by Audrey Thomasson
CLARAVILLE—Northumberland candidates tackled the issues last Tuesday night as they faced the final four weeks before the November 7 general election.
The candidate forum was presented by the NAACP at Northumberland High School Auditorium. The Rev. Dr. Tyron Williams of Mt. Olive Baptist Church presided over the forum and provided the questions before opening the forum to questions from the public.
School board candidates
The two contenders for District 3 school board, incumbent Gerald Howard and challenger the Rev. Carl Perez, were the only two candidates facing off.
However, the format included candidate Mary Hooper, who is running unopposed for the District 2 seat.
What do you see as the most important issue?
Howard: “Accreditation.” While Howard noted the elementary and high schools are accredited, he said the middle school was really close. “We have new leadership at all the schools with only one principal returning. New people don’t know what they don’t know.” He said the board needed to try to help them avoid mistakes.
Perez: Dual enrollment and trade school issues. He said the district failed to negotiate a reduced rate with Rappahannock Community College for dual enrollment and consequently is now paying $310 per credit hour. For students not on the college track, he expressed disappointment that they can’t get into the Regional Technical School until the 10th grade. “I went in the 6th grade. There are jobs. Are we providing the educational system to train for those jobs…so they can compete state to state?”
In response to Howard, Perez praised the new administration as well prepared for their jobs. Middle school principal “Javornda (Ashton) walked across the hall to her new job” and he noted the leadership at the primary school was also promoted from within. “They’re not brand spanking new. They’ve been able to turn things around.”
Hooper: Getting to the heart of each student is important for their success. “Not knowing what’s going on in the home of a child (who has behavioral issues)” is shortchanging the child. “We’ve got to get to the root of the problem…in order for them to learn.” She also spoke to the importance of unity on the school board, in the schools and in the home, and that students were commenting on the board’s divisive behavior.
What is your role on the school board?
Howard: A member’s role is to support the superintendent. “The problem is sometimes members want to act like superintendents. The best way I can support the superintendent is to tell you what I think. I represent all of my constituents.” Howard said he believes in “students first.”
Perez: A member’s role is “to map a course for the future” and to “support a five- to ten-year plan…and sustain the vision. What do we want? Where are we going?” He said being “buddy-buddy” with the superintendent was not appropriate.
Hooper: Her role would be to provide “more unity.”
What programs would you provide to close the achievement gap?
Howard: “The achievement gap starts when you enter the world. It’s not driven by poverty so much as by how those parents approach it.”
Perez: He would hire more reading specialists to help children improve their reading skills before they reach the 6th grade. Also, he would make sure teachers understand different approaches to teaching math for students having difficulty with the standard methods. He emphasized the need for writing skills beyond “texting.”
Hooper: Wanted to see more counselors at the schools so they got to know each child, listened to what’s going on in order to help meet their needs.
Referring to complaints about the dress code in the new Code of Conduct, how would the board listen to students to resolve issues?
Howard: He spends a lot of time in schools engaged with students. “I always listen to them.” He noted his involvement in the stop-smoking program with Riverside Hospital as an example. “I’m always there, always open, always talking to students. I’m not committed to the dress code. We’ve got to take it step-by-step.”
Perez: “Every kid wants to be heard.” He suggested the need for a forum or partnership between the students and board. He also suggested sitting with students during lunch. He recognized the need for a few practical changes to the code.
Hooper: “The board needs to visit the schools often.” She also noted that “Something should be done about the dress code” to make it more practical.
How would you bridge the gap between parents and the schools?
Howard: “It’s mandatory that teachers reach out to parents. The problem is getting through to them because they’re working.” Howard said he has suggested to teachers that they sometimes will have to call in the evening in order to reach parents. But he warned, “All parents are not receptive to phone calls, so it discourages teachers from making calls.”
Perez: Agreed with Howard and said teachers must reach parents by any means possible.
Hooper: Also agreed.
The incumbent candidate for District 2, Richard Haynie and District 3, James Long, are running unopposed. Only Long attended the forum to answer questions posed by Rev. Dr. Williams and the public.
