Shelly Norden of Broad Run is running for the Scott District seat on the Fauquier County School Board. As a teacher in the district for 17 years, she has a unique perspective. For her, it’s not theoretical; decisions made at the school board level directly affect her, her colleagues and her students.
She addresses the teacher shortage crisis, for instance, with firsthand knowledge: “I know what needs to be done to keep good teachers in Fauquier County. I know why they are leaving and know, firsthand, the struggles they face every day in the classroom … So much of it has to do with how teachers are being treated.”
As an example, Norden said that even though state code requires a planning period for high school teachers, “they are forfeiting that planning time to cover extra classes because of a shortage of subs and administer exams. One teacher lost eight planning periods in the spring alone. I would like to see teachers paid for giving up that time.”
Norden said she’s never seen morale so low. “And it’s the kids who are paying the price.”
She continued, “I’ve read it costs upwards of $20,000 to train new teachers. If we spent some of that money paying for teacher degrees in exchange for 10 years of service, that is one way to keep teachers.” She clarified, “If teachers leave the county early, they would be required to pay back that money.”
Norden, an English teacher at Kettle Run High School who also runs the school’s journalism program, said she feels that there are too many administrative positions, and, she said, “many of the positions at the top are filled by people with no teaching experience, little teaching experience, or by people who have been out of the classroom for years.”
She asserted, “No new central office positions should be added until we have certified teachers in every classroom. Teachers spend the most time with our students and taxpayers deserve to have the best standing in the front of every classroom.”
Norden cites examples of art or physical education teachers who were hired to teach science classes. She said that a parent shared that her daughter took Spanish I with a teacher who did not know Spanish. She said, “If a student is having trouble in a class, parents may want to check to see if their teacher is certified in that subject. It may not be the student’s fault.”
Norden added, “Ask any student who has had the greatest impact on them in the school system. At least 90 percent will say a teacher. Yet, we spend the most money on the positions that have no direct impact on education. We need to focus on filling our classrooms with qualified teachers, not creating more high-paying positions up town.”
She acknowledged, “I have been told that I am too tough on administration. However, in my view, these are the people who are failing those of us on the front lines.”
Norden thinks of herself as a teacher, but also, a taxpayer. “I would love to see more transparency in spending,” she said. “Sixty-one cents out of every local tax dollar goes toward education. Where is all that money going? I shouldn’t have to look through 300-plus pages to try to decipher where that money is being spent.”
Norden believes that Fauquier County needs to adjust its spending priorities. She asks, “Why are we paying superintendents of small school districts more than the governor of Virginia? Our governor makes $175,000. (Superintendent of Schools) Dr. (David) Jeck makes $180,000, plus a $1,000-a-month car stipend. The superintendent makes four times what a starting teacher makes. He makes three times what a teacher who has taught in the county for 18 years makes.”
For positive change
Norden has some thoughts on how those who make decisions for the school division could develop a better understanding of the issues that teachers face. “I would love to see all central office employees and school board members sub in our schools at least five days out of every year. It’s important for everyone to participate in the education of our students.”
School board members, she said, “are too far removed from our schools. I have not seen one school board member just pop in during the instructional day. They typically show up to shake hands and pass out awards. They need to be doing so much more...
“Who are they talking to when they are making decisions that impact teachers and students? Why don’t they have a committee made up of teachers and students … talk to us about policies they want to implement?”
As an example, Norden said, “The superintendent recently made the decision to do away with homework over the weekend and to not allow homework to count more than 10 percent. Did they talk to any students about this decision?
“The top said it was done in the name of equity, but some students will tell you that the only free time they have is on the weekend. Those who are bad test takers liked when homework counted more than 10 percent. That homework grade gave them a buffer. AP classes require a lot of work at home. Now all of that work only counts as 10 percent. Many students feel that is not fair.”
Norden would like to see parents welcomed into the school board’s decision-making process as well. She said, “All of the school board committees should be made up of more than just school board members and central office staff. Members of the community should be invited to join. It’s important to recognize that a few people don’t have all the answers. By opening these committees to more members, we will see better policy decisions result.”
Norden suggested that school board members should be bound by term limits -- no one should occupy a school board seat for more than two terms. “We need to fill the seats with new people every few years who will bring unique perspectives to the school system.”
Improving employee relations
Once again speaking out on behalf of school division employees, Norden said that when people on the front lines have issues with administration, they have no recourse. “HR works with central office and in my experience, sides with them. There needs to be a neutral force that steps in when people on the frontline have an issue with leadership.
“I would also like to see HR housed in its own building and not in the same building as central office,” she said.
She offered another practical step toward a team approach: “I would love to see a 360 evaluation implemented. Currently, a teacher’s evaluation is based on the write up of one administrator. Teachers have no say in administrative reviews; as a result, there is no way to get rid of bad leadership. If teachers had a say in administrative evaluations, it would foster a team-like environment.”
The decision to run
If Norden were to win the seat on the school board, she would have to give up her teaching position at Kettle Run. She would forfeit her teacher’s salary for the roughly $12,000 annual salary of a school board member.
Norden was selected as Kettle Run’s Teacher of the Year and the VFW Teacher of the Year three years ago. She has developed one of the top five high school journalism programs in the state and the yearbook was ranked one of the top 13 best in the country. She also teaches an award-winning film class and English 12.
Prior to teaching, she was a television producer for the CBS and Fox affiliate in West Palm Beach, Florida.
She explained, “This was a very hard decision. If elected, I am giving up teaching students and content that I love; however, I realize a seat on the board is the only way to change things.”
Norden’s campaign has led her to public events to talk with voters. And, she said, “I’ve been posting a lot on social media. I have a group on Facebook called Shelly Norden for School Board. I’ve also got a website where I am posting information and encouraging people to help with my campaign (shellynordenforschoolboard.com).”
She added, “As a journalist, I realize the importance of backing everything up with factual information. I’ve done a great deal of research on my own time -- including starting the website citizencents.com.”
According to the website, its mission is to share “names, positions, years on the job, education and salaries of school employees making $10,000 or more a year in base salary, as furnished by the agencies in response to VA Freedom of Information Act requests.”
When asked if she’s gotten blowback from the administration on her outspoken approach to the problems at the school division, Norden replied, “Yes. I’d better leave it at that.”
In November, Norden will be on the ballot with current school board member Suzanne Sloane and challenger Michael Hammond.
Reach Robin Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org