First School Board Forum Gives Glimpse of 4 Candidates

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Photo by Connie Morrison Connie Burford and Gary Reese, candidates for the Accomack County District 4 school board seat, listen to another speaker during the Aug. 26 candidate forum.

By Connie Morrison —

This November election will mark the first time Accomack County voters will select their school board members at the polls, rather than having them appointed by a commission, which in turn, was appointed by the circuit court judge.

A forum for sitting Accomack County School Board members and new candidates was held Monday night at Nandua High School, but attendance was sparse for both candidates and the audience. The local chapter of the National Education Association sponsored the event.

About two dozen people turned out to hear four school board candidates, two of them sitting members, answer questions. All candidates – even sitting board members running unopposed – were invited to the forum, said organizer and facilitator James J. Fedderman, who holds a Ph.D. in education. Fedderman is a music teacher at Arcadia Middle School and vice president of the Virginia chapter of the National Education Association.
“It’s my belief this room should be packed,” said Fedderman, to rumbles of agreement from the stage and auditorium as he opened the gathering.

Two questions were sent to candidates before the meeting and others were taken from members of the audience. Responses were timed, but “because of the teacher I am, I will allow them to finish their complete thoughts,” Fedderman said. Index cards were provided to audience members to write their questions, which were screened and then asked of the candidates. Participants were also allowed opening and closing statements.

T.J. Johnson
District 6 newcomer T.J. Johnson, of Accomac, was first to address the assembly. He faces former board member Janet Turner, who was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict. She said she was notified Saturday evening, which did not give her time to arrange her schedule, a comment echoed by some of the other candidates contacted by the Post about their absences.
Johnson touted his education background. “I’m a career educator,” he said, teaching for about 10 years and then entering administration for about 10 more years. He was a coach, an athletic director, and holds a state superintendent’s license.
About two years ago, Johnson left K-12 education to work as the dean of workforce development at Eastern Shore Community College. His position was one of 12 eliminated in May in what the college called a “strategic restructuring.”
“I have a real urge to give back to the community,” Johnson said. “When the opportunity came to run for the school board, this is something that I really wanted to do.”
The variety of experiences has “helped me to understand more about running an educational organization,” said Johnson. “It’s not just about students and teachers. … It’s about facilities, facilities maintenance, personnel, budgeting and all the things that have to come together.
He is motivated by two things: “Staying ahead of the curve, instructionally” to keep policies and practices current, and “helping our teachers.”
Connie Burford
“I have been the advocate for special-needs students, parents, and teachers in Accomack County for over 19 years,” said District 4 candidate Connie Burford. She and her children have “all been educated in Accomack County public schools,” she said. Her special-needs son is a senior at Nandua High School.
Her vision is her motivation: “I believe that every student that crosses the threshold of an Accomack County school should be able to receive an excellent education in a safe and nurturing environment, regardless of their race, gender, religion, abilities, or lack thereof, and regardless of their ability to pay.” She also supports giving teachers the resources they need in the classroom and in compensation.
With her specialized knowledge of special education and regulations that govern it, “I feel like my knowledge would be very beneficial on the school board.”
Her experience in the schools includes serving on the district’s special education and the health advisory boards, Arcadia and Nandua after-prom committees, and co-sponsoring Arcadia BETA club.
Gary Reese
Burford’s opponent, Gary Reese, said he was the first of his family to attend college. After graduating from Longwood University, “Accomack County then gave me a chance to teach school,” he said, at a starting salary of about $10,000 a year. “Thirty-six years later I retired after spending four years at Parksley and 32 years at Nandua High School.” His last position was the athletic director at Nandua High School.
He gave up some quiet aspects of retirement and “stepped up to the plate” to seek appointment to the school board last year to fill the unfinished position of Margaret Miles as a way of repaying the opportunities given to him by the school district. “I’m here today to try to give back to Accomack County who gave me a chance,” he said. Both his children attended Accomack County Public Schools.
“As athletic director, I learned to listen to people,” he said. That, along with good negotiation skills and building relationships, are his strengths, he said.
Edward Taylor
Edward Taylor is unopposed for the District 2 seat, to which he was appointed upon the retirement of Audrey Furness in June, after 36 years on the board. “I have big shoes to fill,” he acknowledged. Taylor has two children enrolled at Kegotank Elementary.
No single thing motivated him to run. Everyone from bus drivers and cafeteria workers, students, and administration are “all together as one making a community for our kids,” he said. He wants teachers to be compensated at a level that gives them “a comfortable life,” he said, but “In the end we all want our kids to be successful and to do better than we have in our life.”
Taylor acknowledged he has a different skill set than career educators, but he plans to visit all the schools to get to know teachers, administrators, and other staff. “Our kids and parents need a voice,” he said.
Candidates fielded questions from the audience on armed guards in school, a form of discipline known as restorative justice, knowledge of the special education committee, and how to help students who continue to fall behind. An audience member also asked how to avoid another “embarrassment to the county” like the episode when the classics “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” were pulled from school shelves. The school board and administration believed they were acting in accordance with adopted school board policies, only to discover later they had amended their policies and did not need to pull the books. The episode made news around the world.
Responses to the remaining questions and a wrap-up will be included in an article in next week’s edition of the Eastern Shore Post.