Loudoun County School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III is retiring at the end of the month, after 47½ years with Loudoun County public schools. He has been superintendent since 1991.
Hatrick, 68, recently met with The Washington Post to talk about his career. In this second of a two-part Q&A, he discusses his views on public education. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
There is often tension between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board over the budget. Does it seem to you that the tension has reached a different level over the past couple of years?
There’s always been some tension . . . over budget, because schools traditionally are the largest part of the budget, and yet the Board of Supervisors is the funding authority. Has it become more rancorous? Yes, because it has become more political. And I think that’s a shame, I really do.
The way elected school boards were created in Virginia, they were supposed to be nonpartisan. But very quickly, the political parties . . . all of a sudden, you have the school board and the board of supervisors running together, a real political party affiliation. And frankly, I’ve got a problem with political parties at the local level, period. I think that, at the local level, we should be about local business, not ideologies.
The other thing I was warned about by folks . . . in counties like Fairfax and Prince William that grew before we did, was the public works factor that would come into play. The next six years, the [Capital Improvements Program] has more money in it for road construction than for everything else combined — public roads that are supposed to be the responsibility of the commonwealth. When the commonwealth doesn’t build roads, every locality that has grown before us is forced to take it over locally. The CIP used to be predominantly school projects. [Now] more than half is building roads that should be built by Richmond.
Has this been your hardest year as school superintendent?
No, I don’t think so. We’ve had tough years before this one. The last couple of years probably have concerned me more, because I’m not sure where the direction is for the future. Now what I’m concerned about is deconstruction. Because if we don’t fund the programs we’ve got, we’ll start picking those programs apart. And one day you wake up and you say, ‘Where did that go?’
Were there any cuts that especially concerned you?
Oh, sure. The one that I’m probably [most] concerned about is the disappearance of our elementary foreign language program, because I think of all the skills that kids need for the 21st century, it’s being more than monolingual. And what I saw in our elementary foreign language program was kids who are no longer afraid of language, who were developing language skills to be bilingual. So I’m really concerned to see that program now gone.
In recent years the school system has balanced the budget in part by deferring building maintenance or the purchase of new school buses. Is your successor being left in a hole that he will have to dig out of, to catch up?
We hope not. We tried to not do that. But sure, there are some holes. The biggest hole is in technology. Six or seven years ago, we were the country’s leaders in technology in education, both in the business use of technology and in the instructional use of technology . . . getting awards and honors and everything else. We’re now somewhere in the middle of the pack, at best, and maybe moving toward the back of the pack. We’ve just gotten stalled on our implementation of technology. That’s the biggest hole that Eric Williams faces, and I told him it’s his biggest opportunity for success.
Do you see the small schools in western Loudoun operating five years from now the same way they are operating now?
I don’t think they can operate the way they operate now, including Middleburg. Middleburg is still a grand experiment. We don’t know if we can afford the charter [school]. It’s not inherently better to be small. I think when you get below two classes per grade, you can run into issues. So I’m not sure all the small schools can survive as small schools, but I’d hate to see all of them go away. I think there are ways of combining our small schools.
How do you feel about the emphasis on standardized testing at the state and national levels?
Somehow we’ve got to turn back this tide of high-stakes testing. It’s hurting kids. It is taking time away from the kind of instruction kids ought to be getting, in order to prepare for the test. The overemphasis on testing is killing us. It’s just killing us. And it’s not productive, because it’s the kind of assessment that takes a snapshot of what you did, but it doesn’t point toward what you want to do in the future. It doesn’t inform instruction.
What do you think your successor’s biggest challenge will be?
I think the biggest challenge is going to be funding, far and away. Because we’re not as settled a community as we ought to be on whether we’re willing to pay for what we want. I think the challenge for the superintendent is to educate. And that means educating the community, educating the School Board, educating the Board of Supervisors, on why you need the money you’re asking for.
Jim Barnes is a freelance writer.