In what School Board Chairman Tim Hurst called an “open letter to the Pulaski County Community,” the school board expressed strong support for embattled School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers.
The statement comes following harsh criticism of Siers from throughout the community, following his being rebuked by members of the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff, Commonwealth’s Attorney and others. Siers was criticized for having made what many have called disparaging comments about members of the community, clergy and the Sheriff’s Office.
Hurst read the four-page statement from the board during a meeting on Wednesday evening at the School Board office. The meeting was scheduled originally as being a closed session so the board could consult with legal counsel. Later an item on the meeting agenda was added pertaining to personnel actions within the school system.
About 20 or so citizens attended the meeting and remained in attendance for over an hour as the board met in closed session in an upstairs conference room.
It was after the board returned to the meeting room that Hurst read the statement.
“The Board is aware of apprehension and fear in the community based on a campaign of misinformation and a corresponding lack of understanding of the Board’s equity initiatives,” Hurst began. “We wish to set the record straight.”
Hurst continued that “Some in the community have been spreading false, malicious, and defamatory information about Dr. Kevin Siers, who, since making Pulaski County his home, has championed the Pulaski County schools and its students in ways that will advance their interests for years to come.”
Hurst said “the Board is aware of some grumblings in the community about certain emails that Dr. Siers exchanged with the State Superintendent about Pulaski County Public Schools’ efforts to create a safe and supportive space for all children who attend our schools. Many of those individuals have cherry-picked words and phrases from the emails to support a political narrative that is not reflective of Dr. Siers’ efforts to advance the interests of Pulaski County students. A full reading of the dialogue with the State Superintendent and his staff would reveal a different narrative.”
“Rarely is there a time when a body such as this School Board comes out to throw its support behind its chief officer, but rarely is there a time when such an officer is so poorly maligned for his efforts. The Board finds that it is appropriate to remind the community of but a few of Dr. Siers’ achievements on behalf of Pulaski County students since he began his tenure almost five years ago,” Hurst said.
Hurst then went on to list 11 examples of why the community “has been fortunate to have Dr. Siers as its superintendent.”
“A true leader inspires others and provides them with the tools for success. Here are just a few ways that Dr. Siers has provided such leadership for our school division,” Hurst said and listed them:
- Pulaski County Middle School – Dr. Siers managed the entire process of building a new middle school in Pulaski County. At the outset, he retained a skilled and experienced Operations Director with the experience in new school construction, and together, they opened the new middle school in 18 months – on time and under budget – in a market in which construction costs were uncertain and soaring.
- Increased Salaries and Decreased Costs – Dr. Siers ensured pay increases for everyemployee in the division for each of the last four years. During this time of national teacher shortages, Dr. Siers placed Pulaski County back in a competitive position with revised pay schedules. Additionally, employee health insurance costs decreased to approximately one-half of the costs paid four years ago – all in a time in which health insurance premiums were rising nationally.
- Technology for every student – Prior to the start of the pandemic, Dr. Siers ensured that every Pulaski County student would have their own Chromebook, which placed technology in the hands of every child regardless of whether that child’s parents could afford access to a computer or internet service. Prior to the provision of the Chromebooks, many Pulaski County students were lagging behind their peers, making them less competitive for college admissions, scholarships, and post-graduate employment. Access to such technology also reduced one hurdle to remote learning at the start of the pandemic.
- School Resource Officers – For the past three years, a school resource officer has been stationed at every school in Pulaski County because of Dr. Siers’ efforts. While this decision was made over the objection of some members of the Board of Supervisors, this decision has been widely popular with Pulaski County families – especially in rural schools that are twenty miles or more away from the Sheriff’s office.
- Pandemic Leadership – While many school divisions in Virginia struggled with opening their doors to in-person learning, Pulaski County took the lead in holding in-person classes four days a week beginning in the Fall and was the first division in Southwest Virginia to hold full in-person instruction by March. Dr. Siers recognized the importance of in-person instruction and the need to keep our students, faculty, and staff as safe as practical in the face of tremendous uncertainty.
- Additional STEAM Programs – Dr. Siers added a drama program and robotics instructional program at the middle school. The drama program at the high school has been among the best in the State, and now the program has been extended into the middle schools. Moreover, the robotics program feeds into the high school’s cybersecurity program, which is also one of the best cybersecurity programs in the State. With over a half million new jobs in cybersecurity in this country with starting annual salaries in the $80-90,000 range, these programs position Pulaski County students to enter the job market as highly competitive candidates.
- Critzer Elementary Renovations – Dr. Siers recognized that building safety is a paramount concern and spearheaded renovations at Critzer Elementary to create a safe environment at a time when even local representatives in the General Assembly could not secure funding for school renovations.
- Fighting for Our Children – During the pandemic, the governor’s executive orders limited attendance numbers at sporting events. Recognizing the importance of extracurricular activities for Pulaski County families, Dr. Siers came up with a creative solution to hold multiple “events” so that families with children who played football, who cheered, or who played an instrument in the band all had equal opportunity to watch their children perform safely.
