James Kelley announces School Board run

James Kelley announces School Board run

By Ruthann Carr

Weeks ago before the University of Virginia (U.Va.) men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four, James Kelley chose 6 p.m. Saturday to hold a party at his house to announce his run for the Palmyra District School Board seat.

Game day Saturday, April 6; tip-off time 6:05 p.m.

Kelley made it work.

With the game on multiple big-screen TVs, meat on the grill and drinks on ice, Kelley welcomed about 50 guests. After the game, Kelley announced his student-centered candidacy.

“If I’m lucky enough to sit behind that table the only metric I’ll use to make decisions is how it will affect the children,” Kelley said.

The Fluvanna Review asked Kelley several questions about himself and his run for School Board.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a business consultant and data analyst. Most of my life has revolved around education – I’m the product of a public school system in a county with a great deal of similarities to Fluvanna. I graduated from St. Mary’s College, a public honors college in Maryland, I received my Ph.D. in political science a few months ago from Temple University, and I’ve taught about a dozen classes at the graduate and undergraduate level.

Some of my professional experience includes conducting research for universities. Most of my opportunities and success have been possible because of my education – because of teachers and professors who mentored me, who saw talent and encouraged me to want more. I hope to be an advocate for the students of Fluvanna so that they have similar opportunities.

Why are you running for School Board?

I’m running because I’ve been the beneficiary of a strong community, amazing teachers, and encouraging mentors. Now that I’m finished with my Ph.D., it’s time to give back. This is one way I can positively impact others’ lives.

Why now? [Current Palmyra representative] Brenda Pace has served on the School Board faithfully for eight years. I’ve seen firsthand the importance of the decisions she’s made and the compassion with which she approaches them. As she retires, it’s time for someone to step forward and serve. I’m running because I think my personal, professional and educational experiences make me a strong advocate for students.

Do you have children and if so, where are they schooled?

We do not have children yet. There were a lot of things we wanted to accomplish before starting our family. First, we wanted to be embedded in a community we cared about. Second, we wanted to own our own home. Third, we wanted to be finished with school. We feel like we’re there now, as I just completed my Ph.D. in January. My wife, Sharon Kelley, finished a few years ago. We’re excited for the next chapter of our lives that includes things like a family and increased community service.

By statute, candidates for School Board are to run independent of party affiliation. Why do you think that is?

I think this may be one of the smartest statutes in the Virginia code. I don’t believe political parties serve any purpose with regards to School Boards. A School Board member’s focus should be on those who will ultimately be impacted by their policies, including students, parents, teachers, staff and administration. When politics become an issue, these groups suffer. Frankly, I believe if School Board members consider their (D) or (R) identification before casting a vote, they are doing a great disservice to the community.

It’s pretty obvious many School Board members line up ideologically with one political party or another. How do you feel about party politics and how they should or shouldn’t affect what a School Board member does or how they vote?

I believe every School Board decision should be evaluated based on its impact on students. If proposals are not in the students’ best interest then they should not be adopted.

How much time per month do you feel a School Board member should be willing to put into the job?

The business of the School Board ebbs and flows throughout the year depending on where we are in the budgetary cycle. …I think an elected member should be willing to put as much time as is required for them to contribute meaningfully to the community. I’m fortunate that I work at home and feel like I have a large amount of time to dedicate to the School Board. I can tell you that I’m spending about 20 hours a week now attending school-related meetings and talking to parents. If I’m lucky enough to serve the Palmyra district I don’t see that time commitment changing.

How do you think the School Board should approach the annual budget? In the most recent budget-building sessions, a Board member didn’t want to just start with last year’s budget as a base, but build it from the ground up. Others expressed frustration that the budget goes up every year. What are your thoughts?

I’m not shocked that budgets rise over time – the cost of labor and materials rise globally each year. School systems are not immune to these factors. That said, I’m a data analyst and business consultant and I believe that strategic planning is critical to any organization’s success.

I believe budgets should be based on the previous year’s planned and actual expenditures. It’s helpful to start with the previous year’s budget as a base case, because most of the changes that happen year to year are likely to happen on the margins. For instance, salaries and infrastructural costs are unlikely to change greatly. But within discretionary and programmatic spending, we should be eager to reassess our priorities. Specifically, line by line: What are we spending the money on, what outcomes did we expect or anticipate from spending the money, and is it working? Are there new ideas that merit funding at the expense of these other things? Ultimately it’s the School Board’s responsibility to spend the budget wisely and, as the old adage says, “do more with less.” It’s my hope to bring metric-driven decision making to the budget process.

