School increase reduced, yearbook policy criticized

The Rappahannock County School Board dealt at its May 12 meeting with a muted rebuke by the board of supervisors — which had decided by a 3-2 vote the week before that the school division needed to to cut some $44,000 from a proposed nearly $100,000 increase in local funding of its 2015-16 budget — and listened silently to the not-so-muted rebuke of a parent who claimed her daughter’s grades were unfairly threatened last fall by policies in the high school’s Photojournalism/Yearbook course.

Board members had no comment during the meeting on Hampton district resident Malinda Fisher’s complaint, during the public comment portion, that her daughter, a senior, was due to receive a reduced interim grade last fall in the one-credit elective because she “had not sold enough advertising” for the school’s yearbook.

Fisher said later that she was frustrated in attempts to speak to the school board in closed session, since her complaint was principally with the teacher of the class. She said to the board that she had met with the teacher, her daughter and high school assistant principal Amy Gubler and that both she and her daughter were upset by comments made at that session.

“You cannot require a high school student to raise funds and grade them on it,” Fisher said. “I said to the teacher, ‘So you’re telling me that if I give you $1,000 today, you’ll give my daughter an A? She said ‘yes.’ ” Fisher said she repeated the question and got the same answer.

Superintendent Donna Matthews said it was made clear later in that meeting that the proper answer to that question is “no” — and that “the process of trying to sell ads” counts for the class and is part of the requirements, whereas the actual selling of ads and receiving money count for extra credit.” She said the school board declined to hear Fisher’s case in closed session on Matthews’ own advice, since she believed the matter was “properly handled at the school level,” by administrators there and later by Matthews herself.

Matthews pointed to the course description for the elective: “Students in this class are responsible for publishing the school yearbook. Students sell advertisements, write copy and captions, design layout, and do all of their own photography. . . .”

Board chair John Lesinski, on the phone this week, said the matter “was discussed by the board as a whole, in the late fall, “to decide whether we needed to address it, and the board decided . . . it was an administrative matter . . . . we thought the superintendent had answered the questions that Mrs. Fisher had.” He said it was a surprise to most board members when Fisher rose to speak about it at the May 12 public comment session.

“My understanding is, selling ads for the yearbook is in the course description,” Lesinski said. “But do you get a lousy grade if you don’t sell enough advertising? No. Do you get extra credit if you do? Yes. She [the superintendent] told us it’s been this way for many years.

Fisher, whose eldest of four daughters graduated RCHS in 2013 and who has three others in the public school system (two of whom graduate this year), said “my hope was that the school board would do something, take some form of action, whether disciplinary or otherwise . . . . as far as I’m concerned, it’s a class [yearbook class] that shouldn’t be graded.”

In budget actions, after a long discussion, the board unanimously approved the revised budget cuts proposed by Matthews, who had met with the board’s finance committe and staff the Friday before, to comply with the supervisors-ordered $44,451 reduction. The final budget revision adopted eliminates the proposed athletic trainer (for a savings of $23,683) and funds for a proposed supplement of up to $500 a month for any board member who gets group health insurance from the school division.

A smaller cut in the board health insurance, and some $15,000 cuts in coaching and supplemental-duty stipends at the high school and elementary school, was eventually rejected by the board in favor of the larger cut in insurance supplements.

The budget’s increase in overall school board member compensation — a rise from $100 a month to $200 a month ($300 for the chair) — was left in the budget.

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