Last Updated: Apr 27th, 2015 - 11:04:56

ARGS divided school leaders
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Jul 24, 2014, 11:59

HOPEWELL — A difference of opinion over the direction of the school division caused an apparent rift between School Board member Larry Joyner and the rest of the board. It was a rift that continued to spread, causing Joyner to step down from the board just weeks following a letter by Superintendent Dr. John Fahey to the board saying he intended to retire in 2015. 

During a School Board meeting on May 8, Sharon Neal addressed the board on the concern that one of her daughters was not afforded the chance to attend Appomattox Regional Governor’s School and should have been able to, given her scores for the adjudication process. 

Neal said more seats needed to be added, that the four seats per year, for 16 total, were not enough for all the students attending Hopewell schools and said the students in Petersburg City Public Schools were given better opportunities for pursuing their education beyond public schools. 

“When I looked at each school’s Department of Education report card, there were very few differences,” Neal said. She added that Petersburg has 70 seats at ARGS compared to Hopewell’s 16. “Even though Hopewell seems better in reality, it does not present well on paper. ... They seem to realize the importance of letting go of the students who can achieve far beyond what their high school can provide for them.” 

Rita Joyner, wife of former board member Larry Joyner, also spoke at that same meeting and echoed the sentiments of Neal. She said the number of seats Hopewell has provided for students at ARGS is “almost laughable.”

“The board is responsible for making sure every child has every opportunity they can to succeed and these governor’s schools afford these students the opportunity to succeed, to achieve their potential and one percent just seems not very good,” Rita said. 

Larry Joyner, who is also an assistant director at ARGS, spoke at the meeting on May 8 as well and did not mask his frustration for the lack of opportunities that were denied to not only Neal’s daughter but to other students in the division.

“I think we spend a lot of time and money and effort on people that well just don’t make it right now,” Larry said. “Let’s face it, we’ve got backpack initiatives, free and reduced lunch programs, courses to pass for the SOLs, we have kindergarten camp, the list goes on,” Larry said. “Now I’m not saying that these programs are not valid, I vote for them ... because at some point in time somebody needs them and we don’t want to be responsible for some child who needs something that they never get.” 

In the days following that school board meeting in May, Superintendent Dr. John Fahey sent a letter to the members of the School Board discussing his future with Hopewell City Public Schools. He said his contract expires in June of 2015 and he is eligible for retirement. 

Fahey sent the letter out on May 12, just four days after the meeting. Though it was sent out shortly following the meeting, Fahey said it had nothing to do with the meeting and that the events were not related.

Fahey said he just wanted to be “up front” with the members of the School Board. 

“It really wasn’t a letter of resignation. It was my intent,” Fahey said July 11. “I said I intend to retire in 2015 because I’m eligible. ... Other people read other things into it, but I’m the one who wrote it. I wasn’t planning on going anywhere and on July 1 of this year my new board gave me a vote of confidence, a strong vote of confidence I’d say.” 

Fahey said though he is disappointed in the results of the adjudication process for this student, the process does not happen in Hopewell so “I don’t have any control over that.” 

“I’m sorry that this happened this way. Nothing I can really do about that,” Fahey said. “I’m trying to do a job here. Our high school is on the brink of and may be accredited for the first time in four years, so if that’s something bad then I guess I wouldn’t renew my contract either. Just let me go.” 

Though, in fact, Fahey does not want to and is not ready to leave the city. He said his intent was to stay in Hopewell with his family and continue to serve the school system. 

“I have a year left, and if they give me an extension, I don’t plan on going anywhere,” Fahey said. “Here in Hopewell we have our challenges but we made great progress and I expect as much progress next year as we’ve made in the past. And if we do that, we’ll be much better.” 

As far as progress is concerned, Larry does not see it happening but instead sees the city regressing backwards and not advancing at all. 

“We got children in an economic bind and we’re not doing anything to really advance them to change that. Things can’t continue the same way every day,” he said. 

Larry’s frustration continued in weeks following as he spoke about his decision to not seek another term for the School Board. Linda Hyslop has taken the place of Larry and began her term on July 1 and continues until June 2017. 

“I like the board,” Larry said in an interview in the weeks following the School Board meeting in May. “I got along well with them up until recently.” 

He said his main source of frustration stemmed from what he calls a “mistake in scoring for a student in the adjudication process.” Larry said when this, along with supporting documentation, was presented to the board, it was met with a lack of concern. 

“I couldn’t get them to give me a cogent answer,” Larry said. “I have never been with a deliberating body that did not discuss the issues. ... I think what we have gotten short-sighted with is the fact that we don’t see the interconnect between housing, public schools and economic development. All three of those things have to work in concert.” 

Larry said another reason why he decided to step down from serving another term on the board was that he felt his message would be heard better if were on the outside and he could communicate more effectively. 

“I think the people are good. I know they’re good,” Larry said. “I’m not a case of sour grapes here but for the life of me, for the future of this damn city, we need to wake up to the fact that if we don’t do anything we’re going to be in the circumstances of our neighbors over here next door to us.” 

Rita spoke alongside her husband at the interview, and they both spoke on the same issues at the recent City Council meeting, and said it appears the School Board is not making note of the issues the school division faces but is instead celebrating other successes. 

“While it’s not wrong to have school spirit, I just don’t think we’re really looking at the cold hard facts and really thinking creatively out of the box,” she said. 

One solution Larry presented was a change in leadership for the school division, one that he had no hesitation in sharing. 

“I’m convinced that we do need a new superintendent and the sooner the better,” Larry said. “And if we do get a new superintendent, we do need to have someone who is innovative and not afraid to take a chance.” 

In terms of the seats at the governor’s school, both Maggie Walker and ARGS, Fahey said slots are being added, but that is being overlooked.

During his tenure with the school division, there have been four slots added to Maggie Walker and four more will be added over the next two years, Fahey said, which will give a total of eight, or two seats per grade level. 

“We’re adding slots every year. We’re adding two more slots,” Fahey said of Maggie Walker. “We’ve now gone up to four at Maggie Walker. We’re going to six then eight. Once we add those slots, the board might decided to add more at Appomattox. ... We’re growing slots but we’re growing slots at a different school and not everybody works at that school.” 

Though the division is adding seats at Maggie Walker, adding more seats at Appomattox is cheaper for the division. 

To add a seat at ARGS, the cost is $106,412 per year for the 16 seats which equates to a cost of $6,650 per seat. To add a seat at Maggie Walker costs the division $29,092 per year for four seats at a total of $7,273 per seat. 

“Our board really has taken leadership about adding more slots for our kids,” Fahey said. “They just added them to Maggie Walker.” 

Fahey said though the seats at Maggie Walker are more expensive, the board is looking to give the students a broad spectrum of education, noting the focus at Maggie Walker Governor’s School is more on the languages and world studies and ARGS focus is around arts and technology. 

He also added that in 2013, Newsweek and The Daily Beast ranked Maggie Walker the 14th best public high school in the nation. 

“Our board and our community asked if we could add slots there,” Fahey said. 

Fahey made it clear his concern is not adding seats at the governor’s schools at this time. 

“To say that sending another student to the governor’s school is going to help our poverty rate, our wealth. No,” Fahey said. “Getting our schools accredited, that’s what we’re working on. That will help our city. That’s the best message I can say. Let’s get accredited. We’ll do a lot of great things.” 

Larry still holds strong that children in the division are “suffering” and not being presented with every opportunity possible to advance their education.

“I was told I couldn’t do it and you know what, I didn’t like that,” Joyner said. “So I worked harder. I think that’s the kind of system we need to foster over here. ... When you get right down to it in the end, who suffers? The child.” 

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