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Thursday's Albemarle School Board meeting could prove contentious

With hot-button topics on the agenda, and a new, more-limiting public comment policy debuting, Thursday’s Albemarle County School Board meeting could produce some drama.

The Albemarle County School Board is set to sign off on a new strategic plan that centers the division’s efforts to improve equity and close achievement gaps.

Under the Learning for All strategic plan, the county school division’s mission will be to “end the predictive value of race, class, gender, and special capacities for our children’s success through high quality teaching and learning for all,” which mirrors the school system’s equity definition.

The strategic plan is one of several items on the board’s agenda for Thursday’s meeting, the only one scheduled for this month. Other agenda items include details on a new policy to protect transgender and gender-expansive students to align with a new state law and an overview of how federal stimulus funds will be used to support learning recovery efforts.

Division leadership unveiled a draft of the strategic plan in May, and the School Board weighed in last month, with members being largely supportive of the plan. The five-year plan will replace the New Horizons plan that was adopted in 2013 and established the core purpose of the county system as “[establishing] a community of learners and learning through relationships, relevance and rigor.”

Citizens Advocating for Responsible Education, a parent group that formed in response to concerns about anti-bias lessons that were piloted this past spring at Henley Middle School, is seeking to stop the adoption of the strategic plan to allow time for more community input.

“Upon its approval by the board, C.A.R.E. anticipates that further sweeping policy and curriculum changes will be made under its auspices,” the group wrote in an update on its website.

The website does not identify members of the association.

At recent meetings, especially after the draft plan was unveiled in May, several people criticized the new mission, values and goals.

“The mission statement, as written, is fundamentally flawed,” said Scott Townsend, a county resident, at the board’s May 27 meeting. “It creates unrealistic expectations and shifts the focus of Albemarle County Public Schools away from challenging our children through rigorous academic instruction to focusing on addressing social injustices.”

The plan’s goals and objectives were supported in a community survey, according to the presentation. CARE, in its update, said the survey results were misleading because the survey assumed that the respondent was in agreement with the stated goals.

The new plan also changes the division’s values from excellence, young people, community and respect to equity, wellness, family and community and excellence.

Division staff members worked with educational consultant Battelle for Kids since last summer to develop the plan along with about 200 staff members, students and community members who participated on either the design or writing teams, according to board documents.

Once adopted, division staff will start working on implementing the plan. Some of the strategies could require funding, which would come into play during the fiscal year 2023 budget cycle. The first report on progress toward the plan’s goals will be part of the fall 2022 State of the Division report, according to the presentation.

Thursday’s meeting will be the first with new public comment procedures. If more than 40 people sign up, the School Board will use a lottery system for the 40 slots and reduce the maximum speaking time from three minutes to two minutes per person.

In the last year, more than 40 people signed up to speak at public comment at only one meeting. That occurred at the board’s June 10 meeting, when 42 people signed up and 34 actually spoke.

The board has tinkered with its public comment guidelines, from how the signups work to its placement on the agenda, for several years, especially since the summer of 2018.

Elected panels in Virginia don’t have to offer general public comment. The county School Board’s policy calls for allocating “a reasonable period of time” for public comment. Historically, the board has planned for 10 speakers, allotting 30 minutes.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said other localities have attempted a lottery for public comment but she didn’t know of any that were currently using that system.

“It’s one way, if there is a lot of interest, that they can make a decision without it seeming like they’re taking sides,” Rhyne said.

Jon Zug, clerk for the Albemarle County Circuit Court, will pick the speakers using a random selection system similar to the one used for jury selection.

The deadline to sign up for public comment is 2 p.m. Thursday. After that, the division will notify those who signed up if the lottery is needed and if they were selected to speak.

Rhyne said that over the years, she’s seen many communities coming up with different ways of approaching public comment, and that it’s important for the public to have input on such changes.

There was no public discussion or feedback opportunity in the case of Albemarle’s new speaker rules.

As boards look to resume in-person meetings at some point, Rhyne said the rules of engagement are shifting.

“So this seems like a perfect opportunity to talk with the public about how we can capitalize on what we learned during the pandemic while still also making sure that we as a board are able to conduct the business that you all expect us to conduct,” she said.

New policy

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the School Board will review a draft policy that details how transgender and gender-expansive students should be treated in schools. On July 28, the division will hold a virtual information session on the policy. The board is expected to vote on the policy Aug. 12.

Because of a new state law, all school divisions must adopt policies for transgender students by the start of the 2021-22 school year. The Virginia Department of Education has provided model policies that school boards can adapt.

“This policy is intended to help schools ensure the educational and social integration of transgender and gender-expansive students and to keep their learning environments safe and free from discrimination and harassment,” according to the division’s draft document.

Under the draft policy, every student is entitled to be addressed by the name and pronouns the student prefers, and parental consent or a legal name change is not required for that to occur.

Gender-expansive is a collective term that includes transgender and nonbinary people, all of whom having a gender identity that doesn’t conform to the one they were assigned at birth. Under the draft county policy, gender-expansive students should be able to play on whichever sports teams and use the bathroom they prefer.

The policy also outlines the scope of parent involvement in the process for students who want to transition and calls on school administrators to keep in mind that gender-expansive students might not be supported at home.

“In some cases, gender-expansive students may not want their parents to know about their gender-expansive or transitioning status,” according to the draft policy. “These situations must be addressed on a case-by-case basis and will require schools to balance the goal of supporting the student with the requirement that parents be kept informed about their children. The most important consideration in such situations is the physical and mental health and safety of the student.”

The division is planning to post answers to frequently asked questions on its website before the Aug. 12 meeting, according to a news release.

The General Assembly passed the law calling for rules regulating the treatment of transgender students in 2020, but the county school division has been working on its policy for two years, according to the release.

“Moving forward with this policy is about something far more important than meeting a legal requirement,” Kevin Kirst, the division’s executive director of special education and student services, said in the release. “This policy is about putting the supports in place that allow all students to flourish. Students learn and develop best when they are in a safe, trustworthy, enriching environment. That’s our responsibility as public educators, to provide such a system. This policy does that.”


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