Possible “Pay to Play” and Contract Violations

It was brought to the attention of VB SPARK Education Association that Dr. Aaron Spence, Superintendent of Virginia Beach Public Schools, has been attending conferences outside of the division for which he may have been paid. Dr. Spence has attended at least one conference organized by a company called ERDI.  ERDI pays Superintendents to attend conferences in order to connect them to vendors whose goal is to implement their products in the school divisions. These vendors pay up to $66,000 to have access to participating school officials.

It is very clear in the Superintendent’s contract that he cannot have outside employment without the prior approval of the School Board. Nowhere in School Board records does it indicate that the Board has discussed or voted to allow the Superintendent to have outside employment. The majority of the full School Board would have had to approve the employment.

It is also an apparent conflict of interest for a public official to receive payments from a company while having authority to enter into contracts with affiliated businesses. Indeed, the Virginia Beach Public Schools have subsequently entered into multiple contracts with ERDI partners. The following state law may therefore apply:

Virginia Code: § 2.2-3103. Prohibited conduct: No officer or employee of a state or local governmental or advisory agency shall: 6. Accept any business or professional opportunity when he knows that there is a reasonable likelihood that the opportunity is being afforded him to influence him in the performance of his official duties.

Virginia Conflict of Interest Act: https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacodepopularnames/state-and-local-government-conflict-of-interests-act

The School Auditor and the Commonwealth’s Attorney are currently investigating this matter. We do not prejudge the outcome of their investigations, and urge all parties to extend the presumption of innocence until all of the relevant facts have come to light, and the associated legal processes have taken their course. However, the situation certainly raises very serious questions to which the parents, citizens, and taxpayers of our community deserve answers.


A Mixed Report on Pre-K

Three researchers studied the effects of Pre-Kindergarten programs on subsequent academic and performance and behavior, and reached some surprising conclusions.  Mark W. Lipsey, Dale C. Farran and Kelley Durkin* conducted a randomized trial involving nearly 3,000 children in a Tennessee pre-kindergarten program.  These children were 4-year-olds who qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch.  The students’ subsequent progress was tracked through 3rd grade by use of standardized achievement tests and various behavioral measures.
As could be anticipated (and consistent with earlier studies), the pre-K participants performed better than the control group at the start of the kindergarten year.  However, the study’s findings then took an unexpected turn:
During the kindergarten year and thereafter, the control children caught up with the pre-K participants on those [achievement] tests, and generally surpassed them….  [Furthermore,] the pre-K group had lower retention rates in kindergarten, and higher rates of school violations in later years.
This points to the need for further research, to determine a means to close the long term performance gap.  Parents and taxpayers will need to reset their expectations of what can be achieved in a pre-K program.  In addition, there are important policy implications, calling for a re-examination of which government interventions might be justified expenditures of public funds.
*”Effects of the Tennessee Prekindergarten Program on children’s achievement and behavior through third grade,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (April 2018).

VB SPARK Annual Meeting August 15

VB SPARK Education Association will hold its 2018 Annual Meeting on Wednesday, August 15, 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. at the Great Neck Library.  We will receive the Annual Report from the President, and elect members of the Board of Directors.  We will also discuss our program and objectives for the next year.

Great Neck Library is located at 1251 Bayne Drive, which is off of Old Donation Parkway.


Gov. Northam Signs Disciplinary Reform Bills

Earlier this month Governor Northam signed bills that cap suspensions of children in pre-K through 3rd grade at three days, and reduces the maximum long-term suspensions from 364 to 45 days.   These reforms are intended to address the racial disparity in suspension rates identified by the U.S. Department of Education, and replace exclusionary discipline with opportunities for reflection and making amends.

As the linked articles and studies below show, however, the practical outcome of such measures has been a disaster wherever they have been tried.   School violence has increased dramatically, teachers no longer feel safe, and administrators are punishing teachers  who complain.  Students who are genuinely there to learn are suffering continued classroom disruptions.   As a community we must come together and find effective solutions to the school discipline problem.


