School Board chair quizzed on contact with state about charter school

By Heather Michon

A quiet meeting of the School Board turned rancorous in its final moments on Wednesday (May 8) as members of the public questioned why Chairperson Andew Pullen (Columbia) had been in conversation with state officials about a charter school for Fluvanna County.

Ashleigh Crocker, who lives in the Cunningham District, found an email string between Pullen and high-ranking officials in the lieutenant governor’s office and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The correspondence, sent via Pullen’s School Board email account, began on April 2 when he asked Julieanne Szyper, the chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, for guidance. 

Szyper sent Pullen’s information and attached a draft application for the LIFE PREP charter school to Emily Anne Gullickson, Deputy Secretary of Education at the VDOE.

Gullickson emailed Pullen on April 9, saying, “This is the best news! I received confirmation from VDOE on Friday, April 5th, that they received your application and would be preparing it for committee review.”

On the morning of April 10, Pullen emailed Gullickson that the applicants “were hoping our local school board may sponsor it rather than the commonwealth because they were fearful that it may take a while to get through the process. I was more or less looking for feedback on the application, but whatever you all think is best is fine with me. Thank you for helping!

At the school board meeting later that same day, the board heard a presentation on the charter school application process and held a long public comment session, during which several citizens argued against the plan. 

During the public portion of the meeting, Pullen did not mention his contact with the state on the LIFE PREP application.

Joy Barisi, the parent who first proposed the plan, announced during the April 10 meeting that she would refine and submit her application through the VDOE, rather than seek a charter directly from the School Board.

The correspondence also shows that Pullen and Barisi were both invited to a Zoom meeting on April 30 with Gullickson and Secretary of Education Amy Guidera. 

To Crocker, even if Pullen’s actions were “not inappropriate,” his lack of transparency required “a full, honest, and respectful explanation.” 

“As another board member said at the last meeting, election season is over, but accountability season is just beginning,” Crocker concluded.

Rivanna District resident Kelsey Cowger told the board that she has a son about to start kindergarten, “and it is an understatement to say this has not filled me with confidence about the gentlemen of this board.” 

Cowger said she did not appreciate that a “school board chair would file an application for that charter in secret…that he would circumvent the other members of the board, and that he would push this whole process through with an absolute lack of transparency. I’m a parent. How am I, as a parent, supposed to trust that the board will put my kid’s agenda and my kid’s education above their own agendas and their own pet projects?”

The atmosphere did not get any less tense when it was the board members’ turn to comment.

When he learned about Pullen’s contact with the state, “I was pissed,” said James Kelley (Palmyra). “A board member who is one of five voices…I was displeased that one of the board members, without consulting anyone else at this table, did send the charter school application to the state.”

“Fundamentally,” said Kelley, “we act with one voice and when somebody using an official email address, sends something to the state. It would be an easy assumption that it is the voice of all five board members.”

Pullen argued that he had only reached out to officials in Richmond to get information and to connect Joy Barisi with people who might be able to help her. 

“I was not in any meeting. And if you read subsequent emails, it says I am not submitting anything. I’m asking you for your advice.”

After Kelley and Pullen had debated for several minutes, Charles Rittenhouse (Cunningham) abruptly cut Kelley off, asking “are you done?”

“Honestly, man, you can treat me with more respect than that,” Kelley said.

“I’m sorry, James, I don’t want to hear anymore,” said Rittenhouse.

Danny Reed (Fork Union) broke in, saying “I think we finish member comments and then we all pack it up and go home and eat dinner. Respectfully, if I need to make a motion, I’ll make a motion, but let’s move on from this.”

Rittenhouse then shared his concerns that graduating seniors hadn’t learned that life isn’t going to be “a free ride.”  

“There’ll be in the real world and have to work for what they earn and not have lunch given to them and stuff like that.”

In his final comments of the evening, Pullen read from an email he sent on April 18, saying in part, “I am the chair of the School Board where the proposal was initially submitted to our board. I am more or less just seeking advice on the charter school. You can provide me with any guidance as we move forward with the initial questions in our community. Joy Berisi is contact for questions or to schedule a meeting. I copied her on this email.”

“I don’t know how that can be any more clear,” he said before bringing the meeting to a close.

Pullen repeatedly defended his actions and his integrity and portrayed those who spoke against him as professional political figures inserting national politics into a local issue. 

While he said they had a right to speak out on issues, if he felt they acted disrespectfully, “they will be escorted out, whether it’s by me, whether it’s by Mr. Stribling, whether it’s by a deputy. If they act a fool, they’re leaving. We’re not going to tolerate it.”

In other business:

Josh Bower, architect for Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates, gave a detailed presentation on possible upgrades to the Abrams Academy. Constructed in 1936 and in almost constant use for the past 88 years, the building needs structural repairs and modernization in the coming years. 

FCHS Principal Margo Bruce and FCPS Executive Director Don Stribling showed board members the new vape detectors being installed in the schools. Bruce said there had been significant drops in the number of vape and THC pens, cigarettes, and alcohol confiscated on school grounds in the past year. She admitted that one challenge is figuring out the all the new places students find to hide banned items.

Superintendent Peter Gretz gave an update on the budget and end-of-year activities. Staff is also working to keep some parts of the FCHS graduation ceremony short in order to maximize the time each of the 300 plus graduates has on stage to receive their diplomas. 

Related Posts

dewi88 cuanslot dragon77 cuan138 enterslots rajacuan megahoki88 ajaib88 warung168 fit188 pusatwin pusatwin slot tambang88 mahkota88 slot99 emas138