What do you see as budget priorities?

My biggest priorities, in no particular order, are:

Career and technical education

Regardless of where students are headed after high school, Fluvanna graduates must have the skills necessary to be successful. …Right now we have about 12 strong CTE programs which are doing great things to prepare students for both college and the workforce. …I’m committed to protecting, funding and expanding our offerings as we can afford to do so. Specifically, we don’t have classes for students who want to become welders, electricians or auto mechanics. I’d love to start a partnership with local businesses so we can prepare students for careers in these fields, among others.

Competitive, reliable teacher pay

Teachers are some of the most undervalued professionals in the workforce. Fluvanna has a responsibility to provide teachers with competitive and reliable pay. I believe we need to compare what we pay with those counties we compete against, and close those gaps so we can attract the best and brightest teachers. I believe we should smooth the scale over time so teachers can anticipate and receive reliable increases in pay. The existing steps, which offer small increases followed by larger increases at particular years of service, make it difficult for Fluvanna to honor their commitment in years when a large teacher cohort hits those milestones. I will work hard to provide a competitive starting salary and provide reliable increases so that teachers receive what we promise them.

Low student-teacher ratio

Gaps in academic achievement between students appear early in education and do not narrow over time. In other words, these performance gaps are real and they are often permanent. One tool we have in our arsenal to prevent them from occurring is individualized attention. Students learn at different paces, and respond to teaching techniques differently, but the smaller the class sizes, especially in grades K-2, the more time a teacher has to focus on each student and discover how they learn best.

Mental and behavioral health

According to a national study, one in five children has a diagnosable emotional, behavioral or mental health disorder. These disorders require specialized treatment by qualified mental health professionals. Public schools can’t provide all the services that students require, but we must have the specialized staff to help teachers identify students with needs, assist in treatment planning, and advocate for students and parents to receive services.

Fluvanna County Public Schools has one social worker for 3,500 students spread across six buildings. The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students (and 1:150 for students with intensive needs). That means Fluvanna has about 13 fewer social workers than is recommended. We can’t make up that difference overnight, but having more mental and behavioral health professionals will leader to better outcomes for students and provide teachers with additional support.

School safety

School safety is an issue I’ve been hearing a lot about as I knock on doors and have conversations with parents. Specifically, I hear a lot about bullying and physical safety. In order to learn, students must be rested, well-nourished, and feel safe in their environment. When these basic needs aren’t met, students aren’t at their best. I will fight to ensure that students are safe in our buildings and that we continue to identify bullying early and prevent it. I know the current board is having conversations about this and that the administration is working on bullying prevention. I’m eager to join these conversations and help produce thoughtful solutions.

Students of color are disproportionately represented in discipline issues. Do you think that’s a problem, and if so, what solutions do you propose?

A 2013-14 non-partisan study by the Government Accountability Office revealed that students of color, boys, and students with disabilities are statistically overrepresented in all discipline categories nationwide. According to a 2017 presentation by Dr. James Mathieson, the Fluvanna director of testing and accountability, Fluvanna’s discipline data reveals a similar trend for students of color and for those students who come from less wealthy families (as defined by free and reduced lunch qualification). Fluvanna is not alone; this is a nationwide problem.

I believe the solution to most behavioral-discipline issues lies in smaller class sizes and adequate staffing of social workers and guidance counselors. Then, our great teachers and staff have more opportunities to work with their students, and when behavioral problems can’t be addressed in the classroom, social workers or guidance counselors can intervene ahead of formal disciplinary processes. If we give students and school personnel an opportunity to work through why the behavior problems exist, we have a better chance at keeping students in school and learning, as opposed to out of school and falling behind.

There’s a growing concern that students are tested too often. What are your thoughts?

Most of our testing is state or federally mandated. Even if the School Board wanted to halt all testing, they legally couldn’t without losing vital sources of funding. Standardized testing is helpful in a lot of a ways: It gives us the metrics we need to measure ourselves; it can help us track changes in performance across time and between demographic groups. However, I believe the burden for any non-mandated testing must be outweighed by the benefits our students will see from these evaluations.

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