Virginia Beach schools see a drop in suspensions. But teachers feel less safe:   https://tinyurl.com/y8wdvyo2

Dozens of teachers terrorized by out-of-control students flee school district:   https://nypost.com/2017/11/21/dozens-of-teachers-terrorized-by-out-of-control-students-flee-school-district/

Harrisburg teachers appeal to district for help with in-classroom behavioral issues:  https://www.pennlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/11/harrisburg_teachers_appeal_to.html

Chaos after ‘White Privilege’ Theory Influences Discipline Rules:

Obama-Era Initiative Wrong for Students and Teachers, Wrong on the Law:



Sugar Consumption Data for Small Children

Over the weekend, Kirsten Herrick, an epidemiologist for the National Center for Health Statistics, presented data from 2011-2014 on the consumption of added sugars in U.S. children aged 6 – 23 months.  The results are startling:  toddlers between 12 and 18 months averaged 5.5 teaspoons per day, while those between 19 and 23 months averaged 7.1 teaspoons per day.  The latter exceeds the limit of 6 teaspoons set by the American Heart Association for adult women.
These figures are particularly troubling because high childhood sugar consumption adversely affects cognition (and hence school work), and it has been linked to obesity, asthma, diabetes, tooth decay, and possibly infectious disease.  Moreover, once a child has developed a sweet tooth, it becomes harder to adopt more healthful eating habits later in life.
One way for parents to help reduce their children’s sugar consumption is to limit soft drinks, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages.  Desserts should be reserved for special occasions, and not be a component of every meal. Children should be taught to make better choices during snack time and in the school cafeteria.  Only in this way can we reverse the bitter trend.
The original study is here:

A Theory of School Violence

Looking for answers after yet another school shooting, I came across an old article by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink,
 The Tipping Point, and other popular books on social psychology.  In “Thresholds of Violence: How School Shootings Catch On,” published in The New Yorker in 2015, Gladwell offered an intriguing theory for the accelerating rate of mass murder in schools since Columbine. Gladwell drew on the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, who explained the related phenomenon of riots in the following way:

“…A riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them… Riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice… and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was….”
In this view, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, threw the first rock through the window (the first, at least, in the age of the new media).  That riot has now spread, as social acceptance of unspeakable violence has ensnared the troubled young men with the lowest thresholds.  Can this explain, at some level, the horrific events of the past week?  
Read the original article here:

VB School Board Member Featured on WAVY

Carolyn Weems, member of the VB School Board, was featured in a news segment on WAVY on May 3, 2018.  The broadcast highlighted her efforts to educate the public on the opioid crisis.  In memory of her daughter, who she lost following a long struggle with prescription painkillers for athletic injuries, she has founded Caitlin’s HALO, which stands for Helping Addicts and their Loved Ones.  She is working with the city to create a transitional home for women recovering from addiction.  Her efforts also include an education fund and community outreach.  Here is a link to the article and video clip:


SB Member Carolyn Weems to Speak April 18

VB SPARK will hold a meeting of its general membership on Wednesday, April 18, at 6:30 p.m., in the atrium at Princess Anne High School.

Carolyn Weems, member of the Virginia Beach School Board, will speak about “Educating Students and the Public about the Opioid Crisis.”

After graduating from Clemson University, Carolyn married her college sweetheart, Billy, and moved to Virginia Beach. They coached tennis and baseball at Old Dominion University, started an advertising specialty company and had 5 children. Mrs. Weems has spent the last three decades volunteering in schools, churches and various community groups.

In 2002, Mrs. Weems was elected to the Virginia Beach School Board and re-elected in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Her passion stems from a long family history of educators and her desire to advocate and improve the educational opportunities for students with learning disabilities.

In 2013, Carolyn and her family’s lives were drastically altered when her daughter, Caitlyn, died from a heroin overdose. As a result of her painful journey, Mrs. Weems speaks and works at the national, statewide and local levels to promote awareness and education about the devastating opioid epidemic our country and community are experiencing. She shared her story in “Heroin, the Hardest Hit,” a documentary released by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. She also leads the Outreach Team of the Hampton Roads Opioid Work Group to help develop holistic community driven solutions to the current drug crisis. She is especially proud of being instrumental in expanding the health curriculum in Virginia Beach and testifying for HB1532 that ensures opioid specific education be implemented at all public schools in the Commonwealth. As a result of her motivation and determination, Mrs. Weems is the recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award and the Human Rights Commission Award.

Mrs. Weems has established Caitlyn’s HALO, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Helping Addicts and Loved Ones. Please feel free to contact Carolyn at caitlynshalo@gmail.com.

Teachers: Please Take Our School Discipline Survey

Please let me invite all teachers for the Virginia Beach City Public Schools to take our School Discipline Survey.  It should only take a minute or two, and your responses will remain anonymous.  The survey is here:


Thank you for helping us with this effort!

