Girls on the Run focus of IWCS budget hearing

Published 4:40 pm Wednesday, March 8, 2023

A March 7 public hearing on Isle of Wight County Schools’ proposed $81 million budget for the coming school year drew only four speakers, three of whom focused on a relatively small component: a $40,000 contribution to Girls on the Run.

The nonprofit program, according to its website, enhances elementary and middle school girls’ social, emotional and physical skills through a curriculum that incorporates running. IWCS became the first school system nationwide in 2021 to have students participate in a Girls on the Run event from every public elementary and middle school in the county. Over 120 girls took part in the eight-week program that year, culminating in a 5K race.

School Board Chairman John Collick was critical in February of Superintendent Theo Cramer’s budget proposal that included $40,000 in Girls on the Run funding, and argued public money should not be used to fund a nonprofit organization. Vice Chairman Jason Maresh, who joined Collick in opposition, wrote in a 2022 letter to the editor of The Smithfield Times that the program was “divisive” for its stated focus on “systemic disparities associated with societal advantages.”

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Among the evening’s speakers was Ellen Carver, executive director of Girls on the Run’s Hampton Roads chapter, who told board members most of the earmarked funds would not be a direct contribution to the nonprofit but rather would pay for coach stipends and after-school transportation costs.

“This is not a donation to a nonprofit. … It helps defray but does not nearly cover the direct costs,” Carver said.

Isle of Wight’s participation, she said, began in 2021 with a grant from the Suffolk-based Obici Healthcare Foundation and 23 girls at Hardy Elementary School. Since then it’s grown to almost 130 girls on average from every public elementary and middle school in the county.

The Rev. Willie Williams said he was “appalled” to learn that Maresh had in February called for funding drug- and gun-sniffing K-9s in place of the Girls on the Run money, and called Collick’s not wanting to fund nonprofits with public money a “flimsy excuse.”

Laura Fletcher of Smithfield, however, urged the School Board to stand firm on defunding the Girls on the Run program.

“It is wrong for our taxes to be taken, given to essentially a nonprofit,” Fletcher said, contending that Girls on the Run is “involved” in “Critical Race Theory using diversity, equity and inclusion.” The legal theory, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other officials have called divisive, argues that American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities.

The final speaker, Herb De Groft, urged board members to make massive cuts to Cramer’s proposed budget by eliminating all positions not required under Virginia’s Standards of Quality. As of October, Isle of Wight was required to employ 537.24 SOQ positions, as they are called, but had 739 total employees as of that month. Only SOQ positions receive state funding. The rest are funded with local money.

“Our Virginia Department of Education has determined by the requirements of the laws passed by the General Assembly that they aren’t needed, period,” De Groft said.

Most school systems in the state hire more teachers than the minimum required, and Isle of Wight County officials have said previously that the minimum isn’t enough to meet the schools’ current needs.

Board member Denise Tynes said she would continue to support and advocate for Girls on the Run, and she took issue with Collick having expended School Board funds to pay for his membership in the School Board Members Alliance, which also holds nonprofit status. Isle of Wight County Schools’ check register for February shows a $250 payment to SBMA.

Collick acknowledged he had indeed joined the SBMA, but noted that Article 10 of the bylaws he’d written – and the board voted 3-2 to approve in February – states that board members are “encouraged to attend” training from the Virginia Department of Education’s list of “education-related organizations.”

“SBMA is a very new organization,” Collick said, pledging to reimburse the county in the event Isle of Wight County Schools’ new chief financial officer, Larisa Harris, informs him he did anything improper.

A video on SBMA’s website contends Virginia’s public schools “have made national news for all the wrong reasons,” and includes clips from news broadcasts, including one by Fox News host Tucker Carlson claiming an equity-focused “radical new curriculum” teaching that “white people oppress everyone” was in place at schools “all over” the United States. It is run by a 10-member board of directors chaired by Sherri Story, a controversial former Suffolk School Board member who chose not to run for reelection in 2022 after the Nansemond-Suffolk NAACP chapter condemned her now-deleted Facebook post calling for a “White Joy” event as racist.

SBMA, the video states, supports “traditional academics,” “parental rights” and allowing tax dollars to follow children if their parents pull them from a public school and enroll them in a private one.