Your Views: School Board protects Hutchings instead of our children

Your Views: School Board protects Hutchings instead of our children
Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)

To the editor:

There have been many complaints about what the board of Alexandria City Public Schools and Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. did not do last summer to prepare for in-person learning amid a COVID-19 surge.

I write to shed light on an action the board did take: The June 17 unanimous vote to issue Hutchings a replacement contract was stunning.

It was calculated. It was unnecessary. It may even be incongruous with Virginia law. But it was obviously done to solidify Hutchings’ position ahead of the November election, during which the thorny issues of ACPS’ COVID-19 mitigation, academic underperformance and school violence are on the ballot.

Hutchings’ first contract, dated Dec. 14, 2017, called only for the board to “communicate … its intent with respect to renewal or extension … by December 31, 2021.” With his first term ending June 30, 2022, renegotiation wasn’t needed.

Virginia law stipulates that “at the expiration of the initial term, the division superintendent shall be eligible to hold office for the term specified by the employing school board,” which in the case of Hutchings’ contract, would be elected by Alexandrians in November and take office in January.

Virginia law also ensures that no School Board shall renegotiate a superintendent’s contract during a so-called lame duck period, that time after which a new board is elected but has yet to assume office. Plainly put, Virginia law dictates that superintendent contracts expire June 30 and empowers the board sitting when a superintendent’s contract expires to negotiate terms for additional service.

What happened June 17 was a shrewd end run. That evening, agenda item 15 on the board’s consent calendar, “Superintendent Contract Replacement,” was buried amid routine committee appointments, regulatory policy reviews and athletic hall of fame recommendations.

It was anything but routine.

The board issued Hutchings a free pass beyond the three-year reach of the board we will elect in weeks. His new contract, negotiated a year early, ends June 30, 2025, six months after the term for the board we are about to select.

This vote came nine days after six of nine board members chose not to run for office again – but they had no qualms with imposing their will on Alexandrians far beyond when their work ends in January.

There was a word missing from the transcript of that June 17 meeting: “Delta.” Members did not ask Hutchings to think ahead about how this new variant in the news might influence learning here. Deliberations on staff and student COVID-19 vaccinations wouldn’t happen for weeks until the board finally scrambled just before school began.

It is important to understand the context of the June 17 meeting. A proclamation read at the beginning says that due to the state of emergency, the School Board meeting was held electronically pursuant to Virginia code “for the purpose of providing for the continuity of operations.”

Was it appropriate during that meeting for the board to approve a new superintendent contract that should be the purview of its successor board a full year later? Was it right to place this item on the consent calendar? Immediate action was not needed to continue ACPS operations.

This board isn’t inept. It wanted to plan for the future – just not the future, and crisis with Delta, that we were facing. Though COVID-19 cases temporarily waned last spring, we were on the cusp of another front in the COVID-19 war, another existential threat to in-person learning from this virus.

Delta was sweeping through Southern states and became predominant nationally by late June. It was becoming obvious that sending kids back to school would be much trickier than hoped, even if the variant was later to arrive in our city than others.

But instead of concentrating on how to teach students in this complex environment, this board was preoccupied with job security for our superintendent, whom board members described as a “visionary” that would “transform” ACPS once the COVID-19 crisis passes. It was unfair to hang COVID-19 performance around his neck, they told me. Hutchings simply told me via email that the timing of the new contract “is typical and fully in compliance with legal requirements.”

Regardless of whether one supports him, his leadership, COVID-19 strategy or strategic plan, I argue this board’s calculated effort to protect Hutchings from the next board, and its constituents, was undemocratic.

Guaranteeing a safe, productive handoff from one elected body to another was at the time one of the more radical ideas codified in the U.S. Constitution. That we take this for granted in modern life is a testament to its effectiveness. Virginia law on elected boards shifting oversight of a superintendent is clear; our board just got creative.

I am disheartened that members took extraordinary measures this summer to protect the superintendent instead of our kids.

-Amy Hillis, Alexandria