Lawmakers hope to prevent Richmond from intervening at Jefferson-Houston

By Melissa Quinn

Legislators rejected Gov. Bob McDonnell’s tweaks to a bill creating the Opportunity Educational Institution, which could lead to a state takeover of Jefferson-Houston, during the General Assembly’s veto session earlier this month.

McDonnell’s amendments — which included an additional $450,00 in funding for the new state entity — were voted down by the state Senate and House of Delegates. The original bill, passed by the General Assembly in February, is back on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature.

The legislation puts the institution in charge of taking over schools that either lost accreditation or are at risk of losing accreditation — a list that includes Jefferson-Houston.

Lawmakers allocated only $150,000 to the institution, far less than McDonnell originally proposed. Still, if signed into law, the entity would be up and running by the start of the 2014-15 school year. And that’s got community leaders and parents concerned.

“I think the school needs to — now that we know this law is going to be put in place — I think we need to look at all the options to determine what kinds of things we have to prevent the takeover,” said Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-45), a former city councilor and member of the state Board of Education who opposed the measure.

Alexandria school board members are exploring an array of options aimed at keeping the institution at bay.

“We’re going to pursue parallel paths and different ways to address [the institution], none of which are exclusive to one another,” said school board vice chairman Justin Keating.

Primarily, school board members and administrators at Jefferson-Houston are preparing students for the upcoming state Standards of Learning tests in an effort to gain back accreditation. Teachers have been offering extra tutoring sessions, and in recent weeks, the board invited Richmond representatives to Jefferson-Houston to show the school was far from failing.

“They’re working their butts off over there,” Keating said. “There are positive things going on.”

And the school board has not ruled out taking its opposition to the courts. District officials and the Virginia School Boards Association believe the bill is unconstitutional, though they are still in the early stages of examining their legal case.

City lawmakers, at the request of district officials, also plan to draft further regulations for the proposed institution. Critics already have blasted the legislation as being far too vague, particularly in outlining how much say local officials and parents will have in the running of a state-seized school.

“It could be very draconian and very one size fits all, but on the other hand, I think the statute is vague enough [that] they could write the regulations with sort of a scalpel or a machete,” Keating said.

In legislative sessions, lawmakers worried the bill was not explicit enough in how the institution would interact with school boards. Many lawmakers, including Krupicka, feared the institution would limit input from the community.

And Keating agreed.

“They’re going to disaffect the parental involvement we’ve worked hard to build up. It’s going to knock you back years,” he said. “If you come in and clean house, those parents are going to be disregarded. There’s no way you can improve that school without involving the parent group as much as we have.”

But while the bill remains unclear about the level of community involvement, Keating argued a one-size-fits-all institution does not bode well for the schools given the vast differences between Virginia’s localities.

Solutions for schools in Petersburg and Norfolk — which also face state takeovers — may differ from schools in Alexandria, and a lesser form of supervision from the institution would allow the district to provide input, he said.

Until the institution officially opens, the school board and Alexandria’s representation in Richmond will strive for a better solution, Keating said.

“This is about local democracy,” he said. “There’s no reason to think a state bureaucracy who doesn’t know anything about our city is going to come in and snap their fingers and fix it.”

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