Accusations Fly at School Board Selection Commission Free-For-All

By Linda Cicoira — When the term “mudslinging” was coined in the 1800s, the Eastern Shore probably did not come to mind. An Accomack School Board Selection Commission meeting on Tuesday night changed all that. 

It started in an orderly fashion with Jesse Speidel, a native of Chincoteague, asking to be appointed to the school board to fill the unexpired term of Travis Thornton, who resigned earlier this month after 18 years. 

But before the 90-minute selection meeting was complete, it had turned into a free-for-all with accusations flying.

“I think the School Board is doing a very good job,” said Speidel. “I’d like to continue what they are doing now.” Speidel works with Thornton at Wallops’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said as “a team player” he “knows how to bring people together.” He went to school on the island and has three children, ages 2, 5 and 8. Speidel said multiple choice mandatory testing is the biggest issue in schools. He suggested “a letter-writing campaign” might work to change that. 

Thornton supported Speidel and was applauded and thanked for his own service. “He is a very big family man,” Thornton said of Speidel. “He’s got the patience of Job.” Speidel is a Navy veteran, active in the community, a member of the Chincoteague YMCA Board of Directors and a leader of the soccer association. 

“I think he would make an excellent board member,” said Thornton. “He’s no nonsense. He’s not afraid to take on a tough issue. He’s dedicated to whatever he does.”

Speidel said he knows the time that would be involved for the post as he served on Chincoteague’s board of zoning appeals during the real estate boom. “I don’t think it would be a problem,” he said. “But it is a large commitment.”

Tom Wilson, a former selection committee member, also spoke in favor of his fellow surfer, Speidel. He has the “DNA of leadership of our county … educated … men, women, black, white, just like this group” of selection members, said Wilson. Selection committee member Dreux Alvare, is another local surfer. Six letters of favor were written to the panel for Speidel, Chairwoman Jodie Greene announced.

A more controversial position came next: the District 4 representative.

“My time served on the board was very rewarding but at times very challenging,” said School Board Member Margaret Miles, a retired teacher and school administrator, who is seeking reappointment to the board. Her term will expire June 30. “It allows me to continue to help make a difference in the lives of all children.” She is marking a half-century in education. “My attendance has been good in the last four years” considering “the illness and death of my husband in 2014,” she said. A challenge included picking three superintendents.

Ida Nedab, a 33-year teacher in the division, spoke about Miles. She is “one of the greatest educators … teachers, and administrators in Accomack,” she said. “She has a desire and passion for students’ education.” Since her retirement, Nedab said Miles volunteers as a guest reader, a judge for career day and “sometimes she just stops by to check on us.”

Thornton, Chairman Ronnie Holden and Vice Chairman Paul Bull also commended her. 

“We might not agree all the time,” said Holden. “But we all agree she has a heart for the kids of Accomack … always, we work as a team.”

Bull agreed. “It’s a tough job  we don’t always agree. We do it civilly. We do it professionally. It kind of gets me upset when people talk poorly about what we do.”

“She a very dedicated board member,” said Thornton. “It hurts my feelings” that someone “would take a jab at her … we get quite a few folks who come to meetings who constantly put us down.” He said privacy laws keep them from making explanations.“They don’t know because we can’t say.”

In this case, Thornton was referring to parent Margaret Hampton of Onancock. She would have none the sugar-coating. Miles “missed  eight meetings last year,” Hampton said. Scores on the Virginia Department of Education website show Accomack Schools ranked 107. “We are 23 from the bottom,” she said. “For the last three years we have trended down. How low will we go before changes are made?”

Hampton said the board has a track record of not holding accountable those responsible for missteps. She cited a $6.2 million surplus that has been a contentious issue with the board of supervisors, alleged private meetings with a superintendent candidate and relaxing out-of-district standards for a member of Miles’ family, and pointed to the temporary pulling of the classic novels “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from school shelves as examples. “We suffered from international embarrassment, she said. “Our school division banning classic American novels, only to discover later they had not followed their own policy but … an outdated policy from years past … many of the … scandals occurred while Mrs. Miles was chairperson.” 

Wilson again spoke in favor of appointed boards. “I wish our board of supervisors were selected the same way … who are in there for money… or health insurance … it doesn’t happen on the school board as far as I know. I applaud what you all do,” he told the commission. “I applaud Mrs. Miles.”

The selection meeting was attended by six school board members – Holden, Waldenmaier, Bull, Miles, Furness, Aaron Kane – and Thornton. They did not call a meeting to order of their panel, despite having a quorum.  The three who spoke for Miles were the same members who were accused of having a secret meeting regarding the hiring of a superintendent. Only one camera was reviewed. The others around the school had been cleared, officials said. 

Opposing Miles was Connie Burford, a school advocate from Bloxom, who was once Miles’ student. Burford said she did not mean to be disrespectful to Miles by seeking the board seat. “It’s just to give a new perspective,” said Burford.

“As a lifelong resident of the Eastern Shore, and a single parent of two children, I am very aware of the difficult decisions the school board faces continuously,” she said. Burford’s son was born with autism and learning disabilities. Trained as a licensed practical nurse, Burford said she became a “warrior for special education” after a school administrator said her “son should be in an institution, never to be interacting with regular education students again.” She has made it her mission to learn everything possible about the regulations that govern special education.

