Letter Seeks Apology From Commissioner

NEWARK – Despite harsh accusations made in a letter of reproach from the Worcester County Board of Education, Commission President Virgil Shockley said this week that he would disregard the letter and look to the future.

While Shockley saw an early draft of the letter, “the final draft I didn’t pay attention to,” he said.

Shockley believes that the letter was written in anger and probably should not have been sent.

“They were blowing off steam,” said Shockley.

Board of Education member Jonathan Cook said the letter should be taken seriously.

“That letter was signed unanimously by the entire board. Our feeling is, if we’re going to sign our names to it, we’re going to stand by it,” Cook said.

According to Cook, the Board of Education is not upset about the financial aspects of the discussion, but by the way Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes was treated at the June 17 County Commissioner meeting.

“We are not abdicating our responsibility for fiscal soundness. The flogging and the grandstanding in a public forum, that was the issue,” Cook said.

The letter, dated June 23, was sent directly to Shockley, and not to the other commissioners, and was signed by six of seven school board members. Board of Education President Gary Mumford, as an employee of the Worcester County, did not sign the letter.

The letter is not a peaceful missive, but the school board denies Shockley’s assertion that they were merely blowing off steam.

“The letter was not written in anger. It was not a knee jerk reaction,” Cook said. “It was written, approved, edited and sent one week after the fact.”

The Board of Education letter makes some strong statements, but according to Cook, stronger and more acerbic language was edited from earlier drafts of the letter.

One passage makes an extreme accusation: “We believe that such treatment is following a systematic campaign on your part to impugn the integrity and credibility of our Superintendent and his staff…recklessness with the facts follows months of innuendo intended to discredit the Board of Education,” the letter reads, according to a copy published in the local press.

The Board of Education staff refused a verbal public information act request for a copy of the letter, taking the unusual tack of asking for a written request instead.

Later in the missive, the Board of Education accuses Shockley: “You work consistently to make our ‘relationship’ one-sided, combative, and almost adversarial.”

Recent comments by Board of Education members in the press, Shockley said, show that the seven- member body wants to mend fences with the County Commissioners and he will take them at their word.

Shockley went on to say that the Board of Education would have to decide on an approach.

“You can’t have it both ways. Either they want to mend fences or they want to make war,” Shockley said. Cook said it was unfortunate that the Board of Education and the County Commissioners must now take a more formal approach to communications. The commissioners were told several times about overruns, and Cook maintains it was clear the school system was going to come up short in making up the difference.

“In a county as small and as intertwined as Worcester, it is impossible for information like this to remain unknown,” the letter reads.

The county requires funding requests to be in writing, however.

“The commissioners should have been made aware in writing of the need for additional funding in the 2008 budget, and they didn’t,” Shockley said. “They know what the protocol is and they just didn’t do it.”

No one would or could confirm rumors that the county met with the Board of Education shortly before the June 17 meeting, and promises were made about further cuts, which did not materialize, possibly irritating some commissioners further.

The final paragraph of the letter sets forth a demand: “Therefore, we the undersigned, as elected members of the Worcester County Board of Education are of unanimous opinion and singleness of mind that a full public apology be given to Dr. Jon Andes, Superintendent of Schools.”

To that, Shockley said yesterday, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” 

Cook said, “What is so hard about saying, I’m sorry? What is so hard about saying, I lost my temper?”

While Shockley does not plan on making a public apology to Andes, he said he would be meeting with the superintendent privately in the near future to discuss this issue and others.

The school board is now putting together a plan to handle overruns in the future and is looking to create an annual contingency fund to cover such problems in the future.

“We’re not going to go back to the commissioners. Programs, supplies, they are going to be cut. We are going to build our own reserve fund,” Cook said.     

The Board of Education is scheduled to meet with the County Commissioners in August to propose that plan.  

“They’ll present that and life will go on,” said Shockley.