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Can Chesterfield help struggling Petersburg schools?

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - “I feel we’ve lost a generation of students in Petersburg,” Virginia Sen. Tommy Norment (R – New Kent County) said when asked to explain his proposal to allow Chesterfield County Schools to take over some administrative duties from Petersburg Schools.

The senate has set $1.6 million in its budget to make it happen.

In addition to schools that continue to fail to meet accreditation numbers, Sen. Norment cited superintendent turnover and difficultly recruiting school board candidates as reasons for change.

“Unfortunately Petersburg has been struggling for more than a decade to try to get their educational program moving in a more positive direction. I think the General Assembly has shown a lot of patience, unfortunately they  continue to have some struggles,” Sen. Norment said. “There are those of us in the General Assembly who feel we have a responsibility to the young people in Petersburg to try and do something meaningful to move that along.”

Sen. Tommy Norment (R - New Kent County)

Sen. Tommy Norment (R – New Kent County)

The proposal, Sen. Norment said, is just a voluntary suggestion at this point.

“If this does not work. If for some reason Petersburg is resistant to it, there are those who want to stick their political noses in it to stir up problems, we will move forward with something more dramatic in 2015 that will compel some changes,” Sen. Norment warned.

Henry Marsh

Sen. Henry Marsh

Sen. Henry Marsh (D – Richmond), who represents portions of Richmond, Chesterfield, and Petersburg, does not agree with the notion of Chesterfield helping Petersburg Schools.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate response for the state to make,” Sen. Marsh said. “To suggest they [Petersburg Schools] have to be taken over by a neighboring jurisdiction, which doesn’t want them, and they don’t want to go, is a bad policy.”

Sen. Marsh said  Petersburg Schools are going ahead with plans to fund year-round programs, a plan gaining support in the community.

He said the money that would go to Chesterfield Schools in this proposal would be better spent hiring more qualified teachers in Petersburg.

“I think the best way is to give Petersburg the resources they have been denied all these  years.  The new administration has been in one year. To expect them to come in and correct problems that have been hanging out for 20 years is unrealistic,” Sen. Marsh said.

“I think Senator Marsh is part of the problem,” Sen. Norment said when asked about Sen. Marsh’s suggestion. “I think  he is trying to aggravate the situation. I do not know why.”

Sen. Norment said,  if approved, the school set-up would be similar to one that exists between schools in Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax.

A spokeswoman for Petersburg Schools said the school system was “aware of the budget amendment” and was surprised to learn about the proposal.

“We will stay abreast of developments from the General Assembly regarding this issue,” Petersburg Schools spokeswoman Nicole Bell said in a statement.

Chesterfield County Schools had a similar response.

“The administrations of Chesterfield Schools and Chesterfield County have been made aware of budget language included by the Senate Finance Committee. We will continue to monitor the budget language, and would respectfully refer any questions to the Virginia legislature,” Chesterfield County Schools spokesman Shawn Smith said via email.

The system would be similar to one that already exists in Northern Virginia.

The City of Fairfax school system and Fairfax County school system are two separate school systems that function together as one.

They each have their own school board, but only the county has the authority to make any decisions.

The special relationship began in Fairfax back in the 1960s, when Fairfax —then a town — decided to become a city.

When that happened, the city and county agreed the county would continue to manage the now city schools.

“By working together, they really give their students access to a much broader array of educational opportunities,” Fairfax Delegate David Bulova said.

Bulova says the set up can only work with two willing partners.

“You need to be able to structure it in a way so that everybody’s interests are respected and you can honestly work together,” Bulova said.

Parent Gary Powers moved to the Midlothian from the City of Fairfax nearly nine years ago.

The Chesterfield County School Board candidate said the relationship between the two Fairfax school systems works.

“They were able to work it, so it was a benefit to both localities,” Powers said.

But, he’s not sure yet if that same arrangement will succeed in Chesterfield and Petersburg.

“Just because it works in the city of Fairfax, doesn’t mean it’s going to automatically work down here,” Powers said.

Delegate Bulova said if Chesterfield County and Petersburg end up collaborating, the school board in Fairfax could provide advice on how to make it work.