Schools chief resignation — and replacement — comes at a ‘complex time’ amid budget shortages

Interim schools chief appointment on horizon; permanent pick by July at earliest

Rappahannock School Board Chairman John Wesley Mills said he is currently “negotiating a contract” with an interim superintendent candidate to temporarily replace Donna O. Matthews, who abruptly announced her resignation as county schools chief effective March 9.

“If successful, we should be able to announce [the interim appointment] by our February 21 meeting,” Mills told the Rappahannock News. “If unsuccessful in negotiating, we will continue looking for an interim. If there is a gap we have superintendent-designees assigned to various specialties that will ensure smooth operation until the interim is resolved.”

At the same time, Mills cautioned that the search for the next superintendent, who likely wouldn’t be in place “until July” at the earliest, will be hampered by the school system’s current budget shortfalls.

“We want to get through the budget cycle effectively,” he stressed, going so far as to warn that “the board has to request a lot of money or we will be in the position of possibly cutting folks.”

He pointed to a Virginia Retirement System (VRS) increase dictated from Richmond but paid for with local funds, which impacts all school districts proportionally based on composite index (ability to pay).

“The ability-to-pay equation is based on three parameters: land value, average income and local revenue; so we look rich compared to most,” he explained, which certainly isn’t the case.

Then there is a health insurance increase projected at 15 percent by provider Anthem Healthkeepers, he said.

“These two increases are a substantial amount which will be the primary talking points in the coming months. Question is,” asked Mills, “will our teachers’ take-home pay be less next year than this year? It’s possible.”

Or putting it more bluntly: “There’s no hide to take it out of at this point.”

“As a community we’ll do the best we can with what we have. But good teachers have options in neighboring counties where many of them live,” he said. “I hope we continue to make progress for our children’s sake.”

On a brighter note, Mills said: “We have several very competent staff in the front office who have a good handle on our budget planning process. This will aid the [superintendent] transition at an especially complex time of the school year.”

Meanwhile, Mills praised Matthews, the outgoing superintendent.

“She’s done an excellent job — and the metrics demonstrate she’s done an excellent job,” he said. “Our schools have very good numbers with the quality of education. It was her decision [to leave] and we respect her decision.”

Matthews caught much of the school system and community by surprise last Wednesday when she confirmed her departure. Her 5-year contract with Rappahannock schools wasn’t set to expire until mid-2018.

In a telephone interview last Wednesday, Matthews revealed that she had been “quietly looking” for another job that would allow her to spend more time with her husband in Buckingham County and her children who live out of state.

Matthews has already accepted a position with the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond beginning March 10.

Mills said the board will “begin” the process of finding a new superintendent in March.

“The beginning means creating a strategy and timeline,” he said, with the interim serving through what could be a lengthy vetting process. Matthews, for instance, was chosen in 2013 from a pool of some two-dozen candidates.

“I’ve been through this two other times,” Mills said of the search procedure, adding that for legal and other reasons the vetting process must be “tightly managed.”

That said, he is also aware of the need for transparency and community involvement with the selection — “people want to make sure they can be part of the process,” he noted.

That point will be reiterated at the next board meeting, he said, when the public will be encouraged to reach out to their school board representatives in person, in writing, or by phone “so that they get their voices heard . . . and they can communicate what they are looking for in a leader.”

“My focus now is securing an interim and bringing a sense of calm and helping us get through the budget cycle,” he said. “And that is not going to be pretty.”

Rachel Bynum, a parent of two children in the school system, agreed that “teachers and parents” should have a say in the selection of a superintendent.

“I hope they will not rush, but will take the necessary time to find a good fit for our unique small community,” she said.

While Matthews’ tenure has been “very successful in bringing up test scores at our schools and keeping state accreditation,” added Bynum, “there have been some downsides to her tenure, too. The diminished parent involvement during her tenure in PTO [Parent Teacher Organization] and in RCSSA [School Sports Association] should be noted.

“Many loyal parent volunteers were alienated by what felt like power grabs over these organizations and sadly walked away from them. This exodus of volunteers has left more of a work burden on our wonderful and committed teachers,” she pointed out.

Among other charges, she said that while “staff in the school board office has increased, we have no reading specialist and limited teachers’ aides in our schools.”

“I believe our schools will be even better if we find a new superintendent who will take action to revitalize community support and involvement, with a clear intention of supporting our teachers, while nurturing students to become lifelong learners,” Bynum said. “This is the best way to give our youth unlimited possibilities for the future in a rapidly changing world.”

 

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