Alger said.

However, Bouffault disagreed responding that the school district is facing three major problems including an “awful” financial scenario in the coming fiscal year.

“Our advanced academic programs are in trouble, we’ve had a reduction in vocational programs and we’ve got a very limited budget for next year,” Bouffault said. “This requires a serious review of everything that we’re doing and we need to start now.”

School Board superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy, however, took issue with the validity of Bouffault’s premise for meeting.

“It’s hard for me to accept your statements that our advanced programs are in trouble and that funding prospects are ‘awful,’” Murphy replied. “The funding is only a problem because we are the 119th worst funded school division in Virginia. Our test scores are not where we want them to be but we’re not in ‘trouble.’”

“We can complain all that we want to about funding, but we aren’t going to get more than what we have now,” Bouffault replied.  “Our test scores have been declining for the last three years. We need to turn things around with some original thinking in the face of a difficult budget.”

Despite Bouffault’s position, School Board members Alger and Welliver said at a recent Special School Board meeting held to assess the school division’s International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs that they are both comfortable with division’s progress in addressing any issues related to the two programs.

Given the divergence in opinion combined with the short tenure of the current School Board, the emergence of any meaningful policy decisions from the goals meeting seems doubtful.

Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Russell), who normally attends most school board meetings and was in the audience on Tuesday night declined to comment on Clarke County’s school funding position ranking vis-à-vis other Virginia school districts.

The Clarke County School Board plans to meet to redefine its goals and direction on October 5 at 9:30am. The location of the meeting was not decided as of last night’s meeting.


  1. Out of how many?

    Murphy replied. “The funding is only a problem because we are the 119th worst funded school division in Virginia

    • Travis Goodwin says:

      There are 132 school divisions in Virginia.

      • thanks and WOW

      • IN the know says:

        And, we rank 107 out of 132 in terms of achievement. You get what you pay for. You can shop at Wal-Mart or Nodstrom. Which lasts longer?

        • While I agree with your overall point, I would like to know /which/ data you are using. Your statement is extremely general. There is a lot of data, some areas we are weak in and some we are strong in.

          For instance, we are tied for 2nd in on time graduation rates. I consider that a success. A high number of our graduating seniors go to college and get into one of the colleges of their choice. I consider that a success, especially given the extremely competitive nature of getting into college today and the competition that comes from neighboring counties with more money, programs, and magnet schools like TJ in Fairfax.

          This Board started as an all new Board, with the exception of Emily, who had been on board one year. Learning the role of a Board member takes time. Getting to know each other and how to work together takes time. This Board came on without a superintendent. We had to hire a new superintendent and many key new staff members, and we have a big, beautiful, new HS that will open shortly after our term ends. I consider this a success.

          I am not making excuses, I am simply saying there was a lot to be done, we accomplished a lot, and a lot remains to be done. I believe we have made great progress in many ways and the next Board will hopefully make many more. But we are eons beyond where we were.

          And with regard to the editor’s comments about /this/ Board planning for the future of the schools, I would say that, first, we should have done this sooner, but now is better than later. I, for one, will not agree to any decisions that would limit the next Board’s decisions for adjustments they believe are appropriate in their planning decisions. Second, out of town retreats are not meant to be for the purpose of secrecy, just productivity. Retreats are not uncommon or illegal. The Supervisors, to the best of my knowledge, go on a quite nice retreat each year and no one complains.

          I came on this Board with all kinds of thoughts and ideas. It was not long before I learned the painful reality of the limitations, and not just financial, that are put on a local school division. So all that I would ask is that before you jump on the criticism bandwagon, you try and find out what your schools are up against, it is FAR more than AYP.


          • Correct. You are up against a BOS that doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about the schools.

          • Or anything else but farms…

          • you mentioned TJ in your post as what Clarke students compete with. Question: why then did the School Board pull out of the Governor’s school which at least seems like it could be a competitor to TJ and other such programs/schools?

          • Because it served just the top 8 /academically/ gifted students in a school of 700 students at a cost of $10,000 + above and beyond what is spent per student on the rest of the population. We were and continue to be in the unfortunate predicament of having to cut, cut, cut, and that was one of the early cuts, a big one.

            If we continue to serve such a small minority at such a proportionately higher level (roughly twice) when we are cutting our budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, how are we going to adequately and fairly serve the rest of the student body?

            As I said, our students are competing with students from wealthier counties that have the advantage of programs that ours do not, and our students are still getting into top colleges of their choice. I think that says a lot for us.

          • Honest Look says:

            You are correct, Jennifer. Cutting the Governor’s school was a “big one.” Although, let’s honestly look at what sort of funding is in place for students from special populations at the other end of the spectrum? 10k (even 10k plus) is a drop in the bucket.

