By the time he retires from the School Board in December 2011, Marshall Trammell will have served the Bermuda District for more than 20 years.
“No matter what all the other ancillary issues are that are swimming around out there – and there are a lot of them – you always try to stay focused on one thing, and that’s the fact that you’re there for the kids,” Trammell said.
His decision to retire in 2011 “was actually made before the last election,” Trammell said last week. At that point, his wife, Pat, had been retired from teaching for four or five years, he said.
“We talked about it, trying to get a comfort zone for each of us,” he said. Together, they agreed he would first retire from his “other full-time job” at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which he’d held for 38 years. “And then I would run for election one more time and then that would be it.”
His School Board service began after he was nominated to the panel by former Supervisor C.R. “Sonny” Currin, Jr. After his appointment by the Board of Supervisors, he took office on July 1, 1991.
People sometimes ask Trammell why he wanted to get on the School Board. They ask, “‘Why would anybody want to get into a position like that,’ knowing that people have called it ‘thankless’ for as long as I’ve been on the board,” he said. It can be a thankless job, but “it’s not always that way.”
“But, you go into it with your eyes open and, as I’ve told everybody, I have yet to meet a single School Board member anywhere … whether on a state or national level, who, when they first got on the board, didn’t come on with their own, personal agenda. Everybody does that.”
But, he said, the question is, “Is your agenda personal or is it wider in scope?”
“What I’ve counseled people that have asked me – I don’t give my opinion unless I’m asked – … ‘Be careful, because if you’re trying to get on the board because of a single, focused, personal issue, you’re wasting your time and the constituents’ time.
“Because, you’ll find out pretty quickly how small that really becomes in the scope of everything you have to deal with.”
Near the end of his first term, residents passed a county charter that codified the switch from an appointed to an elected School Board, he said. Many board members at that time didn’t favor the change.
“We said, ‘Be careful what you ask for, because, if you get elected School Boards, all the things that you don’t like about politics and elected office are going to come to bear,’” he said. He’s not anti-politics, he said, but School Boards are the last place they ought to be, “and I haven’t changed my opinion in all my years on the board.”
When he joined the board, the “hot issue” was one familiar to residents today: Overcrowding. The School Board had the first “growth summit” with the Board of Supervisors at that time, he said, and officials still use some of the guidelines that came out of that meeting, such as turning to trailers and redistricting before construction.
One of the most frustrating things for board members is, “when you get to a School Board meeting, no matter how long you’ve been working through an issue, you have people come at the last minute, when you’re ready to vote on something,” he said, “and the accusation always is, ‘But you didn’t tell me.’
“The thing that we’ve always wanted to say publicly, but never did was, ‘Where have you been?’ … And we know part of the answer is because they’re busy with their everyday lives. We understand that, but … you can’t use that as an excuse at the last minute for saying, ‘I didn’t know,’ or, ‘You didn’t try to tell me.’”
The board’s aim is to not surprise people, he said, but “that gets difficult.” During discussions of whether to redistrict Chester Middle School’s students and use the building to house Thomas Dale High School’s ninth grade class, “we got accused of ‘not telling people what was going on,’” he said.
“Well, the fact of the matter is, we had been working on the overcrowding issue for Thomas Dale for years,” he said. The board sought public input through the years, but “we just didn’t get it.”
“And how do you get people to get involved?” he said. “You say, ‘Well, people don’t like to be surprised,’ but they don’t choose to get involved unless it affects their child at the time.”
Through the years, Trammell has counseled several potential School Board members who have come to him seeking advice.
“The first thing I tell them, I say, ‘The first thing you do is take the notion that you have all the answers and put them in a piece of luggage and lock them away forever,’” he said. “It’s OK to have good ideas, but if you think you’ve got all the answers, you’re already defeated before you get started.”
On Friday, School Board Chairman David Wyman said he sought advice from Trammell when he first ran for the board.
“Marshall understands his constituents and, probably more importantly, can articulate their concerns and their views very well,” Wyman said. That ability to translate constituents’ praises and complaints into useful information for the School Board is something Wyman has picked up from Trammell, he said.
Trammell will be there to offer advice to his successor, but he “would not pretend to try to tell them what to do or how to do it,” he said.
“To move our kids into the 21st century is going to require a lot more in a shorter period of time than I’ve done in my 20 years,” he said. “And the incremental success that we now are going to have to make is coming at a higher price. … And the debate is always there, does better education mean more dollars? Not necessarily. No, I never believed that.
“But, I do believe you’re not going to make that incremental success that we’re going to be required to make under federal law, we’re not going to make that cheaply. That’s just not gonna happen.”
Former School Board members Jean Copeland and Elizabeth Davis, along with Currin and former Supervisors Harry G. Daniel, J.L. “Jack” McHale III, and R.M. “Dickie” King, Jr., were all great helps during his time on the board, he said. Ed and Lu Henderson, longtime friends who have led all of his campaigns, have also been instrumental, he said.
“I owe them an awful lot, because it wasn’t easy,” he said. “It never was easy. … But, it’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed it.”