- Listening to Our Stakeholders – During his tenure, Dr. Siers began listening tours at all schools, providing an opportunity for teachers and staff to approach him with concerns and suggested solutions, new ideas, and questions. He then created advisory committees for parents, teachers, and students to brainstorm ideas to address those concerns and provide feedback on division initiatives before such initiatives were rolled out generally.
- Giving Back to our Community – Dr. Siers has made Pulaski County his home. He attends almost every student activity in Pulaski County to support our students and families; he volunteers his personal time at a local museum; and he knows more about the history of education in Pulaski County than many Pulaski County natives.
- Accreditation – Under Dr. Siers’ guidance, we achieved full accreditation for every school in the division in 2019 for the first time in many years. Dr. Siers recognizes, however, that full accreditation is not enough. The division must do more to address academic disparities in our historically marginalized communities, which is why he is spearheading the School Board’s equity initiatives to provide equity of opportunity to all Pulaski County families.
Hurst then brought up the school system’s equity initiatives.
“To address academic disparities in Pulaski County, the School Board has undertaken a mission to promote equity of opportunity. Contrary to public misinformation about these initiatives, the School Board’s mission is to level the playing field – to make all students feel welcome and valued in school regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, gender, faith expression, or disability,” he said.
“Because misinformation about the School Board’s equity initiatives is rampant, we wanted to highlight just a few initiatives that may fall under this umbrella in an effort to increase understanding of our goals,” Hurst continued, listing those:
- Universal free breakfast and free lunch and Community Meal Program –No child should go hungry. Because hunger can interfere with a student’s instructional experience, which will increase the educational achievement gap, all students in Pulaski County – regardless of their socioeconomic status – are eligible for free breakfast and free lunch. We partner with local churches to participate in the “backpack program,” and the community meal program ensures that students have access to healthy meals during the summer and school closures.
- Universal access to Chromebooks and internet access – Having early and readily available access to technology will enable our students to maintain a competitive edge with their peers, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.
- Partnerships with community resources – The School Division partners with community resources and organizations to provide opportunities to Pulaski County students. For example, the division partners with the TG Howard Community Center to provide clubs in the schools for all kids with safe and fun activities, including team-building activities and cultural activities. The Division has partnered with the YMCA during the pandemic to provide childcare, internet access, meals, and daily care for remote learners and their families. Further, the division has partnered with local law enforcement agencies that sponsor programs designed to foster career and community awareness and build relationships with Pulaski students.
- Restorative practices – The restorative practices program helps to keep students in school where they can receive instructional time while reducing discipline disparities and reducing the achievement gap for vulnerable students.
- Elimination of barriers to participation – Participation in CTE programs, the Advanced Placement curriculum and dual enrollment, arts, and after school programs has been shown to dramatically improve educational experiences and outcomes for children. The School Board is working to eliminate the barriers to participation in these programs in underserved and underrepresented student populations.
“These are just a few examples of programs that would fall under the School Board’s equity initiative. Like all other initiatives, the School Board welcomes input from parents, teachers, students, and staff as to how to reach traditionally marginalized communities, level the playing field, and promote overall academic success.
Hurst then addressed the issue of Critical Race Theory.
“While the School Board is actively engaged in promoting equity of opportunity for its students, it is not teaching Critical Race Theory as part of those efforts. Critical Race Theory is not included in the School Board’s curriculum or included in the current state standards of learning,” he said.
“All students, teachers, and staff are encouraged to appreciate their own cultures and life experiences as well as those of others. We grow as individuals and as a community when we expand to learn about the life experiences of others. Regardless of race, culture, customs, or traditions, everyone’s value is recognized and respected in our school division.”
About the much discussed transgender policies, Hurst said the school board will follow the law.
” The School Board is committed to following the law and respecting the rights of our students. Our policies are not, however, ‘indoctrinating’ children or advocating for any lifestyle as some in the community have expressed. Instead, we support every child’s right to live an authentic life in a safe, respectful, and nurturing environment. Every child should feel safe at school.
” We do not discriminate in our schools. Transgender students are not new to Pulaski County. We have accommodated students’ known needs for years, and we will continue to do so in an environment that is safe and respectful for all students. By way of example, we have private restrooms available for any child who wishes to use them regardless of the reason, and we are working to increase the number of private restrooms in our schools. We will continue to create safe spaces for all students, and we will work with any child on an individual basis to meet their needs for privacy, respect, and safety.”
Hurst said the school board wants the community to work with them.
“We welcome an opportunity to learn from you as we do the hard work to advance and support student learning in our community. In the upcoming weeks and months, the School Board anticipates promoting an Equity Summit where all elected leaders – School Board members, Board of Supervisors members, and Town Council members alike – business, community, and religious leaders; parents; teachers; staff; and students can come together to learn how we can build a better, stronger community based on equity of opportunity for all,” Hurst concluded.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot