Roanoke Times editorial writer Christian Trejbal, a lightning rod who stirs up even more controversy than this web site, recently found a pattern involving the Superintendent of Floyd County’s school system and the superintendent’s son, who runs the school system in Giles County.
Most schools closed on King’s holiday, as they do every year, but not schools in Floyd and Giles counties.
MLK Day, the third Monday of January, has been a national holiday since Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983. The states, however, had to adopt it individually, and some did so more quickly than others. Today all of them recognize it in one form or another.
In Virginia, lawmakers first tied it to Lee-Jackson Day. That odd juxtaposition of Confederate generals and civil rights crusader ended in 2000, when the General Assembly moved Lee-Jackson Day to the Friday before MLK Day.
But just as Congress refused to impose MLK Day on the states, the commonwealth did not impose it on local schools. Most state offices shut down, but school boards and superintendents decide whether classes meet.
The state Department of Education does not track which schools take the day off, but in the New River Valley, it’s everyone except the two school systems headed by the Arbogasts. That’s father Terry Arbogast and son Terry Arbogast II, the superintendents of Floyd and Giles schools respectively, where only 2 percent of the students in each county are black.
The elder Arbogast did not return calls for nearly three weeks seeking comment and only obliquely answered questions posed by e-mail. At least the younger one was willing to talk about the Giles policy.
Giles schools set the holiday aside as a makeup day. If there are no weather cancellations before it, students and teachers get the day off. This year, there was a snow day on Nov. 18, so class was in session on Monday. Most years there is a snow day.
In the father’s schools, they do not even have the pretense. School is in session on MLK Day most years. This year was an exception because it happened to fall at the end of a term. Kids got the day off, but teachers and staff worked.
Some comments to Christian’s column accused him of calling the Arbogasts racists — a charge he denies — and of hyprocrisy because the Times publishes on MLK day (the day is, in fact, a paid holiday for employees of the Times).
Few places around here recognize MLK day as a holiday, which is not surprising. Those who recognize both MLK day and Lee-Jackson Day get a four-day weekend, which isn’t bad if you are willing to overlook the irony of beginning the weekend celebrating two Confederate generals and ending it in remembrance of a civil rights leader.
I don’t believe Terry Arbogast is racist. However, I do see a pattern in his reluctance to discuss the question with Trejbal. He doesn’t trust the media and was openly critical of The Roanoke Times at the last meeting of the board of supervisors for the paper’s reporting of the state budget crisis and its effect on schools. He also told others that I "misrepresented" his remarks during a confrontation with supervisors over a budget issue last year although he never addressed those concerns to me directly nor did he ever ask for a correction to the story I wrote for The Floyd Press.
Arbogast is a tireless promoter of Floyd County schools. His appearances at the county board of supervisors meetings are entertaining presentations that are part carnival barker and part evangelical preacher but his reports are sometimes long on hyperbole and short on detail.
The final decision on whether or not Floyd County schools stay open or closed on MLK day is made by Floyd’s school board based on the recommendation of the school superintendent. In the past, the board has been less-than-candid with county residents and parents. In 2007, the board downplayed lead contamination found in two water fountains at Willis Elementary School.
Had Arbogast been open and candid with an editorial writer from the Times, the tone of the story might have been different. It’s easy to find hints of racism, especially when a public official avoids discussing the matter with the media. A school superintendent, of all people, should remember just how easy perception can become reality in today’s society.