Well, not exactly shiny, but Rappahannock County’s school district is showing signs of life — with new superintendent Aldridge Boone, high school principal Robert Stump, athletic director Jamie Harris and football coach Terrence Johnson all starting work this month.
At the school board level, the signs of a change could be summarized, at least initially, as a reaching out — as in to the public. And they were most evident at the school board’s last monthly meeting July 13.
There were still only four members of the public in attendance, which is not unusual for a typically dry and sotto voce Rappahannock school board meeting. But one of them was Bill Dietel.
Dietel has logged a quarter-century of support for education — support that has been both vocal and financial, with his and wife Linda’s foundation and private contributions to Headwaters, and other efforts to improve public education here. When he interrupted a board discussion to ask if he could ask a question, board chairman Wes Mills hesitated, and then said, “Yes.”
Dietel reacted to Mills’ hesitation rather than his spoken answer, and suggested that, if the board would agree to allow public comment after it had discussed important matters — rather than before, as it has been for years, at the beginning of the meeting — he would wait his turn to ask his question.
The board agreed. And it eventually agreed (as the Board of Supervisors did not long ago) to make the end-of-meeting comment period a regular part of its monthly meetings.
Turned out Dietel didn’t have a question as much as a comment.
“Thoughtful criticism can be helpful to a board,” said Dietel. “And I think there are things that you can do that will make it easier . . . to persuade the citizens of this county, at budget time, to give you the support that you seek — without having to go through some of the anxiety-producing and exhausting meetings that are often marked by ill-tempered remarks.
“But there are some things you can do, and I’m going to be candid. I happen to have a hearing problem. I’ve appeared before you, every single time, and begged you to use those microphones. You can only come to the conclusion, after you’ve done that five or six times and you’ve all failed to respond, that you really don’t care.
“If that’s the message you’re trying to send, you’ve sent it — and it isn’t well received.”
The school board members all leaned closer to their microphones.
About the public comment time, Dietel said, “If the comment period comes early, then you get to issues that interest [the public], that’s really unbelievably frustrating.”
Dietel’s other request was that the board set its goals, and criteria for meeting those goals, in a way that is understandable by the public, and that involves rather than excludes or confuses parents and members of the community.
Boone said he hoped his format for a new school district “annual report,” and for regular interactions with parents starting at next month’s back-to-school nights, might help.
Boone also mentioned a conversation he’d had recently with board member Rosa Crocker about getting the community more involved in helping the district set its goals for the coming years.
Boone said he’d suggested the board create a community committee — peopled by parents and others in the community — to help him and the board “craft at least a couple of our goals.” Boone said a similar committee in Appomattox County, where he served as superintendent for two years until 2009, worked well.
The board also briefly discussed a proposal for a new after-school program at the Link. It heard about it first from Boone and then from Toni Egger, executive director of the Headwaters Foundation, which funds educational and counseling programs in the district.
Funding for the program is unclear; the cost of a half-time director, supplies, snacks and insurance could come to $30,000 for the year for such a program. Modeled after the Boys and Girls Club of Madison County, which is affiliated with the Central Virginia Boys and Girls Club based in Charlottesville, proponents say the program at the Link could start as a Tuesday and Thursday program from 3:30 until 6 p.m.. It would be designed for children from third through 12th grade — though, as in Madison, the elder children are encouraged to act as mentors for the younger kids, often in exchange for community service credit.
The school district returned more than $51,000 in unused funds to the county this month. The school board accompanied the refund, which is mandated by state law, with a request that the funds be used for facility improvements at the high school, but the school board also heard Eggers’ request that, if the proposal seems acceptable, some of those funds be requested for a program such as this.
“I think there’s a need for this type of thing in the county,” Boone told the board.
Boone said Headwaters representatives had met with him, as well as the high school and elementary school principals. A meeting with County Administrator John McCarthy was scheduled earlier this week.
The proposal, brought to Headwaters by former board member Philip Strange, has an advisory board consisting of Strange, Jenny Kapsa, Clare Turner and Dani Pond. The board members plan to survey parents in the coming month to determine if there’s a need for the program, Strange said.