            Public schools must meet the needs of ALL children. I am not convinced our current IB/AP offerings are sufficient for the very few students unique enough to need this type of enrichment. A quick look at the VDOE website shows that, embarrassingly, Clarke county is the only local school to “drop out” of Mountain Vista Governors School.


            I am afraid to look at how Clarke compares around the state in this area. I support our advanced programs, however if we honestly look at the data they are not even remotely the same caliber as Mountain Vista.

          • IN the know says:

            So, let’s do this for fun……

            Please go to and right click on ” Top 10 worst middle schools in Virginia”



          • “IN the Know”, Virginia must have great middle schools, which is good news. I absolutely know beyond a shadow of a doubt that JWMS have dedicated and knowledgeable teachers who are devoted to their students. JWMS adminstration care about the well being and safety of the students. Clarke County should be proud of JWMS. The students seem happy and eager to learn.

          • Cat in the Hat says:

            “JWMS adminstration care about the well being and safety of the students”…….Educator, that statement is so far from the truth! Let’s talk about how the administration let a spanish teacher go after being accused of innapropriate conduct with two female students a few years ago. The students went to the assistant principal to report the incident. The accused teacher was sent home in the middle of the school day and never returned.That teacher is now over in Loudoun teaching! So instead of reporting this incident, the administration allowed him to go over county lines and teach in another district. So do you want to recant your statement?

          • Well, the only thing I’ve ever seen come out of the JWMS administration is some stupid book by the “principal”. The teachers, however, are fantastic.

          • Yes, but if you look at that score, it is a combination of math and reading. The reading score is 92 – the math 35. It also does not take into account science or history. All this does is show we need improvement in math. These are also strictly SOL scores and nothing else. You can’t rank a school just on this. If you look at our 6th grade SOL scores they are ranking in the 350 range. Statistics/Data can be manipulated to please whatever crowd it is meant for and can not be viewed soley one way.

            I think we can improve in math, but it needs to be in the lower grades. There are some kids who just take to it and others who do not and they end up playing catch up later which could account for lower scores in math. Our younger reading program has shown lots of strength thus the higher score there. We keep focusing on the higher grades, but if we are not giving a good foundation at the grade school level, we have already lost them.

          • I agree with your views on math Diane. JWMS does math jump start warm ups in the morning. Maybe there can be some peer tutoring. Maybe we can observe the innovative ways that math is taught at Powatan School. As for science and history, the teachers at JWMS are good. Students learn when they focus and concentrate. For example, students should have uninterupted time at home to do their homework with no distractions from television , phone or any gadgets. Students should read, reflect, recite, and review.

          • You can’t compare what Powhatan and J-WMS do, because they are totally different entities. First, Powhatan is free from nearly all state SOL assessments – and thus free from all of the time constraints and other headaches associated with that. Second, Powhatan has a MUCH smaller student population that reflects an entirely different mix of kids than those who attend J-WMS; J-WMS has to educate all who walk thru the front door, whereas Powhatan gets to be selective as to who is enrolled. With the staffing cuts, class sizes are only going up…which places more pressure on the teachers to maintain high standards and push even harder.

            I agree that kids need to be free from distractions, but who is responsible for providing the very things you bemoan (cell phones, television, “gadgets”)? That would be the parents. The great teachers at J-WMS can only do so much; parents must step up to the line and do their share. And…from my experience as a J-WMS parent…I see this quite a bit.

          • I agree with all you say. JWMS math teachers are good. “Maybe we can observe the innovative ways that math is taught at Powatan” is not a criticsm of Clarke County School System. There is everything good about being resourceful. Observe and learn from models of success.

          • I am talking about before middle school. By the time our kids reach middle school they should know their times tables by heart, be able to do basic math skills and I know they struggle with this. If they arrived at 6th grade with these skills, the teachers at JWMS could really focus on high level math but as it is they have to work at brining kids up to speed.

          • IN the know says:

            Feel free to blame it on unfocused kids, bad parenting, gadgets and a lack of foundation. This year’s 6th grade cohort came from 2 feeder schools with a cumulative pass rate of 89% in math( while they were in 5th grade). Unlikely the teacher is playing catch-up and reteaching 5th grade- rather simply not effectively teaching 6th grade math.

          • You have two great comments Diane and I agree with every word in them. I appreciate your comments Hal and In-the-know. Thank you all for caring about student achievement. To help Algebra students remember their order of operations, students learn the phrase: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. Please (Parentheses), Excuse (Exponents) My (Multiplication) Dear (Division), Aunt (Addition), Sally (Subtraction). Another student suggested the phrase: Please Excuse My Demented Aunt Sally to help him remember his problem solving order of operations.

