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Proposed amendment on failing schools expanded

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Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2013 9:08 pm | Updated: 3:53 pm, Fri Feb 15, 2013.

RICHMOND -- A proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would allow the General Assembly to create a statewide school division to take over struggling schools has been broadened to allow the body to seize control of more schools.

The amendment originally would have allowed a statewide division to take over control of schools "denied accreditation for a number of consecutive school years as determined by the General Assembly."

But it was amended before a Senate committee this week to include schools that have been denied accreditation or "that have been accredited with warning as determined by the General Assembly."

There are currently 99 schools in the state accredited with warning, according to the state education department.

The measure's fate in the Senate, which could be decided as soon as today, is uncertain. A separate bill to create the statewide division had narrowly escaped the Senate on a 20-20 vote with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling casting the tie-breaking vote.

A constitutional amendment needs 21 votes of elected members of the Senate to pass. That means Bolling could not break a tie on this measure.

The proposed amendment is sponsored by Del. Gregory D. Habeeb, R-Salem, who is also carrying legislation to create a statewide school division, an effort pushed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. Habeeb contends his legislation is constitutional as it stands, but opponents argue otherwise.

A spokesman for McDonnell said the governor's office supports the amendment alteration.

Habeeb said he sought the change because the authority reflected in the constitution must be broader than that in the legislation. The framework created in his bill will allow them to get data and see if it works, he said, "without going too far."

"Maybe it works incredibly well and it makes sense to expand it in the future, maybe we figure out this is the exact right breadth or maybe we say, 'you know, it's not working, let's shrink it,'" he said.

Before being put on the ballot for a vote, amendments to the Virginia Constitution must be passed by both chambers of the legislature twice, with a House of Delegates election in between. This would be the first year, if it is approved.

Under Habeeb's legislative proposal, the so-called Opportunity Educational Institution and its board would take over schools denied accreditation — there are currently four: one in Petersburg, one in Alexandria and two in Norfolk.

In addition, the board of state lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees could decide, by a majority vote, to take over any school in its third year of accreditation with warning. There are currently two such schools in the state -- Petersburg's A.P. Hill Elementary School and Page County Middle School -- but the bill would not take effect until after the 2013-14 school year.

McDonnell's office said a school's local board, superintendent, principal and the state education department would all be part of the dialogue on a takeover decision.

It's unclear how many schools could be in the third year of accreditation with warning whenever the statewide division began accepting schools. Opponents of the measure note that accreditation benchmarks in several subject areas are increasing this school year.

The broadening of the constitutional amendment comes as the chorus of concerns continues over the proposal.

Petersburg's new school superintendent opposes the statewide school division proposal and the Alexandria School Board wrote McDonnell last week objecting to the legislation on a series of points.

This week, a cadre of state education and local government groups circulated a letter opposing the statewide division, including the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League, Virginia First Cities, the Virginia School Boards Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Virginia PTA and the Virginia Education Association.

The Alexandria School Board writes that the statewide division sets no timetable for a school to reach accreditation under its control and would "abruptly interrupt" existing school improvement efforts.

The proposal allows the statewide board to return a school to local control once it reaches full accreditation but there is no requirement.

"While this legislation may attempt to fix a legitimate problem of concern to all local citizens — struggling public schools — it wrongly usurps the input and authority of the local parents, citizens and taxpayers who are closest to the problem and have the most to lose if a distant state bureaucracy gets it wrong," the board members write.

Administration officials met on Tuesday with legislators, school board members, a PTA leader and others from Alexandria to discuss their concerns and suggestions for the statewide division, according to McDonnell spokesman Paul Logan.

The education and local government groups are urging lawmakers to back the Senate's request for a study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission instead of the statewide division proposal. The Senate also did not include in its budget the more than $600,000 that McDonnell requested for the division, while the House put it in their version.

Logan noted that the JLARC language was added only to the Senate version of the budget. "The governor will review the budget when it comes to his desk," he said.

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