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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.

Waters Campaign Officially Qualifies for November Ballot

The Julian D. Waters for Albemarle County School Board campaign received an email early this morning from the Albemarle County Registrar’s Office. The campaign has completed and filed all required paperwork and petition signatures have been verified. Julian D. Waters will now appear on the November 7th, 2017 General Election ballot as a candidate for the Albemarle County School Board’s Samuel Miller district seat.

“This is just the beginning of a long road ahead” said Julian, “I’m looking forward to knocking on doors and earning votes right up until election day.” The Julian D. Waters campaign is fully committed to Julian’s vision of bringing recent experience and fresh perspective to the Albemarle County School Board. “I want to reiterate the extraordinarily positive vision we have in place already” Julian said, “It’s a vision that we’re already working towards, but a vision that will be better realized with the perspective and experience of a recent student and a student advisor to Albemarle County Public Schools.”

If you wish to volunteer with the campaign, please see the contact form at the bottom of this page. If you wish to donate, please follow the ‘donate’ link at the top right of this page.

My comments at the 5/25/17 public hearing

At the Albemarle County School Board public hearing on Thursday, May 25th, I and many other members of the community spoke about the need to keep B.F. Yancey Elementary School open. Unfortunately, later that evening the board voted 2-5 to consolidate Yancey. Although I am disappointed by this decision, I believe that it is important now to focus on supporting the students and families affected by this decision.

My remarks from Thursday’s meeting are below:

Good evening Dr. Acuff and members of the board.

My names is Julian Waters. I live at 2611 Holkham Drive.

Tonight is the third meeting which directly discusses the possibility of closing Benjamin Franklin Yancey Elementary school. I, like many others, find myself somewhat confused trying to digest the rapid pace of the discussion. While I understand the struggles that Yancey is facing, I don’t believe that accelerating the decision making process aids anyone. As Mr. Koleszar said at the April 27th meeting in which closing Yancey was first discussed, ‘Whenever we shortchange the process we betray the trust which we hold with the community’. Conversations around Yancey take on an entirely new meaning when they are directly in the context of closing the school, and I don’t believe it’s fair to anyone involved for the decision making process to move forward this rapidly.

I’d also like to refute the notion of ‘throwing money’ at Yancey. As a priority school, and as a school with a large amount of disadvantaged students, higher costs should be expected. Yancey has faced severe septic system issues in recent years, and the school itself has not received any recent school improvement projects, compared to Greer elementary, which has a similar makeup of disadvantaged students, which has received over 50 according to data shown at the last board meeting. It is clear that Yancey has not been afforded to modernization or improvement opportunities that have been given to other schools in the district, and this in itself creates an unequitable divide.

There are also budgetary implications to consider- how much, if at all, does closing Yancey affect the just recently approved budget? Are there changes that need to be made in order to accommodate for the relocation of students and staff? Have the budgetary and logistical implications been studied when considering closing Yancey at the end of this school year?

I don’t mean to sweep under the rug the dire situation that Yancey faces both in terms of enrollment and accreditation status, but the fast pace of discussion and the just recent talk of closing Yancey leads me to believe that not all options have been fully considered, and it is out of concern for the students and parents of all schools involved that I ask the board to keep Yancey open and explore alternative possibilities.

Regarding recent discussions on the closure of B.F. Yancey Elementary School

JULIAN D. WATERS for SCHOOL BOARD

At recent meetings, the Albemarle County School Board has discussed the possible closure of Benjamin Franklin Yancey Elementary School. This discussion once again brought into the spotlight the critical role that local schools play in our community.

Certain discussion has revolved around the argument of ‘throwing money at Yancey’ in order to offer a solution to the school’s academic and other struggles. At the most recent board meeting on May 11th, comparisons were drawn between Yancey and Greer elementary, with Greer having a similar makeup of disadvantaged students (Students who receive free and reduced lunch) but, compared to Yancey, is in better academic standing. However, in recent years Greer has received over fifty school improvement projects whereas Yancey has received none. Yancey has struggled to fix a failing septic system and the building itself is outdated. Money being invested into Yancey is not sufficient to provide the school with the modernization opportunities that have been afforded to Greer and other elementary schools. In my opinion, this does not at all reflect the sentiment of ‘throwing money’ at Yancey, and it seems that there is still substantial room for improvement.

Furthermore, closing Yancey establishes a dangerous precedent that threatens other rural schools, such as Red Hill, Scottsville, and other schools with declining enrollment. Closing Yancey based on the premise of the school itself being ‘too small’ is a flawed solution. Because the entire lower region is out of the strategic development area as outlined by the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission, continuing population decline will likely be reflected by declining enrollment at any elementary school outside of the designated development areas. Should the board decide to close Yancey, how long will it be until we begin to examine the future of other schools? Opening this door threatens the existence of not just Yancey, but any rural neighborhood school in the district.

Aside from these reasons, there is common sense in keeping Yancey open as well. Geographically, Yancey is located more centrally to the lower region of the county than Scottsville Elementary, the next closest Elementary school. This means that transportation to and from Yancey by bus and for parents and staff is better distributed, and average transit times for both would likely be shorter. We also need to face the fact that closing Yancey would do nothing to address the declining population in the area. Closing Yancey as a result of declining enrollment and funding would not be a solution, but an unfortunate and unnecessary byproduct. It would be more fruitful to find ways to encourage development in the Esmont community, leading to an increased population and greater investment in the surrounding area.

As as student, I was fortunate enough to attend Meriwether Lewis Elementary, just a few short minutes away from my neighborhood. To me and countless others, Meriwether was more than just a school. It was soccer practice, and family trips to the playground on the weekends. It was ‘kids night out’ and pumpkin carving. It was a true part of our community. Schools like Yancey, though small, are incredibly important to the communities they serve. They serve not only to teach, but to help grow and foster the neighborhoods and families around them. For Yancey, a school which hosts numerous community events and has become a neighborhood landmark, this importance is even greater.

Yancey represents an important piece of heritage, not only to Esmont but to Albemarle County as a whole. Every day it stands as an inspiration to students, to parents, to teachers, and to community members, and as a reminder of the immense positive impact that a passionate individual can have. Benjamin Franklin Yancey, for whom the school is named, worked tirelessly in the Esmont area to provide opportunities to students. Benjamin Yancey’s legacy is one of fighting hard to provide for those in his community, a legacy that endures now in Yancey Elementary School. It is my hope that the board can understand the importance of Yancey as more than just a place of education and explore alternative solutions to encourage growth and keep Yancey around for future generations of students, teachers, families, and the community.