Considering the area’s limited employment opportunities, are you interested in industry coming here?
Long: “I’d encourage business with 25 or more employees…We don’t have the money to help a business come to the Northern Neck” with incentives like cutting tax, he said. Long noted the importance of one of the county’s largest employers, Omega Protein. “It’s important to keep them here,” said Long. He said 43% of Omega’s employees live in Lancaster and 40% live in Northumberland. If the limit for fishing menhaden is cut, some of those jobs would be lost, Long stated. Also, he noted that many area jobs start at $8 an hour, which is much lower than people want, even for a first time job.
Does a lack of tax incentives make the probability of attracting businesses to the area remote?
Long: “Thirty to 40 percent of people are leaving for jobs,” he said, noting the county cannot afford to offer the kinds of incentives it would take to attract business. He referenced a past potential deal with a fast food company that fell through from lack of private local funding.
What have you done to improve the area?
Long: The county built the middle and high school for just $40 million. And had built a new sheriff’s office which he noted was paid off. “I’ve talked with VDOT to make the roads safe.” Long noted that he is working with other county officials to bring high speed internet to every area of the county.
What is the role of supervisor?
Long: “The role is to improve race relations in the county…I belong to many committees. They’re all mixed. I attend a lot of churches to spread the word about getting along and working together.”
Do supervisors support solar farms in the area?
Long: “I can’t speak for anyone else. I would support solar farms.” He discussed high speed internet and the need to make the “last mile” of connection affordable to everyone. He noted that Omega Protein is responsible for a half million dollars in the county treasury. “We would have to raise taxes two or three cents if those jobs are lost.”
Does the county have a healthy tax income?
Long: 60% of kids are on free or reduced lunch, so income is limited, he said. “Raising taxes puts a hardship on others.”
In your 20 years on the board of supervisors, I don’t see that you have accomplished that much. Why can’t you give businesses a tax break to move here? That would create jobs and you’d get the money back in taxes.
Long: “As far as anyone making $10 to $15 an hour, it’s going to be pretty hard around here. Most are lower paying jobs. In a rural area, its not that easy.”
District 99 candidate
Incumbent Republican candidate Del. Margaret Ransone did not attend the forum. Only Democratic candidate Francis Edwards appeared to respond to questions on why he would better represent the District 99 in the House of Delegates.
What is the difference between you and your opponent?
Edwards: “I built a successful business from the ground up, creating 2,400 jobs. My opponent has created zero jobs.” Edwards noted the Northern Neck has slipped behind the rest of Virginia, in part because of a lack of broadband services, which he intends to correct.
What are two or three issues that need to be addressed?
Edwards: His concerns include fracking followed by strengthening public schools and providing access to affordable health care for every resident. He also noted the need for broadband access in order to create jobs and protecting the fishing, farming, forestry and tourism industries.
How can you promote economic growth in District 99?
Edwards: “Unless you have MetroCast, you don’t have high speed internet,” he said. Edwards also feels attracting jobs would rely on replacing the Norris Bridge.
What is your opinion on the proposed Dominion towers across the Rappahannock?
Edwards: “I’m absolutely against those towers.” He noted a local group of citizens’ success with the State Corporation Commission’s hearing examiner in arguing for underwater cable system.
In light of the political divide nationwide, how would you create synergies with the republican party to get things done?
Edwards: He has met similar obstacles in his career, including building a successful start up company in Germany when people said it couldn’t be done.
Without cell service in parts of the county, residents must rely on Verizon to provide land lines. What can we do when the company does not maintain area lines?
Edwards: “The answer is with the introduction of broadband…getting fiber optics into every home.”
What could inspire companies to provide that last mile of high speed internet at an affordable price?
Edwards: Experts believe the answer lies with electric power companies, he replied. “It’s in their interest to have smart homes” by providing broadband. He noted that companies must remain profitable, so it may require some help from the state to make the initial investment.
What can be done about the closure of important services at Bon Secours/RGH?
Edwards: “Bon Secours is out of sync with the area. Without hospital care, no one will move here. It is vital to strengthen and expand the hospital.”