Forum Puts School Board Candidates in the Hot Seat

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Photo by Stefanie Jackson – Camesha Handy, Janet Martin-Turner, Lisa Cropper Johnson, and Connie Burford at the Accomack school board candidate forum Sept. 30.

By Stefanie Jackson – During a round of questioning for Accomack school board candidates at a forum held Sept. 30 in the Nandua High School auditorium, the forum’s leader, President James Fedderman, of the Accomack Education Association, handed out random questions submitted by community members.

Gary Reese, of District 4, was asked if school board members “have a role in day-to-day operations of the district.”

“No,” he answered. “We don’t. That’s not our job. … We hire the superintendent. We help deal with policies. We help evaluate the superintendent. We do things like that.”

The Accomack County Public Schools Policy Manual explicitly states the school board “operates and maintains the public schools in the school division and determines the length of the school term, the studies to be pursued, (and) the methods of teaching,” in accordance with state law and Virginia Board of Education regulations.

The policy manual appears to state that school board members do have a role in day-to-day operations, even if they have no direct participation.

The manual also states the school board “adopts policy to provide for the day-to-day supervision of schools.”

“We like to keep up, and I, myself, like to keep up and see the good things that are going on in the county … but our job is not to go around school-to-school and look for things that are not going on,” Reese said.

Yet the school board “secures, by visitation or otherwise, as full information as possible about the conduct of the public schools in the school division and takes care that they are conducted according to law and with the utmost efficiency,” the manual states.

The question, “What are the leadership responsibilities of the school board members?” was received by Paul Bull, of District 6, who is the chairman of the school board.

“It takes a village,” he said. “There are nine of us on the school board. … You’re not a king. You got one vote … you got to have five to make a decision.”

The school board shows leadership by “rowing in the same direction. We can have disagreements … but when we all get together, we need a consensus, we need to explain our opinion, we need to move forward,” he said.

The board also gives the superintendent authority “to do what is right for the school system … to carry out our mission and our goals.”

He called the superintendent the school board’s “one employee.”

However, the policy manual states the “school board, upon recommendation of the superintendent, employs principals and assistant principals” who are supervised by the superintendent.

Jesse Spiedel, of District 1, was tasked with describing the role of the superintendent. He agreed with Bull’s view of the superintendent as the school board’s sole employee.

However, he correctly compared the superintendent of schools, “the head of the whole division,” to the CEO of a corporation.

The school board can hire and fire a superintendent as a board of directors can hire and fire its company’s CEO.

Edward Taylor, of District 2, had to explain the role policy plays in the functioning of the school board.

“We have to have certain policies in place, mainly for safety for our kids and for their education to make sure, when they do graduate, that they’re getting the best education from the state of Virginia,” he said.

But there are also policies in place that direct how the school board functions.

The policy manual includes a code of ethics and policies on conflicts of interests, conducting open and closed meetings, allowing public participation at meetings, communicating with school employees, and a host of other topics.

School board candidates seemed to fare better with questions that did not relate to policy but opinions on topics such as what makes a good school board member.

Janet Martin-Turner, a District 7 candidate, was asked about what she believes are the school board’s roles and responsibilities. Her answer included setting policy, supervising the superintendent, and approving the budget.

“On a bigger scale, I believe the school board members need to be very informed. They need to read things, they need to talk to people.”

If a teacher or anyone else asked her a favor, she wouldn’t “promise them the moon and the stars, but I’m going to listen.”

“If 10 different people who have no knowledge of each other all come to me with the same concerns … I believe that it is our duty to carry that information to the superintendent.”

“You cannot keep your head in the sand and be on the school board,” Martin-Turner said.

“I also believe that you need to be very aware of the policies. Over the years, we’ve gotten into trouble because people did not follow the policies.”

T.J. Johnson, another District 7 candidate, was given the question, “What do you think is expected of you as a board member?”

Johnson believes a school board member should always consider, “What’s in the best interest of our students?”

A school board member should be expected “to be a good representative of Accomack County Public Schools in the community, to stay abreast of educational trends and issues, to … select, evaluate the superintendent of schools” and address issues related to human resources, budgets, facilities, policies, and initiatives.

“Leadership means making solid decisions, and also it means sometimes making tough decisions,” Johnson continued.

A school board member should “keep positive relationships … with other board members and with the board of supervisors and other folks that can help us to do what’s in the best interest of students.”

“What are the current challenges facing education and school boards?” was the question received by Connie Burford, who is challenging Reese in District 4.

“Funding and teacher shortages,” she answered. “We can’t find enough teachers and we can’t find the money to pay them.”

Burford also referenced unfunded mandates. “We have programs that the state tells us we have to have, and we can’t find the money to institute the programs.”

Ronnie Holden, of District 8, explained how to contribute to a successful board meeting.

“One must study all of the board packet, understand, and if you have questions, ask questions before the meeting. And then, as a board member, practice good citizenship. Listen to other board members, contribute to the discussion.”

“We all must respect each other … and those who are working with us. Good citizenship is the key to a successful board meeting,” he said.

Lisa Cropper Johnson, who is running unopposed in District 3, suggested how the school board can prioritize issues when it meets only once or twice a month.

“Commitment level,” she said. “It’s going to take every board member being committed in terms of attendance … reading and studying the materials, coming in prepared to engage in dialogue.”

Johnson also mentioned listening to one another, asking “tough questions,” and working toward consensus on issues.

Camesha Handy, of District 5, was asked what kind of relationship the school board should have with parents and families.

Her answer centered on communication. Handy acknowledged communication between the school board and the superintendent is “strong,” but communication with school employees and parents has been lacking.

“It has caused mistrust. It has created credibility issues” and prevented the school board and parents from working together toward common goals in the best interest of students.

The school board must build a foundation of transparency, communication, and respect for parents and other stakeholders, “if not, the house collapses.”

Malcolm “Pep” White, the District 9 school board candidate, did not attend the forum.