Richmond poised to intervene in local schools

By Melissa Quinn

After weeks of anticipation — particularly in Alexandria — Gov. Bob McDonnell has amended his Opportunity Educational Institution proposal, putting the possibility of the state taking over failing schools one step closer to reality.

The bill, which passed the General Assembly much to the dismay of Alexandria’s lawmakers and school board members, creates a state entity designed to intervene in schools that lost accreditation or are accredited with warning — a list that includes Jefferson-Houston.

“The thing that I sort of find a little concerning is that I don’t think anybody has found the silver bullet when it comes to turning around a school that’s struggling,” said City Councilor John Chapman. “The state takeover — unless they’ve mastered what it takes to turn around a school — I don’t think it’s a 100 percent positive step. I’m not totally convinced the state has the magic bullet.”

Alexandria’s Richmond delegation joined school officials in waiting with bated breath to see if the measure would receive McDonnell’s signature in its original form or head back to the legislature with amendments. The governor offered several changes to the legislation, putting the Opportunity Educational Institution back in the General Assembly’s hands. State lawmakers could approve the proposal as early as Wednesday.

“I expected there would be changes and was pushing for changes for quite a while on the bill,” said Delegate Rob Krupicka (D-45), a former city councilor and member of the state’s Board of Education. “They covered some of the issues I was concerned about, but didn’t cover them all.”

The General Assembly initially designated just $150,000 for the institution’s operating costs, which was far less than McDonnell originally proposed. The governor’s counteroffer calls for $450,000 more.

Officials in municipalities with schools targeted for state intervention worried the bill would leave little room for input from the community and local school boards. Krupicka said the new legislation allows more flexibility in how a takeover would occur.

“I think this new legislation is slightly better for Alexandria,” he said. “It makes room so that a takeover could include some level of coordination with local schools.”

But Krupicka believes the proposal still goes too far in limiting parents’ and families’ voices in their children’s education. The institution, which would take on the responsibilities of a school board, would meet less frequently than their local counterparts — thus limiting the chances for parental involvement.

“That lack of a real close requirement for a community tie-in is a problem,” Krupicka said. “The legislation clears up some things for how the community would be [involved], but leaves a lot up for question.”

And the bill remains vague when it comes to who would control the school buildings — a particular concern locally as officials prepare to break ground on a new Jefferson-Houston.

More than 350 students are enrolled in the Cameron Street school, yet the new building will have room for 700. If enrollment fails  to eventually expand to fill the school, the bill does not define who would control the empty classrooms — the state or the district.

“What happens with the other classroom space?” Krupicka asked. “Would the school be able to use the classrooms for other things? It’s a substantial [question]. We could have space for 200 kids going unused — or [used in a way] that we don’t have control over — that we paid to build. It’s a real problem.”

Though the bill is poised to become reality, Krupicka said school officials have options to prevent an intervention. At the earliest, the takeovers would begin at the start of the 2014 school year.

” I really would be very hopeful, and am very hopeful that something else — another option — is there for the parents and the community that still gives them the feeling that they have a community school and that achievement is a demographic of that school as well,” Chapman said.

And legislators can pen regulations to clarify the bill’s indistinct parts, which Krupicka plans to do.

Additionally, the state’s School Boards Association has come out against the initiative, calling it unconstitutional. In Alexandria, school officials are weighing litigation against the state.

“There are a number of avenues we have to prevent the takeover,” Krupicka said. “The position should be we want to prevent the takeover from happening and that should be our message to parents — that we’re going to prevent the takeover from happening and we need to look at our options.”

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