Let Us Now Praise (not-so) Famous Men and Women ...

Our friend and colleague, John Butcher, is featured in Style Weekly's cover story this week about "The Instigators."  The article, conceived and written by Style's Arts and Culture Editor Don Harrison and Style newcomer, Vernal Coleman, features mini-profiles of several Richmonders who work to hold officials accountable -- C. Wayne Taylor, Rick Tatnall, Mo Karn and the Wingnuts and, of course, the inimitable Mr. Butcher. 

This is a "Style Power List" that deserves to be expanded and repeated.  The entire Style staff, and especially photographer Scott Elmquist, deserve praise for the project that explores how individuals can and do make a difference in our community.  And, of course, Harrison's work as co-editor and author of the award-winning "Save Richmond" blog, is inspiration and proof to all that it is possible to fight City Hall and the power brokers in this town who would like us all to believe that we are powerless. 

More's the pity, however, that there wasn't sufficient space to include details about the accomplishments these "Instigators," a motley crew for sure, have had in their quest to shed light on the ways Richmond officials do business and spend our taxpayer dollars.  I know some of Butcher's accomplishments and would like to know more about the accomplishments of others featured in the article. 

Among the most charming and disarming characteristics of "the cranky" Mr. Butcher -- a  former chemistry professor at Hampden-Sydney and a University of Virginia Law School-trained litigator -- are his sense of the sublime and his stone-serious intellect.  He is a no-nonsense fellow when it comes to defining a problem and determining the most effective way to solve it.  Add to that, his encyclopedic knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and his dispassionate ability to wield it as a sword hacking away at the bureaucratic obfuscation designed to keep the curious at bay.

Butcher's track record is not simply a saga of "Sound and Fury," but a tale of action and accomplishment. Were it not for his encouragement and expertise, we would have never been able to blow the whistle on the unscrupulous way that the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) was allowing school superintendents across the Commonwealth to jack up their SOL scores by misidentifying students as having disabilities.  We posted the results of our investigation on our respective blogs, The Cranky Taxpayer and Save Our Schools, published  a two-part series on the Bacon's Rebellion online journal and sent our data and research to reporters at Style Weekly, The Washington Post, The Virginian Pilot and The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

We sent the same information to every member of the General Assembly and to the Virginia Secretary of Education, Gerard Robinson.  Despite Richmond’s improved, but still low scores for all pupils, we found the system’s children with disabilities scored higher than the state average for kids with disabilities. Yet come graduation, only 32 percent of Richmond’s students with disabilities graduate. We showed how Richmond had classified 28 percent of its black male pupils as disabled.

And, our efforts helped change the law. Richmond citizens Arthur Burton and John Lloyd took our information to Delegate John O'Bannon III, (R-73rd District) a physician specializing in neurology. O'Bannon shared their concerns about the blatant abuse of the system and patroned House Bill 304 during the last legislative session. Despite Virginia Department of Education efforts to block it, the bill sailed through the General Assembly. The bill unanimously passed by both the House and Senate was signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Legislators and even some officials at VDOE acknowledged privately that HB304 was the direct result of the investigative work Butcher and I did and of our efforts to publicize the problem.  Several legislators also said our evidence was so overwhelming it convinced them that elementary and middle schools in Richmond, and across Virginia, were essentially cheating by using the Virginia Grade Level Assessment (VGLA) to inflate pass rates.

When VDOE realized HB304 would pass and that it would include language directing VDOE to eliminate the VGLA, State Supt. Patricia Wright finally took action and announced that VDOE would be phasing the VGLA out.  She acknowledged that one unintended consequence of the high-stakes testing was that many school divisions dramatically increased their use of the VGLA.  An analysis by the Virginian Pilot found that "nearly 23 percent of eligible students in Portsmouth taking the alternative and just over 12 percent of eligible students in Chesapeake taking it. Statewide, about 11 percent of eligible students take the VGLA."  Whereas, when Butcher crunched the numbers, he found that in Richmond 76 percent of the eligible students at Bellevue Elementary used the VGLA for math and 75 percent of Overby-Sheppard's eligible students used the VGLA for reading assessments.  To see the complete Richmond listings, scroll down the far right hand column on this page.  The data for the charts was provided by Charles Pyle at the VDOE.

We have already seen that requiring the Buchanan school system to stop cheating on the VGLA has produced dramatic drops in their SOL scores. We can look forward to the same thing in Richmond and the other cheating jurisdictions as the scrutiny cuts their cheating.

