Rebuilding Trust with Rural Communities

On the evening of April 27th, 2017, Steve Koleszar cleared his throat and said “Whenever we shortchange the (decision making) process, we betray ourselves and…we betray the trust we have with our community”. Wise words of caution coming from a man who has served on the Albemarle County School Board for many years. He was speaking about discussion that same evening that had revolved around the possibility of closing an elementary school in southern Albemarle.

Over the course of the summer, the Albemarle County School Board held a series of meetings and discussions which ultimately led to the closing of the rural Yancey Elementary School for the 2017-2018 school year. In the two months that it took the board to go from talking about closing the school to voting 5-2 in favor of closing, many members of the southern community around Yancey Elementary School felt betrayed.

In the wake of the closure, that many felt happened too fast and with too little consideration of the wishes of the community, a Transition Team made up of Yancey-area community members formed and brought requests before the Albemarle County School Board. The most prevalent of these requests; the transfer of the building title to the Board of Supervisors (To allow the building to be used for community purposes), was partnered with a suggested Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to be shared with the Board of Supervisors. The Memorandum was intended to:

describe the intention of Albemarle Schools to continue to be engaged in the education activities that will be offered at Yancey

It was also intended to go further. The community Transition Team had also requested that the MOU include three other points:

  • Propose an ongoing partnership with the Esmont community to document and display the history of the school;
  • Express support for the continuation of the Transition Team’s engagement; and
  • Keep open the possibility of reopening B.F. Yancey as a school.

Following the vote to close Yancey and the formation of the community Transition Team, there seemed to be a consensus among the School Board that the requests of the Transition Team should be honored following the impactful decision to close Yancey. This seemed a sensible move, considering that trust in the School Board had been lost by many members of the community as a result of the decision.

This culminated in a School Board meeting that took place on Thursday, September 14th.  On the evening’s agenda was a discussion of Yancey and the transfer of the building to the Board of Supervisors. The Memorandum of Understanding, a key part in the requests of the community Transition Team, had not been drawn up, despite a letter from the Transition Team to the School Board having been sent several weeks prior. After several minutes of discussion, during which a few board members expressed disappointment at the lack of a drafted MOU, Steve Koleszar motioned for a vote on the resolution to transfer the Yancey building title. With mere minutes of discussion on the topic and few if any of the Transition Team’s requests met, the resolution passed 5-2 with no Memorandum of Understanding. Once again, a shortchanged process, and trust with the community betrayed.

After the vote, discussion continued. Board members still wanted a Memorandum of Understanding, which would now carry no weight since the resolution had already passed. Board members were unsure of what the result of the vote meant in terms of the building and the Board’s responsibility. Board members were unsure about how the vote would impact the community.It quickly became apparent that the Board as a whole did not entirely understand the impact of the resolution they had been so eager to pass minutes earlier, and were now engaged in useless discussion about the impact of the vote, something I considered to be an enormous waste of public time. Hearkening back to Steve Koleszar’s words at the April 27th meeting, I walked away from that school board meeting feeling utterly untrusting in the decision making ability of the board.

I can only imagine how a member of the Yancey community would feel knowing that the Board had not made a properly informed decision and had not acted in accordance with the wishes of the community Transition Team as had been previously indicated. In too many instances we see a pattern of the decision-making process being shortchanged, and all too often the trust with the community is betrayed.

We can and must do better. We must do a better job engaging with and hearing the concerns of rural community members in an increasingly urban-centric school system. We must work to rebuild trust by taking the advice and concerns of the community into careful consideration when decisions are made. We must make every effort to include everyone, to listen to every point of view, and to never forget those who depend on leadership to make informed and considerate decisions.

You can read more about the meeting HERE.

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