Tonight’s meeting of the Prince William County School Board was an absolute circus. If you have never seen outright and obvious contempt on the part of public employees and even some elected representatives of the citizenry they are supposed to serve, having not experienced the pleasure of visiting a Soviet gulag, you might want to drop in on one of these when citizens are trying to get something fixed. Tonight’s utterly shameful and shocking display absolutely demonstrates a dire need for some major changes in our public school system, as this embarrassment cannot be allowed to continue.
The issue that exposed this was of course the discussions regarding the math program to be used in our schools. I am rather unimpressed with it and how it has been serving my school-aged child, so I took the opportunity to attend tonight’s meeting and share my concerns with the board. This first meeting in the board’s new and rather glamorous digs brought out a record crowd, with attendance somewhat on par with some of the more interesting meetings of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, filling the cavernous meeting room. The first thirty or so speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting were almost entirely teachers and principals, who universally sung the praises of Math Investigations. Some of the comments by our public servants were pretty surprising — that the parents concerned about the program are stupid, and that ’spectators shouldn’t tell the coach how the game should be played’, and other disdainful comments underlining a rather hostile attitude by a minority of these teachers.
Later on we learned that someone in the school system sent out an email to all teachers begging them to come to the board meeting and put pressure on the board. Seeing so many teachers there all marching in lockstep trying to drown out the concerns of parents was enormously disturbing. It’s not like the school board doesn’t listen to what teachers have to say, and tying up the board meeting for about an hour when this is the opportunity for parents to discuss their concerns felt wrong to me. You’d think they’d be more interested in addressing the problems these parents had, rather than trying to deny these problems exist.
After an hour and a half of public comment and a few other matters, the board took up the discussion item, not reaching much of a conclusion, but for the most part expressing an interest in trying to work towards some solutions. They didn’t end up coming to any resolution of the issue, but are going to try to collect more information. I don’t mind that they’re going to take some time to get this right. Had the meeting ended at this point, although there was some bad behavior and passions ran high, it wasn’t all that remarkable other than being a well attended meeting with lots of discussion. I was particularly impressed with Milt Johns, Denita Ramirez, Betty Covington and Julie Lucas, all of whom wanted to find out more about the issues parents were facing. Gil Trenum and Dr. Otaigbe were interested in finding out ways to offer parents some choices. Grant Lattin is a fan of the Math Investigations program, but at this point he was at least listening. Don Richardson, my own representative, was not.
After a short second round of public commentary from folks that signed up right before the meeting, we had an opportunity for board member comments. Then all hell broke loose.
Grant Lattin started this out with an attack against one of the parents who wants the county to drop the math investigations program. It’s hugely bad form to publicly attack folks by name from the dais when they’re not allowed to respond, and I was pretty shocked. I’d heard about some of his antics at previous board meetings, but took those reports with a grain of salt, and hoping it was an aberration. Apparently those criticisms were right on the mark. Lattin got pretty personal, and this was rather embarrassing.
Then it was Don Richardson’s turn. He had been pretty vocal earlier saying that he would never listen to parents and only trust professional educators, and this time he went far beyond that to endorse the “you parents are idiots and shouldn’t tell us what to do” bit that a few teachers had ponied up. Richardson was far more adamant and aggressive than any of the others, saying that criticizing board actions taken in the approval of the Math Investigations amounted to “defamation” and nearly threatening this parent. This was so completely over the top it left everyone stunned. I guess for Richardson, criticism by average citizens of the behavior of our public bodies should merit criminal prosecution. Richardson completely dismissed any of the criticisms or other observations made about the Math Investigations program, swallowed wholesale everything any public employee said, and exhibited a level of utter contempt towards his own constituents I have never before thought possible by an elected official.
I hope there’s a way to put some video of Richardson’s antics up on the web to share with folks. I can’t imagine anyone watching these outbursts and not immediately wondering whether Virginia’s laws regarding recalls could potentially apply here. As an elected official, his behavior is utterly inexcusable. If it weren’t bad enough that Richardson wants to do away with having an invocation at School Boaard meetings while representing the conservative Gainesville District, displaying such visible contempt for the parents he supposedly represents when they’re trying to address problems with their children’s education is completely deplorable.
We simply cannot tolerate an “us versus them” attitude by members of the school board or by some of our teachers, as if parents are somehow an unwelcome annoyance that gets in the way of molding children. Incidents like these undermine the faith residents have in the public school system and detract from the partnership between the school system and parents that is essential to educational success. Either the county school system reforms itself, which I don’t see happening anytime soon while board members are acting even worse that some of the poster children for bad attitudes we saw this evening. It will probably fall to the electorate to reform our schools, and the place to start is with removing Don Richardson. Then we can get to the root of why some public employees believe that parents are their enemy and decisively resolve that problem.
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