  2. Sound a little foolish, to go off site and spend funds that the board does not have.

  3. Newbie to VA question… School board has no control of how much money is received?

    • Yup. Really stupid way of doing things.

    • Correct. Unlike, say, Pennsylvania, school division in Virginia – whether they be elected as in Clarke or appointed as in Winchester – do not have independent authority to raise funds via taxes or other such levies. In Clarke, all the supervisors can do, by right, is vote up or down on the School Board’s request for funds; how those funds are spent is solely the purvue of the School Board. In practice, there are several members of the current Board of Supervisors who love to nickel-and-dime the schools, demand letters explaining that they really do know how tough things are (without requiring similar letters of the county side), and find other ways to dither and quibble and hold funding hostage to get their way.

      While I don’t always agreen with RW, this is one thing I can agree with – it’s a stupid arrangement that creates all sorts of unnecessary drama when the two boards work at apparent cross purposes. But, changing it will require amending the Virginia constitution to expand said revenue powers. When counties themselves can’t diversify their revenue streams much without the approval of the General Assembly, whereas independent cities can, such a prospect doesn’t seem likely.

  4. Longtime Berryville resident says:

    Good comments Jennifer. Maybe school administrators should take a big pay cut to free up money.

  5. Embarassed says:

    This is embarassing how the schools struggle and yet the School Board, which two of or maybe more, won’t be a part of any more after November want to pay to go to a retreat to talk about goals. That’s silly and a waste of money – they just want the free getaway!

  6. Embarassed says:

    This is embarassing that the School Board is wanting to spend money for a retreat to talk about goals that they won’t even get the ink dry on the paper before two, if not more, are not going to be on the Board come November. That makes a ton of sense! (insert sarcasim here)
    To those who think the school system has a great graduation rate or are educating the students at a high level. Well, I guess you can have a high rate when you push students through or send the ones who act up to the F&M building to do a few worksheets then hang out for the rest of the day. Or I don’t know about the rest of you but when I was in school if work wasn’t done on time you got a 0(zero). If you failed you failed and if you flunked the grade you were held back. Now you get to wait till the end of the grading period to turn it all in or you can get “extra credit” to bring the grade up. Kind of hard to get an acurate idea of how students are doing and preparing for the real world when you get so many chances and get pushed through even if you aren’t ready.
    Want to raise money, and who knows possibly double the income of the county, then I would like for the CDN to check with the treasurer’s office and find out how much the county is loosing in tax dollars for tax breaks for “horse farms”. How is putting a bunch of horses in a field a farm. They don’t give meat, or milk, or any other form of “food” for humans. They are a pleasure animal such as a pet. Maybe the county should even put a tax on them like they do cars since people like to ride them on the roads. If you have a farm it should be for supporting your family as a livelyhood either buy selling the products from your farm or for self comsumption. Not to put an animal on to get a tax break.
    Get this money to the schools and to the other public servents to help them do a better job. Also cack down on the teachers to push the students and go by the old school rules and push the students to succeed rather than handing it to them.
    And before anyone can say anything – yes I have witnessed this first hand!
    CDN – how about checking on the tax break amount that the county is loosing in the above mentioned way and any others?

  7. I feel the need to correct the perception that the School Board is going to pay or otherwise spend vast sums of money for the retreat we will be having on October 5th.

    The retreat will be held in Berryville, and the only reason it won’t be at one of our usual meeting places, is that it is going to be ALL DAY LONG, and we can’t meet in either the government’s meeting room for that long, or take over the CCHS Library during a school day when it’s filled with students.

    Given that we will be working all day, hopefully no one will begrudge us the price of a sandwich at lunchtime…(P.S. – school board members each earn the magnificent sum of $100 per month for the many hours spent on school business…).

    I must agree with Jennifer Welliver’s comment above:

    “So all that I would ask is that before you jump on the criticism bandwagon, you try and find out what your schools are up against, it is FAR more than AYP.”

    I would like to invite all of the anonymous naysayers to actually come to our meetings, work sessions and to our retreat, all of which are public meetings – you would learn the full extent of the problems facing our school division, and that this board is trying hard to resolve, with the backdrop of a declining economy and limited funds. You could even volunteer for a committee or two…

    PPS – I totally agree that the current BOS/SB structure is designed to put the two boards at loggerheads. It is obsolete, outdated, and a relic from a past society that no longer exists. it has the unfortunate result of county citizens attacking each other needlessly, much as we see here on this blog. Perhaps some of you could tackle this issue with Richmond, to see if a more modern, and less adversarial, structure could be implemented.