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Commissioners place blame on former schools superintendent

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

While reciting a litany of problems with the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, Rowan County school officials outlined an aggressive program to improve the delivery of education in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

The presentation came Monday during a meeting between members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and Rowan County commissioners.

“Hope is not a strategy. We do not want to be last … we’re not settling for last,” said Jim Emerson, school board member.

Commissioners and school board members praised Dr. Judy Grissom, who became superintendent in April. They said they believe she can fix the testing train wreck that is the Rowan-Salisbury schools.

Officials laid the blame for the decline of the school system on the prior superintendent, Dr. Wiley J. Doby, who is now superintendent in Duplin County.

Last month, school officials revealed that the system is among the 11 worst in the state in meeting Average Yearly Progress (AYP) mandated in the federal program. The news left many, including county commissioners, flabbergasted.

“We are pretty well using all the resources we can get to help these students,” Grissom said, responding to a question from Commissioner Tina Hall, a retired principal.

“How did we fall so disastrously behind?” asked Hall, who also asked several other questions about how the system declined on the federal scale over a four-year period, with little public awareness.

In several responses, Grissom said she didn’t know what happened before she became superintendent. “I wasn’t here,” Grissom said.

“We need to focus on today,” said Bryce Beard, school board chairman. “We can’t talk about blame, that’s not going to help anybody.”

Commission Chairman Arnold Chamberlain left no doubt who he holds responsible for the failures — Doby. He cited Doby’s oft-repeated claim.

“I heard it a hundred times … we’re going to have the best school system in America … nobody seemed to know what was going on,” Chamberlain said, adding “It’s time to produce.”

Grissom gave the boards and audience a detailed look at how the federal program works — a seemingly endless maze of proficiency goals that demands that all students produce.

She compared the targets that the system must meet as hurdles in a race. Rowan-Salisbury must meet 64 targets, many of which are goals for subgroups including blacks, Hispanics and students with disabilities.

The system met 48 of the 64 targets this past year. To meet AYP, all targets must be met.

Grissom pointed out that only three school systems in the state met AYP goals last year, and 112 did not.

She said all of the school resources are now focused on the end-of-course testing being given next week in the high schools. Additional resource staff have been assigned to the high schools to help.

Responding to questions, Grissom said the school system will mail a state-mandated letter to all parents in early February and provide additional information on the improvement plan.

Commissioner Jon Barber and school board Vice Chairman Karen Carpenter suggested they may need to do a more reader-friendly version of the plan to get parents to read it.

Chad Mitchell, commission vice chairman, made clear his feeling that the federal government needs to stay out of the schools.

“It will never happen — not by 2014 or 2046,” said Mitchell, referring to the goal that all children attain 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Beard said he’s betting that the standard for AYP is lowered.

Commissioner Jim Sides said he plans to leave running the schools to the educators, but said he will look after taxpayers.

“We need accountability,” Sides said, warning that it will be hard for taxpayers to provide much more than the current $30 million annually. “You need to do a better job with less money.”

At one point, Chamberlain asked how many audience members, other than school officials, had children in the school system. No one spoke up.

The school system drew support during a public comment period.

David Setzer, executive director of the Blanche and Julian Robertson Foundation, reaffirmed the agency’s support for the schools. “It’s an enormous challenge, but it’s doable,” he said.

Phil Kirk, Catawba College vice president for external relations, added his support for Grissom, and stressed that open, candid and fearless communication is essential.

“I commend you for not whining and complaining,” Kirk said, adding that the goal of the federal program is commendable, “No child should be left behind.”

Jeff Smith, chairman of Rowan Partnership for Children, said he is confident that “nothing is being hidden in this community … there have been times we haven’t had honest, fearless communication.”

John Leatherman, a Salisbury resident, suggested a district-wide improvement team that would include people outside the school system.

At the outset, Chamberlain said the meeting was important to demonstrate that the two boards want the best education possible.

Beard apologized publicly to Chamberlain for not telling commissioners in advance of the bad news.

Beard said the schools spent the past five years working on facilities and redistricting. “We were backing up … our school system was headed for a train wreck,” he said.

Chamberlain said he hopes the two boards will have joint meetings in the future.

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