Burford has volunteered extensively in the classrooms and at school and district levels, including the Budget and Finance Committee “until it was recently disbanded by our current superintendent,” she said. The committee was started due to public outcry for transparency regarding money and “the need for better health care prices for … employees. None of which were able to be accomplished,” said Burford.

She served on a parent advisory committee with three superintendents and was the only parent on a committee that developed the athletic handbook for the division. Burford has also been co-sponsor of Arcadia’s BETA Club, which has been recognized the last two years as a National  BETA Club School of Merit. She served on the School Health Advisory Board for health and healthy lifestyles.

“As a special education advocate, I receive countless phone calls from parents … regarding their children, many of whom are referred to me by school board members,” she said. “I offer advice, make phone calls, provide them with websites and/or paperwork. I have noticed … a major need for advocacy … regarding special education. … I am always the liaison. … The employees feel comfortable reaching out to me when it seems that all other doors have been closed to them.”

Speaking in her favor was Paul Muhly of Parksley, a member of the Accomack Board of Supervisors. A letter of support was sent to the commission on Burford’s behalf from parent Meredith O’Brien. “Ms. Burford understands what it is like to be in the trenches every day as an advocate for her child. All you have to do is spend a day volunteering at one of the schools to see that representation for special needs students and families is an absolute need on a school board. Without that, the school board would not be accurately representing the community.”

Burford’s daughter Colby Burford-Dunton, told the commission, “She’s a strong advocate for every single parent. She knows all the policies … she’ll stay up until 2 a.m.” studying. “She just wants the best for everyone. I would want someone like her on the school board. … She already puts in the time,” her daughter said.

“Connie Burford is the wrong person to appoint,” said School Board member George Waldenmaier, a retired teacher and administrator, calling her “unethically suited for this board.” Her having a special needs child no more makes her qualified for the school board than “the fact that I have a pancreas (so) I am a gastroenterologist.” He complained that she shouts and snarls through “clenched teeth” at meetings, alleged she is a bully, said she was escorted by police from Nandua High School at the request of Principal George Parker. He added allegations of crimes in Wicomico County, Md., and Accomack County. 

Burford said Waldenmaier’s comments and accusations were retaliation for having spoken against him about actions he took against students  for whom she was advocating when he was seeking a seat on the school board. When she began to elaborate, she was told by Greene to only address Waldenmaier’s allegations. “I’m not going to get into a ping-pong match,” she said. “I just don’t think that its appropriate. … He acts inappropriately. They are false accusations.”

Burford said Principal George Parker of Nandua High called the police on her because she made a video of him yelling at her. She offered to show the video to division administrators but none would watch. “I was asked by (School Board Member) Mrs. (Audrey) Furness and Dr. Holden to let the incident with Mr. Parker go.”

Burford said she did so until Parker would not allow her son to ride a bus with other swim team students because he didn’t qualify for the competition. Yet, when the bus was unloaded, there were three other students who did not qualify for the competition on the bus.

“He was so excited to be on that swim team,” Burford said. He was never allowed to play sports before. “Do you think my child was treated fairly?” she asked. “Do you think I was treated fairly? I was escorted out of a building. That whole board including Mrs. Miles would not listen … to what had happened. Do we need a change on that board? I say we do.”

Burford later addressed the criminal accusations. She said she does not have a criminal record in Accomack. But has a misdemeanor conviction in Wicomico from 2002. Burford said she was at the mall with her children and an item was placed in her stroller without her knowledge. When she left the store, an alarm went off and she was charged.

“I believe it is the selection committee’s job to monitor the attendance and effectiveness of sitting school board members, and to investigate issues when they arise before reappointment, rather than rely on a citizen to force-feed data,” Hampton said. “You as a committee seem sadly unaware of the standing of our schools, that many of the school board members never speak during meetings, that no give-and-take is done in public as would be expected from a governing body. Indeed, members of the select committee went out of their way to offer excuses. It is the administration’s responsibility to act, not the school board, and if the administration fails, then, what? I submit to you if oversight is not the school board’s responsibility, why do they exist as a body?”

Miles also brought up her reprimand of former School Board Member Janet Turner, who was not reappointed by the commission and was in attendance at Tuesday’s session. Miles reported in July 2016 that the school district’s attorney insisted she reprimand Turner at the December 2016 meeting for accusing the others of meeting secretly. Miles told the commission Tuesday that she was glad to be able to finally tell her side.

Turner was absent due to a family emergency the night she was reprimanded. She was upset that the topic was brought up again. “I don’t appreciate Mrs. Miles dragging my name into her selection process,” she told the panel. “The letter she read was of her own volition … that was not voted on” by the board.

Selection Commission member Martha Simpson repeatedly asked Burford how many special needs students were in the county. When Burford said she didn’t know, members in the audience were quick to respond. Simpson also accused Burford of sending her son to an out-of-district school. Burford said her son was in Arcadia’s district but attended Nandua because the only teacher for his special needs was there.

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