Click on the links below to read about other matters we've researched:
  • Richmond now admits it was cheating on the VGLA;
  • John blows the whistle on VCU's coverup of the VGLA scoring;
  • We reveal that VDOE turns a blind eye to the ethically challenged practice of allowing various school superintendents to  report the SOL scores from the regional Maggie Walker and Appomattox Governor's School at the wrong schools in order to boost SOL Scores.  Again, we sent our information to bloggers, reporters, parents, politicians and concerned citizens.
  • Sadly, the deceptive practice continues. Dr. Bob Holsworth* on his Virginia Tomorrow blog posted an article, "Free Maggie Walker," that decried VDOE's condonation of the practice.  Holsworth noted a Richmond Times-Dispatch story by reporter Holly Prestidge, but kindly acknowledged the research John Butcher and I published on our respective blogs months prior. Kiel Stone, who edits the Bacon's Rebellion blog and Valerie Catrow at RVANews.com each deserve shout outs for bringing this issue into the open. Even the folks on the Richmond Times Dispatch Editorial Page agreed with us that Maggie Walker deserves better!
  • Incredibly, Richmond continues to lament its lack of money while it simultaneously continues to squander money despite repeated audits in 2007 , 2008 , 2009 from Umesh Dalal, City of Richmond Internal Auditor and Inspector general reports that conclusively show RPS spends money like a drunken sailor on leave while demonstrating little to no familiarity with the requirements of the Virginia Public Procurement Act (VPPA).
  • Butcher's analytical abilities and knowledge of the VPPA have proven to be valuable assets, both during the six years I served on the board [2002-2008] and since.  As the sole member and chair of a subcommittee tasked to find money to bring our city schools into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we closely followed the RPS (mis)managed money trail.  After Zachary Reid at the Richmond Times Dispatch reported problems with the procurement process to design and build elevators in two Richmond schools, I asked for Butcher's take on the issue.  Armed with data and legal analysis he provided, I then asked RPS administration to investigate whether the district had violated the Virginia Public Procurement Act (VPPA). 
  • Their response was to have the RPS internal auditor do a sloppy audit of the Fox elevator procurement.  When that audit didn't pass the smell-test, RPS then took even sloppier unlawful second try to get it right.  Disappointed and dismayed, I pushed Supt. Yvonne Brandon and the School Board attorney to ask for Commonwealth Attorney Michael Herring's opinion. 
  • After Herring read Butcher's analysis, he determined the matter merited review. His comment at the time was priceless: "[The goal is to] "determine if a person was intentionally trying to circumvent the statutes and was hoping to enjoy some pecuniary gain, or whether it was just a case of laziness and stupidity," Herring said. "If you've read the audit, you know it's clearly one or the other."  Herring ultimately determined that the procurement problems happened NOT for pecuniary gain or to circumvent the law. Therefore ....
  • John won his Freedom of Information Act Suit against RPS, but Richmond Circuit Court Judge Melvin Hughes was so dismayed and disgusted by RPS' efforts to withhold documents that he ruled in favor of John and  in  favor also "permanently enjoined" RPS to comply with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") in its responses to any future requests from plaintiff for public records."
  • VDOE admits that Richmond has been encouraging cheating by the Teachers.
  • And, there is so much more to tell.  Click here to visit CrankyTaxpayer.org and see for yourself.
To those who seek to disparage our work and wonder what our "agenda" really is when we write about VDOE and the problems of public education in Richmond, the answer is simple:  We live here.  As long as Richmond's schools fail to use our considerable tax dollars to provide educations that help ALL our children, our city and the entire region suffers.  And, if the schools' problems are intentionally disguised and distorted by cheerleaders coached to sing "happy-songs" in unison, how can we honestly expect to fix the system?

No matter how daunting it can be to educate urban school children, poverty is not an acceptable excuse to absolve school administrators and elected officials at any level of not trying their best or of outright lying to the people who pay their salaries. Nor, is it acceptable to brand children with disabilities simply to improve a school system's pass rate. Such actions deprive school systems of the usefulness of true measures of performance and to skew the use of resources in public schools.  Worst of all -- this hurts our children.

So, my heartfelt thanks to John Butcher for helping bring attention and needed change to the way public education is administered in Virginia.  And, my thanks to the good people at Style Weekly who took the time to recognize him and other (not-so) famous men and women in our community.