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School board stays mum on retiree squabble

Acting on advice from their attorney, Halifax County School Board members refused Monday night to discuss Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon’s responses to Dave Strom’s questions regarding the school administration’s recent decisions to terminate the Local Optional Retirement Plan (LORP) as well as other questions about health insurance costs.

Herndon responded via letter Oct. 30 to questions Strom presented to school board members at their Oct. 11 meeting.

During Monday night’s school board meeting, Herndon acknowledged the school system “received notice” from the retirees’ attorneys of the Richmond law firm, Blackburn, Conte, Schilling and Click P.C. and have been advised by School Board Attorney Craig Woods not to discuss the matter in open session.

Since the board has taken no “favorable action” to restore LORP benefits, retirees announced last week they retained a lawyer in early October to pursue the matter.

Former LORP participants recently pitched in to pay for their attorneys of the Richmond law firm, Blackburn, Conte, Schilling and Click P.C.  Spokesperson Phyllis Jackson said a committee was formed, and the group spoke with several lawyers before deciding on a firm to represent them.

At Monday night’s meeting, ED-8 trustee Walter Potts had the item added to the agenda for further discussion in closed session due to pending litigation.

In other business Monday night, three citizens addressed school board members.

Returning to the podium was Dave Strom who thanked the board for publicly responding to questions he presented at the Oct. 11 meeting.

“Regarding the responses provided by Dr. Herndon in her letter dated Oct. 30, I’m disappointed and very concerned,” said Strom.

Strom rebutted Herndon’s responses, and said LORP had saved the school system approximately $1.4 million that was used to balance the 2012-13 budget.

Strom also posed the following three questions to school board members pertaining to the school budget:

w Isn’t it appropriate to modify and fund all budget variances before making expenditures and/or taking actions?

w What are both the school administration’s and school board’s responsibilities with regards to operating within the approved budget?

w When can we citizens and taxpayers of Halifax County expect to see a properly modified Halifax County Public Schools budget?

Also addressing the board was the Rev. Frank Coleman who presented his concerns about the possibility the school system may vacate a 1969 court order that ordered at least one African-American administrator be employed at the middle and high school.

“Has it worked? If it has, why change it? I think it would be wise to keep it,” said Coleman.

Even though the country just reelected President Barack Obama, and the country is “wonderfully moving forward,” it doesn’t mean racism no longer exists, Coleman said, adding, “It’s still alive.”

According to Coleman, the 1969 court order has proven to be a valuable tool in the county’s progress.

Steve Salley told board members he recently attended the Junior Honor Society program at the Halifax County Middle School and the Veterans Day program at Cluster Springs Elementary.

“It was one of the best assemblies I’ve attended,” said Salley.

He also urged school board members to follow the same format as Halifax County Board of Supervisors who allow time for citizen comments at the conclusion of each meeting.

In other business during Monday night’s school board meeting, Meadville Elementary Principal Marliss Barczak gave a PowerPoint presentation on school life and activities at Meadville Elementary.

“With 200 students, we have 97 percent attendance,” said Barczak who praised the school’s “awesome” staff and students who enjoy coming to school.

Herndon announced Halifax County had three teachers out of 20 who were semi-finalists in the prestigious 2013 McGlothlin Awards for Teaching Excellence.

In the elementary category, Laura Larkins of Meadville Elementary School and Kim Lee Martin Albert of Clays Mill Elementary School were recognized, and Beth Layne of Halifax County High School was recognized in the secondary education category.

“We’re so proud of you…extremely proud of them,” said Herndon.

After completing 90 days of service, Herndon presented to board members for information only, the results of her strategic entry plan.

The plan includes changes that have been made, meetings she has attended or spoken and the outcome of the last 90 days.

“The plan was developed to help accelerate a successful and carefully planned entry into the position of superintendent of Halifax County Public Schools,” said Herndon.

The board approved having the December meeting begin at 5:30 p.m. in the culinary arts room C304 at Halifax County High School before conducting the regular scheduled meeting in the cafeteria.

Director of Operations and Maintenance Larry Roller gave a roofing report on the county schools saying $1.2 million would be needed over the next five years to repair school roofs.

ED-3 trustee Kimberly Farson questioned Roller if the $1.2 million figure was recent.

“So repairs of everything is $1.2 million,” said Farson.

Roller replied the estimate was recent, and he preferred the work be conducted as a two-year project “to get it over with.”

Farson said she along with Chairman Karen Hopkins and the school superintendent recently toured the vocational building at Halifax County High School, and although some work had been completed, it still appeared to be in poor condition.

“You looked at the worst of the worst,” said Roller.

Roller told board members he plans to come back to the board in January with a Capital Improvement Plan to address these concerns.

“The sooner we bid, the better we’ll be,” said Roller.

He pointed out at this time $1.4 million is included in capital funds; however, he added, “It’s not our only project.”

During Monday evening’s meeting, Potts withdrew his suggestion to pay the added insurance premium cost for the employees who also carry coverage for family members.

He said at this time he didn’t feel that the school system was in a good place to do that, “financially.”

Board members unanimously approved the superintendent and classified evaluation instruments.

Farson asked the superintendent to consider possible meeting dates for the Prismatic team to return and present its findings from the efficiency study completed in March.

Herndon presented a policy change in reduction in professional staff work force revision, and the issue is slated for discussion at the December meeting.

Executive Director for Administration Valdivia Marshall presented tuition assistance guidelines, adding that high needs areas such as speech therapist, occupational therapist or physical therapist can request a maximum of six credit hours per academic year, and tuition assistance will be paid at 100 percent. 

“However, if the employee leaves the school division within three years after the completion of the course or program, the employee must repay the school division the total cost of tuition paid on his/her behalf,” said Marshall.

According to Marshall if an employee receives a promotion, the circumstances are different.

“It is not our policy to hold anyone back,” said Marshall.

So far this academic year, $39,000 has been used for tuition assistance, and in the 2011-2012 school year $100,000 was used, she reported.

In other business Monday, board members approved the following items:

w A request from Halifax County Little Theatre President Sandy Slayton to complete a feasibility study of the sound and lighting equipment in the auditorium of the Halifax County High School using a $1,000 grant they received;

w Approved the superintendent and school board members attending the mandatory Virginia School Board Association training on Jan. 11 in Charlottesville;

w Approved a policy change and updated form for community use of school facilities;

w Approved local consolidated application for federal funds;

w Approved educational field trips and fundraising activities for schools; and 

w Approved attending a Virginia School Board Association webinar on finance and school budget Dec. 12, 14 and 18.

At the conclusion of Monday evening’s open school board session, Director of Finance Jay Camp asked for permission to change the format of the financial report.

“I want to change the entire format. I inherited this report,” said Camp.

Camp questioned board members if they were happy or had been happy with the way the report was completed, and board members unanimously said “no.”

“You need permission for you to do your job,” said Herndon.

Camp said the report was nothing like he had seen from an accountant’s perspective, and with the board’s permission he was going to change it first thing Tuesday.

Also Monday, Farson asked Camp to gather information concerning where the Moorefield estate sale proceeds went.

After receiving payment of the bills, board members went behind closed doors to discuss student discipline and consult with legal counsel.

When board members emerged, they unanimously approved the personnel report and the return of a long-term suspended student.