Prince Edward School Board votes on superintendent’s contract

Published 1:07 pm Saturday, September 9, 2023

FARMVILLE – Dr. Barbara Johnson will be superintendent of schools in Prince Edward County for at least three more years. During their meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 6, the Prince Edward School Board voted 5-1, with Doug Farley and Susan Kimbrough absent, to extend Johnson’s contract by a three year period. The group also agreed to give Johnson $5,000 for her retirement, at the end of that three year contract, as per her request. Kelly Forsythe was the only one who opposed the vote. Dr. Johnson was also absent, with assistant superintendent Dr. Michelle Wallace leading the meeting. 

Forsythe, who later in the meeting announced she would not seek re-election, said she voted no “for the reasons I gave during the closed session.” 

The vote comes as Johnson enters the final school year connected with her current contract, facing questions from parents and expectations that graduation rates and test scores would increase across the district. In recent months especially, parents have spoken up during the public comment period of school board meetings, pointing out Johnson has been here since 2016 and questioning what improvements she has to show for that time. 

Background on the superintendent 

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As mentioned, Johnson started working as Prince Edward superintendent in July of 2016. The former executive director of instruction in the Baltimore school system also previously worked as an assistant superintendent of a division in Illinois and a principal in Washington, D.C. She began her career in Fairfax County as an English teacher. Hired on at a salary of $120,000, that was slightly more than her predecessor, Dr. David Smith, who served from Sept. 5, 2012 until June 30, 2016. He finished with a salary of $116,559. 

Challenges within Prince Edward schools

Part of the frustration for parents involves seeing schools accredited with conditions. None of the district’s schools are fully accredited without conditions this year. To explain, the Virginia Department of Education decides if an individual school is accredited, or meets state standards, based on six categories. The state looks at a school’s English pass rate, English achievement gaps, math pass rate, math achievement gaps, science pass rate and if there is chronic absenteeism. 

Prince Edward Elementary is the closest. Without the chronic absenteeism problem, which the state counts off points for, the elementary school would be fully accredited with no conditions for the second straight year. The school meets or exceeds state standards for everything going on in the actual classroom, becoming one of only 93 schools in the Commonwealth this year to receive a Continuous Improvement Exemplar Award. To be eligible for the Exemplar Award, a school has to show growth. Not for one month or one year. It has to be continued growth and development over a three year span. Specifically, for elementary schools, scores in math and reading have to go up, with a total increase of ten points or more. 

But while the elementary, despite its structural challenges, is improving, the middle and high school, however, both have problems, the state report says. Prince Edward Middle was below state standards in math and English, while at Prince Edward High, four of the nine indicators were below state standards. By comparison, neighboring Cumberland, which faces similar challenges, had its elementary and high school fully accredited with no conditions for the second straight year. 

Questions raised to Prince Edward School Board

But beyond that, some residents challenged the contract extension because they don’t feel like their questions are being addressed. 

“I don’t think Dr. Johnson and the board answer questions fully and specifically,” said Meherrin resident Ryan Taney. A parent of multiple children in Prince Edward schools, Taney has come to the board asking in recent months about the status of the elementary school renovation, what teachers said in their exit surveys as to why they left the district and in general, what’s being done to improve the schools. He’s often been disappointed. 

“I had a number of different questions I specifically asked,” Taney said, adding that when he got a letter from Dr. Johnson to address his questions, it was somewhat vague. “These answers are not specific. Her answer is to send me to various website links and when I pull that link up, the data I requested is not in there. This is a pattern issue, where parents are asking for answers to questions regarding our children, their future and their education. And we’re not getting the answers.” 

Speaking at the Sept. 6 meeting, Taney said it’s not just him that’s having issues. 

‘You’re saying no to the parents,” he told the board. “And everyone listening right now is hearing they don’t matter or that they don’t know the answers to the questions. It’s alarming.” 

After Taney spoke, staff members blamed the switch to a new website for the links that don’t work. The district recently launched a new website and there are still some dead links and not all of the information on the site is up to date yet.

Editor’s note: Reporter Rachel Austin contributed to this story.