HOTSEAT- SOL: Pam Moran and the incredibly shrinking budget

Pam Moran

Growing up in the low country of South Carolina, Pam Moran remembers sitting around the table on her grandfather's back porch, and the lessons she learned there. 

Those lessons came with her, and the table did, too. It's now sitting in her office in the Albemarle County Office Building, where she's superintendent of schools and in charge of steering the county's schools amid the rocky shoals of a multi-million budget deficit, complaints over snow cancellations, and a proposal to create longer classes.

A Santa-suited Grinch stands on a nearby console, perhaps a fitting symbol of the job ahead– although Moran sees it as more of a team builder than an evil omen. Every winter, the school superintendent is literally in the hot seat at budget time, and this year is the worst so far. Yet Moran seems cool as she contemplates the changes proposed to keep the Albemarle school system afloat.

And when she presciently says, "I'm anticipating more winter storms," she's not talking about the weather.  "We suspect the other shoe is going to drop from Governor McDonnell." 

Sure enough, a week after she talks to the Hook (when the deficit is estimated at $6 million), McDonnell announces he's undoing a freeze to the state's all-important funding formula, the Composite Index, a move that could send Albemarle's total deficit spiraling to nearly $15 million.

Moran didn't start out dreaming of heading a school system, or even being a teacher. Her first love was... snakes. At Furman College, where she studied biology, "I thought I'd be chasing snakes through the Everglades," she recalls. "I thought I was going to be a herpetologist."

Her native low country teems with herpetoids. "Most people have a fear of snakes," she notes. "I wanted to get to know why. I decided to take that on and became fascinated with reptiles and amphibians."

She has a wooden staff in her office with a coral snake curled around it that she often takes with her when she visits classrooms. "Red on yellow, it'll kill a fellow," she recites the rhyme that distinguishes the venomous coral snake from the harmless scarlet kingsnake.

A romantic love brought her north to Virginia, where she started teaching in Orange's schools.  She later picked up her master's and doctorate at UVA, took a job in Albemarle, and served as principal at Stony Point Elementary for 10 years.

She now commands the central office, but she's frequently out in the county's 26 schools. "It reminds me—I'm the superintendent, but my roots are in the classroom."

And she values all the jobs in the school system that contribute to a child's education, not just teachers. "At one time, I had a bus driver's license," says Moran. "There's no job in the school division that I can't see myself doing."

That's one of the reasons Moran just earned a national "Tech Savvy" award. "I really push myself to keep current in technology," she says, because it's something she's asking everyone else who works for her to do.

That's what makes the cuts she's going to have to make all the harder, and on sleepless nights, it's the faces of people that keep her awake. "For me, education is a people business," she says. "When I look at budget cuts, I don't see dollars. I see children's faces."

Dire financial circumstances mean losing teachers and bus drivers, and increasing class size, the latter a sacred cow in the county.

Her proposal to eliminate freshman sports at Western Albemarle and Monticello highs, and to charge a $75 athletic fee has caused another uproar. Less publicized is another discussion by the School Board to make sure that it's not just athletes who will feel the pinch. Almost any extracurricular activity—band, Destination Imagination, drama— could carry a fee. "We're not going to deny kids who have an economic challenge from participating," pledges Moran. "We don't do that now."

Meanwhile, there's budget time to get through. "What is difficult for all of us is the school division a year from now will be very different," admits Moran.

Even with that grim future, Moran is not morose. Much like she studied the snakes that people fear, she's taking on a dismal funding landscape and looking ahead to the next challenge: "How do we work together on the services we're backing off and move back when the economy recovers?"

Age: I'm a baby boomer. Enough said!

Why here? I followed a man to UVA grad school. He left, I stayed.

What's worst about living here? Increasing traffic on 29 north and Pantops.

Favorite hangout? Our schools. The best work and most fun in our county goes on in our schools.

Most overrated virtue? Patience.

People would be surprised to know: I once kept a pygmy rattler in my house.

What would you change about yourself? My workaholic nature.

Proudest accomplishment? Graduating from college because neither of my parents did.

People find most annoying about you: I have MTP (multi-tasking personality) syndrome.

Whom do you admire? Captain Richard Winters, who led the 101st Airborne Easy Company in World War II. He defines leadership: compassion, commitment, courage.

Favorite book? This week or last? Novel: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Nonfiction: Lift by Ryan Quinn.

Subject that causes you to rant? The growing culture of incivility in our country.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Social networking.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Social networking.

What do you drive? Blue cars.

In your car CD player right now: Bagpipe music, Joshua Bell, Einstein the book.

Next journey? My son wants me to go to Peru or Greece.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Can't tell you because my mother might get a copy of this.

Regret: I won't get to work another 20 years in education.

Favorite comfort food: Grits with lots of butter.

Always in your refrigerator: Cran-Grape light.

Must-see TV: Re-runs of the Band of Brothers series about the 101st Airborne Easy Company in WWII.

Describe a perfect day. On my screened porch, writing, watching hummingbirds on the trumpet vine and my garden grow.

Walter Mitty fantasy: I would like to direct a movie. My husband would say, "That's not so far afield, Pam. You like to direct everything anyway."

Who'd play you in the movie? Matt Damon.

Most embarrassing moment? Water skiing.

Best advice you ever got? From my grandfather– remember we are all people, and we put on our pants in exactly the same way.

Favorite bumper sticker? If you can read this, thank a teacher.