I have read through the VBOE Memorandum of Understanding document several times and while I do not think it was written with intentional malice, I do believe the document creates an environment where the people's voice and will, through our elected representatives, can be overridden. This document constricts the power of the local school board by adding state-level bureaucracy. The current VBOE's intent is probably not to unilaterally hold the control the document could allow, but that does not mean a future leadership would refrain from abusing the powers provided. In addition, I am concerned about the partisan nature of state-level politics and the influence this document makes possible. To be clear, I am not suggesting the oversight in the document should be eliminated; however, having appeals processes or some items just being a review would help protect our voices and the autonomy of our elected board. Prior to the VBOE final approval of this document on July 27th, our local board should lobby to make edits to more equitably balance the power in the document and protect their constituent's voices.
To explain all of this, below are some notes about the review, VBOE, and a breakdown of different portions of the MOU document.
Review and MOU
During summer 2016, Dr. Bedden initially requested a division level review from the VBOE making Richmond the first district to do so under the VBOE's new process. On October 17, 2016 RPS Board approved the request in a 6-0 vote. The yea votes were Gray, Larson, Taylor, Harris-Muhammed, Eppes, and Coleman with Jones, Bourne, and Boyer absent. In November 2016, VBOE approved the request. The actual review occurred between March 6th and 10th. According to the MOU document, the review scores became available daily; however, the full report was not made available until June 22nd when VBOE released the report and MOU together. July 27th will be the final review of the MOU.
Virginia Board of Education
The Virginia Board of Education is nine members appointed by the Governor of Virginia and confirmed by the General Assembly of Virginia. The appointment lasts a term of four years and no board member can be appointed for more than two consecutive four-year terms. The President and Vice President are elected by the board members for terms of two years.
In Virginia, Governors are elected for one four-year term and in case you have been under a rock for the past several months, our next gubernatorial election is November 2017. Currently, the Virginia Senate is comprised of 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats and Virginia House of Representatives is 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats.
The document effectively provides the VBOE with strong oversight of RPS Board decisions which creates a link between our non-partisan board and the partisan politics at the state level.
Memorandum of Understanding
First, this document is in effect until ALL schools are fully accredited. I am an optimistic person, but currently less than half of our schools are fully accredited. This is going to take some time. So while the state-level politics may currently be in concert with the will of majority of residents in Richmond, we need to see this as a long term document that could undergo many changes in leadership. Second, there are two parts of this document that give VBOE unilateral authority to review this document without input from RPS board. The current intent could be to include RPS Board in the revisions; however, the document does not say that so it is not a requirement that has to be followed.
The document provides for bi-annual meetings with the Local Board President. Will these meetings be open to the public? Is it possible for the other board members to attend? The only provision here relating to other board members is for additional meetings. My concern is the RPS Board chairperson is elected to an annual term meaning each chairperson will only have two meetings before a new person is in power. With the lack of continuity, is communication really improved? These meetings are only twice per year, maybe it is more realistic to have the entire board invited to these meetings so every year it does not feel like starting over.
These sections provides for VBOE chosen staff to approve all purchase orders or contracts involving state and federal funding BEFORE they can be executed. I understand the need to ensure compliance with the corrective action and that our funds are being properly used; however, this seems like it will create an added layer of bureaucracy, remove some degree of power from the local board, and expose our local board to partisan politics.
Added bureaucracy: How much time will additional approvals take? What is the turn around time of the review and approval from OSI staff?
Power of local board: This mandates approval for all state/federal fund expenditures to be approved by OSI staff with no appeal process. Regarding professional development items, OSI staff has to approve it BEFORE the local board receives the submission. This removes a lot of funding decisions from our local elected officials. Why does this have to require approval in all cases? Is there a dollar threshold or categorical threshold that can be imposed where some items are review-only? Also, adding an appeal process can bring some of that power back locally.
Partisan politics: With funding decision approval at the state-level, the decision logic can change as the political climate changes. Which, with a long standing document, could be a concern.
I already had a lot of questions about the Superintendent Search and MOU; however, I am also concerned about the prescribed candidate being so focused on standardized testing. This focus feels very out of concert with the current Superintendent Search document which does not identify the SOL goals. This could be an oversight of RPS Board to not have that in this document; however, there is a strong contingency of people in Richmond who are outspoken against SOLs. This could be a disconnect between the voting people, the officials they elected, and a gubernatorial appointed board.
Lastly, there is nothing in this document that provides for seeking additional funding resources from any level. Recalling Dr. Bedden's AIP that went partially un-funded, are we able to do more without more money? Or, based on the federal budget, can we do more with less? With the imbalance of power weighted in favor of the VBOE, continued non-performance can prompt additional corrective actions prescribed unilaterally by the VBOE.
MOU and Education Compact
The Education Compact has been under construction for the past five months as an effort to organize collaboration among city government and the community to help improve RPS Schools. What dynamic does this MOU create with the Education Compact? The current oversight of the MOU has the potential to create a frustrating dynamic within the groups participating in the Education Compact. Local collaboration may become a moot point with VBOE oversight.
So what do we do?
RPS board has the opportunity to suggest changes to this document. While we did not perform well in their review, we must keep in mind that the board REQUESTED this review because they recognize we need help. As the first district to request a review under their new program, this sets a precedence for other school districts considering to do the same. Instead of creating a lopsided power dynamic, this document should seek to increase collaboration as was the spirit when the board initially requested the review. There are simple edits that can be made such as adding an appeals process that would increase the collaboration and retain power with the board and by proxy, the people.
The VBOE meeting to approve the final document is July 27th so RPS Board would need to come together quickly over the next week to approve edits at their next school board meeting.