Open Letter To Brooke Board

Editor, News-Register:

Open letter to the Brooke County Board of Education:

The reorganization of any Board of Education Central Office is a radical idea. Especially one that seeks to remove all directors and the entire finance department.

During personnel season some RIFs and transfers are necessary. It is a product of an ever-changing landscape and declining enrollment. Nobody likes it, but it is a burden that any county has to bear.

This year, in addition to the regular personnel season actions, the interim superintendent is suggesting that the board of education reorganize the entire Central Office. In his opinion, he has a vision for the future, and he doesn’t see a place in it for the people that have worked there for decades. The motives for this are maybe the “worse kept secret” in the Northern Panhandle.

This reorganization is the sole creation of Interim Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Crook and Bowles Rice, legal counsel to the Brooke County Board of Education. This plan has in no way been presented to the Brooke County Board of Education, employees of the county, the local community, or even the State Department of Education. According to its creator, it has been developed entirely in a vacuum.

While the idea of reorganizing a central office is a radical idea, it has been attempted a couple times in West Virginia with the support of the Bowles Rice law firm. One example is illustrated in the following grievance:

Kathryn Nichols, et al. v. Calhoun County Board of Education (2015-0970-CONS).

As the board’s representative in this case, it is fairly obvious that Bowles Rice is using this case as the precedent for the action that is being taken in Brooke County. They have presented this case at conferences and look at it as a notable case and victory for their firm. However, this case has little to no similarity to the situation in Brooke County.

In the Calhoun County case:

n The county had been operating under a deficit for 4 years straight. Their debt in 2015 was $1.8 million … the largest in the state.

n One year before the action occurred, a new superintendent (Tim Woodward) was brought into the county. He was well aware of the county’s financial position. The superintendent looked into multiple ways in which the board of education could save money.

n The superintendent submitted a three-year deficit reduction plan to the State Office of School Finance four months before personnel season. This plan included a central office reorganization, among many other initiatives spread across the county.

n The central office reorganization was discussed in a department meeting with the central office employees three months before any action was taken.

n The central office reorganization was discussed in a board meeting prior to personnel season.

n At the personnel hearings, high-level documents discussing the reorganization were presented to the employees.

n The reorganization was not the first action to address the financial issues. Central office employees’ contracts were modified to fewer working days in an effort to save money. The county also removed a supplement from their pay to help save money.

I spoke personally to people involved in this grievance and found that while the Bowles Rice law firm sees this case as an accomplishment, they disagree for the following reasons:

n Four years have passed and the county is still in debt. The situation in the county is worse (not better), and the students are the ones that are suffering the most. The county has little faith in the board. The board president later resigned and two other members did not seek re-election.

n Good teachers have left the county to find other work.

n The central office now has more employees than before. They had to bring in more service personnel to support the director positions, and have even had to contract out services to assist with special education.

n After leaving the office, one employee was still receiving multiple calls from employees within the county. They were coming to this person for support, because the central office was proposing actions that were not necessarily procedurally sound.

Other counties have tried similar activities, but never with any success. No county has ever removed the entire financial office for reasons that are only obvious if you look at the possible ramifications.

In contrast, Jefferson County, Wet Virginia, is currently in the process of a reorganization for 2019-2020. I contacted Superintendent Dr. Bondy Gibson in that county to see if she could provide me any details on the efforts. She provided me with a full document outlining all the changes that she was proposing to the county. The document is in its 22nd revision and was available to the public. In April alone, the board was hosting four public meetings to discuss and revise the plan with input from all. This is addition to their normally scheduled board meetings.

She also added, “I spent six months meeting with staff collectively and individually to shape the plan.” And, “It is a long and thoughtful process if you want to have everyone on board when you make changes.”

When I compare it to what is going on here, frankly, I am embarrassed.

Brooke County is NOT in a deficit. They are in no way comparable to Calhoun County, their debt, and the state funding challenges that they face.

The idea that Brooke County has to immediately take action to save this money is completely unfounded. There are more pressing issues in the county that require the attention of the board and the interim superintendent.

I’m not adverse to change and I can see the benefit of making changes that position Brooke County for success in the future, but these are not actions that we should make in haste. We should be planning for long term goals and making adjustments and improvements along the way to ensure the best possible learning environment for the students of the county.

A true plan, be it cost-savings, transformation, or any other, should examine all the facilities and services in the county and not start and end with one sweeping action to one facet. A well-thought plan is one that should be discussed in open, over a reasonable duration, and vetted through the proper local and state channels. It should have clearly defined goals whose success can be measured and progress can be tracked. It should not be a personnel-first action that has been constructed in approximately 10 days and will likely lead to more expense for the county through grievances, lawsuits, and other legal repercussions.

Also, in order for any plan to succeed, the primary stakeholder (the superintendent) has to be there to see it through and track its success. As the sole creator of this particular plan, it is he alone who knows what he wishes to accomplish. I have major concerns when it comes to this area.

The interim superintendent, who has publicly announced his desire to be a candidate for the permanent position, has had five jobs, in five counties, in the last five years. He has resigned one position one year into a two-year contract, another one year into a four-year contract, and in his previous county, failed to have his two-year contract renewed.

There is no guarantee that he will become the permanent person in that role. And if he is, that he will stay long enough to see the plan through. History tells us that he will not.

Who will be here, is the dedicated employees of the central office. In most cases, they have dedicated their whole lives to the continued success of the Brooke County school system. I only hope that they are afforded the opportunity to continue in that mission.

There are a lot of factors and considerations that will be brought to you prior to any vote. Please take a moment and remember the following things:

n Secrecy is not the only way this process can be approached. The interim superintendent can openly discuss any reorganization plans prior to a personnel action. He just feels that he isn’t required to.

n A change to any job description or responsibility does not always require the position to be re-posted.

n You have the choice of accepting or rejecting this plan, and the personnel actions it requires. Don’t, for any reason explained by the interim superintendent and legal counsel, think that you do not.

In the end, I hope that you, the board, will discuss and come to the conclusion that this central office reorganization is not good for the students, not good for the community, and not at all necessary to the betterment of the county.

“County boards of education have substantial discretion in matters relating to the hiring, assignment, transfer, and promotion of school personnel. Nevertheless, this discretion must be exercised reasonably, in the best interests of the schools, and in a manner which is not arbitrary and capricious.” Syl. pt. 3, Dillon v. Wyoming County Bd. of Educ., 177 W. Va. 145, 351 S.E.2d 58 (1986).

Theodore Cromwell

Weirton

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