We’re Paying Too Much for New Schools

Following below is cost comparison information for school replacement construction.  All of the figures were obtained from the Virginia Beach City Public Schools website, and the Virginia Department of Education website.  It contains all of the relevant state averages going back to the 2014-2015 school year.

As you can see, we are consistently spending more per pupil and per square foot for our new schools than the state average — in some cases about twice as much or more!   Clearly we should be demanding cost savings.  Those dollars could have gone to teacher salaries, school safety, or a property tax reduction.


Kellam High School:

Original Building Opened: September 1962
Groundbreaking: September 30, 2011
Construction Start Date/Site Work: Winter 2010/11
Construction Start Date/Building: Summer 2011
Projected Completion: Spring 2014
Student Capacity: 2000
Current Student Membership: 1838
Building Size: 336,410 sq. ft. (two stories)
Total CIP Project Cost: $102 million
Architect: HBA Architecture
Site Contractor: A&W Contractors, Inc.
General Contractor: S.B. Ballard Construction Co.
Cost per pupil:  $55,495.10
Cost per s.f.:  $303.20
New high schools 2017-2018 (none)
New high schools 2016-2017
Loudoun County HS
Cost per pupil:  $46,945.00
Cost per s.f.:  $289.92
Loudoun County Median Household Income:  $134,464 (#1 in US in 2016) (source: U.S. Census Bureau)
Virginia Beach Median Household Income:  $61,805 (source: U.S. Census Bureau)
New high schools 2015-2016 (none)
New high schools 2014-2015
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $35,690
Statewide average cost per s.f. $175.65
Old Donation School (Brickell Academy):

Original Building Opened:
Old Donation Center (ODC) – 1965
Kemps Landing Magnet School (KLMS) – 1957
Design Start Date: November 2011
Construction Start Date: Summer 2014
Projected Completion Date: Fall 2017
Student Capacity: 1,375
(ODC-450; KLMS-750; Pullout Programs-175)
Building Size: 225,785 sq. ft. (two – three stories)
Total CIP Project Cost: $63,615,000(+)
Architect: RRMM Architects
Contractor: McKenzie Construction Corporation
Cost per pupil:  $46,265.45*
Cost per s.f.:  $281.75
Campostella K-8 STEM School (Norfolk), 2015-2016
Cost per pupil:  $25,919
Cost per s.f.:  $148.86
Also compare with middle school and elementary school averages following below.
Thoroughgood ES:
Original Building Opened: 1958
Groundbreaking: TBD
Construction Start Date: 2018
Projected Completion: 2020
New Building Capacity: 648
Current Student Membership: 677
Existing Building Size: 66,259 sq. ft.
New Building Size: approx. 94,000 sq. ft.
Total CIP Project Cost: $28.3 million
Architect: VIA Design Architects
General Contractor: TBD
Cost per pupil:  $41,802
Cost per s.f.:  $301.06
New elementary schools 2017-2018
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $29,172
Statewide average cost per s.f. $199.50
New elementary schools 2016-2017
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $26,319
Statewide average cost per s.f. $158.34
New elementary schools 2015-2016
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $22,025
Statewide average cost per s.f. $169.46
Richard H. Bowling Jr. ES  (Norfolk), 2015-2016
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $23,555
Statewide average cost per s.f. $157.32
Ocean View ES (Norfolk), 2015-2016
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $23,066
Statewide average cost per s.f. $168.80
Larchmont ES (Norfolk), 2015-2016
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $24,479
Statewide average cost per s.f. $170.77
New elementary schools 2014-2015
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $25,035
Statewide average cost per s.f. $185.27
Princess Anne MS:
Original Building Opened: 1974
Existing Building Demolition: Summer/Fall 2017
Groundbreaking: TBD
Construction Start Date: 2018
Projected Completion: 2021
New Building Capacity: 1,500
Current Student Membership: 1,479
New Building Size: 222,571 sq. ft.
Total CIP Project Cost: $78.9 million
Architect: RRMM Architects
Demolition Contractor: R. J. Smith Construction Inc.
General Contractor: TBD
Cost per pupil: $53,346.86
Cost per s.f.:  $354.49
New middle schools 2016-2017
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $36,384
Statewide average cost per s.f. $201.45
New middle schools 2015-2016
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $36,256
Statewide average cost per s.f. $198.11
New middle schools 2014-2015
Statewide average cost per pupil:  $40,121
Statewide average cost per s.f. $179.12
(+) This total contains cost of the site as well.
*Cost per pupil is based on current student membership, if available; otherwise, building capacity is used.
**Cost comparison data is from the Virginia Department of Education: