IW School Board, superintendent push back against budget cut

Published 8:34 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Supervisor William McCarty’s “interesting political crosswinds” remark had been in regards to the state Senate’s and House of Delegates’ ongoing budget negotiations, not Critical Race Theory.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton and members of Isle of Wight’s School Board pushed back Wednesday against the county supervisors’ May 12 vote to “set aside” $1.5 million previously earmarked for the school system.

County Administrator Randy Keaton had initially proposed a $27.2 million local contribution to Isle of Wight County Schools. IWCS had planned to use the nearly $527,000 increase to hire several testing coordinators, which school officials said would free up guidance counselors to spend more time working with students, and less time proctoring Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests.

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Thornton told the School Board he’d been expecting to see that figure reduced by $393,000 per a conversation he’d had with Keaton, but the additional $1.5 million “set aside” came as “quite a shock.”

“I believe the majority of the board of supervisors did not understand all the ramifications of putting the money aside,” Thornton said, blaming the unexpected reduction on pressure from opponents of “CRT and divisive materials.”

For nearly a year, a vocal group of county residents have accused Thornton of bringing tenets of Critical Race Theory into the school system through diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The graduate-level academic discipline, often abbreviated CRT, argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minority groups.

Though Thornton has repeatedly denied CRT is being taught at the K-12 level in Isle of Wight County Schools, critics have held up Smithfield High School’s “Read Woke” challenge as evidence of its influence. Opponents of the challenge, which involves encouraging students to read social justice-themed books available at the school’s library, argued in a letter to Thornton last year that the books, in their opinion, were “designed to instill the feeling of discomfort and guilt upon white children” and “rage in black children.” On his first day in office in January, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order mandating an end to “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in Virginia’s schools.

Supervisor William McCarty, who had made the May 12 motion to “set aside” $1.5 million in school funding,  did not reference CRT among his reasons for doing so, stating only that the county had found itself in “interesting political crosswinds.” He then clarified at the supervisors’ May 19 meeting that his remark had been in regards to the ongoing state budget negotiations between the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate and Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

But the supervisors had previously discussed a $1.5 million reduction in an April meeting. At that meeting, Supervisor Don Rosie asked Thornton to state his “position on diversity, inclusion and equity” and whether he believed such a focus was in keeping with Youngkin’s order. Rosie then suggested the supervisors could increase the school system’s budget “as it aligns itself with state policies and directives.”

“These citizens have a right to their viewpoint, but our teachers are teaching the Virginia standards of learning, not CRT, and his reasons are all about politics,” Thornton said of Rosie.

According to Thornton, one prospective new hire, after watching the May 12 vote, has already “contacted his principal to see if he should stay in his current division and not come to IWCS.”

“I can’t sign a contract, and you can’t give a contract to someone knowing that the money may or may not be there; that’s called malfeasance,” Thornton said.

“The students are the ones it’s going to hurt,” said School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes, noting Isle of Wight competes with other Hampton Roads school divisions for a limited number of teachers seeking new jobs.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” said School Board member John Collick, who’d successfully campaigned for his seat last year on a platform of opposition to CRT’s perceived influence.

“But I also agree with you, we can’t afford to lose good people,” he told Thornton.

The supervisors have added another discussion on school funding for the 2022-23 fiscal year to the agenda for their Thursday meeting.