Del. Dickie Bell is excited to be a board member of Virginia's new Opportunity Educational Institution, an organization that was created by the 2013 Virginia General Assembly to take over public schools struggling to meet state accreditation.
Bell, R-Staunton, a retired special education teacher, was appointed to the OEI board by House Speaker Bill Howell. The appointment was announced last week.
He said the OEI is designed to help Virginia schools accredited with warning for three years escape that label and improve student performance. OEI would maintain control for five years or until the school is fully accredited. "We have schools in need of help and some of them have been in need of help for years,'' Bell said.
Virginia school boards and the Virginia School Boards Association are not open to the creation of OEI. The Norfolk School Board is preparing a lawsuit in Circuit Court to challenge the constitutionality of the OEI. And joining the Norfolk School Board in that lawsuit is the VSBA. The lawsuit should be filed soon. The Augusta County School Board passed a resolution last week in support of the lawsuit.
VSBA Executive Director Barbara Coyle said the new body violates Virginia's Constitution. She said the Virginia Constitution vests the control of public schools in a local school board, not a special body. And she said even if a local school goes under the control of the OEI, the local school board would still have to pay for capital improvements.
Coyle said the belief of the VSBA and Norfolk School Board is that Virginia public schools who need help should receive it jointly from the state, the community and local school board. Giving the authority to the state is not the automatic answer, she added.
"Poverty is a big factor, and that won't be solved by a takeover at the state level,'' she said.
Coyle said while Virginia ranks 38th in per pupil spending, the state has the country's fourth-ranked public school system, an indication that state school boards are doing well with limited resources.
Bell said he is accustomed to the resistance of school boards. "There is always friction between school boards and the state when there are reforms in education,'' he said. "School boards look to government for most everything else. I don't know why they are so upset about getting these schools back up to speed."
The delegate said he believes rescuing a failing school "is more than the local school boards can do and maintain the levels of accreditation of other schools they have."
Bell said the board for OEI has only recently been finalized. The task now is to select an executive director. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, said there is $150,000 in the current year's state budget for the startup costs. Bell said there would be no transfers of schools to OEI until the end of the current school year.
McDonnell has defended the creation of the OEI, and has been critical of the potential lawsuit. He says it would be unconstitutional not to offer the same educational opportunities to all students in the commonwealth.
"By maintaining the unacceptable status quo and allowing failing schools to continue unaccredited, we are violating our constitutional obligation of having a high quality educational program for all our kids,'' the governor said in a press release.
Bell said taking over a struggling school is not an inviting task.
"Why on earth would the state want to control these schools?'' he asked. "Failing schools are more expensive than accredited schools."
Coyle said she has yet to hear any details about the exact operation of the OEI. She said the hope is that the lawsuit being filed will be heard expeditiously. "We would love to get [the lawsuit] fast tracked,'' she said.