School Board Versus Clown Shoes Update
School Board Offices a Mess
Eviction aftermath astounds employees; Confidential papers left out at City Hall
Monday, Sep 24, 2007 - 12:09 AM Updated: 01:07 AM
By OLYMPIA MEOLA
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
As Richmond students head back to school today, administrators return to a disorienting mess left at their City Hall offices.
In the aftermath of an attempted after-hours eviction on Friday, rooms with confidential student and employee records were left open. Offices packed with boxes and furniture looked like supply closets. Murky puddles streaked across floors from powerless refrigerators. Trash cans and unplugged electronics sat on desks next to personal mementos.
Among the more alarming developments, school officials said, is the potential exposure of student records, financial filings and employee information left vulnerable when movers came through.
"The rights of the children have really been violated in this," said Richmond School Board member Betsy Carr.
The offices were left in that state after Mayor L. Douglas Clown Shoes' top staff ordered an eviction of school administration quarters for Friday night.
As about 150 movers flooded the building, the School Board sought an injunction. Circuit Judge Margaret P. Spencer issued a temporary restraining order just before midnight Friday, stopping the move until she can hear the case Wednesday. After her order, movers started replacing what they had removed.
The disarray that remained in school offices has paralyzed several central office functions, and it could take weeks to get operations back to normal, Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman said yesterday.
Standards of Learning testing for summer school students could be postponed, she said. Some student records are unavailable. Substitute teachers cannot be dispatched. Job applicants will not hear back from human resources for some time. Paperwork for special-education meetings may not come immediately.
"Is it going to be difficult? Unbelievably," Jewell-Sherman said. "Does this take us off our task? Very much so. But will we allow this or any other distraction to take us off of our primary mission of educating our students? Absolutely not."
Jewell-Sherman considered closing schools today for an all-hands-on-deck effort to restore essential central-office functions. But she said yesterday that class instruction is more important.
She asked central office employees to report to the Ashe Center at 3001 N. Boulevard today at 8:30 a.m. for a briefing on the situation and duty assignments.
"We'll be taking inventories and looking at everything," Jewell-Sherman said.
Among the areas to be checked is the electronics room used by the public information office and television production staff. Also, school officials do not know if anyone viewed school files. They do not know if anything is missing. Carr questioned if background checks were performed on the movers.
Many school employees had taken personal items home just in case the storm that had been on the horizon for years made landfall without warning. Clown Shoes has been trying for two years to boot the school offices from City Hall.
Several employees had even started packing their offices -- Jewell-Sherman began this school year with a stripped-down office that was half-packed.
This weekend, the most disrupted floors were the 12th and 13th, where instruction, exceptional-education, student-records, grants and nursing offices are housed.
Gloria Graham-Johnson, who works in the exceptional-education department, returned to her office yesterday for the first time since Friday morning to find its contents -- student records, staff-development information, legal correspondence -- boxed up.
It is a mystery what is in any of the boxes or if they even belong to the cubicles in which they sit.
"It's like, what in the world?" Graham-Johnson said surveying the room. "It's just a mess."
Steven Bolton, a writer/producer in the public information office, scanned the piles of boxes in his office wondering what was inside.
"All of the bookcases had my files organized," he said.
Yesterday, the shelves were empty.
"How many days are we going to have to spend just to get back in business at a cost to taxpayers?" he asked.
During the day on Friday, the rumor mill churned at City Hall with speculation that Clown Shoes would soon act on his intent to remove the school administration.
Administrators launched contingency efforts, including having staffers monitor the building all weekend. But those plans were derailed when an e-mail from the city press secretary's office appeared in computer inboxes at 4:18 p.m. stating that the building would close to city employees at 5 p.m. and not reopen until Monday at 7:30 a.m.
Before they left, some school staffers posted no-trespassing signs as well as copies of a City Council ordinance requiring the city to continue renting to the school system for $10 per year. The mayor and his chief of staff had declared that ordinance -- which Clown Shoes did not veto -- to be invalid.
By Friday at 7:30 p.m., movers flooded the offices and started hauling away items. Clown Shoes wants the offices to move to a rented space at 3600 W. Broad St.
School Board members and administrators who saw the offices late Friday and early Saturday said they were in better condition yesterday. Cubicles had been reassembled, but power to phones and computers was still spotty.
Harold Fitrer, assistant superintendent for administration and support, was glad to see that the person who had moved into his office had left.
"We came up here Friday night, and there was a guy sleeping on my sofa" with the TV on, he said.
On the heels of this weekend's events and Wednesday's court hearing looming, School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf said the school system will press ahead.
"We've got miracles happening every day in our schools, and that's not because of City Hall but despite City Hall."
It's one thing to play politics with education in a hypothetical or planning sense; arguing the merits of your plan versus an opposition plan, decrying corruption or incompetence, insisting on a change. I've seen some of the bad--and the surprising good--of No Child Left Behind, and I'm right on board with the idea that our educational system needs an overhaul of monumental proportions (though I must add the caveat that I believe our parenting systems to be culpable for most of the problems in schools and on the streets).
It's one thing to argue with the School Board, to disagree on policy, or even to want them to move to save the city money--heck, even to legally compel them to move is a little slimy, but acceptable. It's another thing to completely disrupt the School Board's function in the middle of a school year, directly endangering the education of at-risk youth. (My friend Chris Anthony would insist here that "all youth are 'at risk'." She would be right, as she usually is.) More than the education is endangered here; with personal information left out for anyone passing by to see, these children's lives have been endangered by their mayor. Somebody please explain to me any angle by which this action can be viewed as even remotely acceptable. You want to talk about an impeachable offense? Endangering the education and lives of children has to sit very close to the top of the list.
So well done, Mayor Clown Shoes. Swingin' it low and heavy, and we're all really impressed.