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In past years, contested elections for local elected offices have been rare. But it’s different this year and voters will have choices in at least four local races.
One of those is the District 7 school board race where Kevin Willis is challenging Debbie Hoback, the incumbent. Hoback is seeking her third term on the board.
“I haven’t lost the passion for it,” Hoback commented. “I love trying to make a difference.”
Hoback expects a tough year ahead. She said that they have already made deep cuts and hopes to avoid cutting any programs as the school board develops its next budget. If additional cuts prove unavoidable, Hoback’s goal is to make the cuts that will affect the least number of people. She also wants to avoid layoffs.
Hoback said that, last year, they looked through the budget line item by line item and expects to do the same this year.
“I think it’s always important to do that,” she said. “I think the process we used this year was an excellent process.”
They found savings by doing that. Hoback said that they were able to save $300,000 by making school bus routes more efficient. They were also able to use existing technology to let maintenance workers pick up their work orders for the day at the first school they go to using the school’s computers. This lets them go on to the next school, rather than return to Bedford. She said that it’s always important to look at what the school system is doing and ask, “What can we do better?”
Hoback said that she’s willing to look at teacher pay raises, but isn’t optimistic about having the money to do that. If pay raises could only be given at the cost of laying off employees, then she would opt to keep the employees.
Does she expect to get an early start on the budget process?
“Everything we do from here on out has to be with a focus on how it will affect the budget next year,” she said. Hoback said that she is open to the idea of starting early.
Does she support closing schools?
“Everything is on the table,” she said, adding that she hopes the school board won’t have to do that.
Why vote for her?
“The experience I have,” Hoback replied when asked this question. She said that this experience will be valuable as the board faces tough budget years, which she expects to be the case for another year or two.
Hoback is a cardiac nurse who retired at the beginning of this year.
Like Hoback, Willis is a Bedford native. He graduated from Liberty High School in 1985 and, in 1989 earned a degree in finance and economics from James Madison University. He works as the operations manager for Double Envelope Company in Roanoke.
“Numbers are in my blood,” he commented.
Willis likes the small community schools and would like to retain them. He would also like to improve relations between the school board and the other two local governing bodies.
He said that the school board’s lack of transparency last year was frustrating; school board members didn’t sell their ideas to the public. He said the school board resisted public pressure not to close any schools and made no attempt to explain why closing the schools was necessary.
“From a leadership standpoint, you want to engage people, not enrage them,” Willis commented.
Willis touted his work experience as his strong point. He said that he has developed budgets for the last 16 years, figuring out ways to get lower costs and better fuel contracts. He’s had to make sure that the company gets the best value for every dollar spent.
“I work with budgets all the time,” he said.
According to Willis, there are always multiple options when developing a budget. It’s important to put these on the table and discuss them. Then, it will be important to sell the budget to the board of supervisors and the public, he said.
Willis favors going through the budget, examining each line item. He expects this to be a tough budget year.
“I’m going to anticipate that there will be less money this year, than not,” he said.
“Closing schools would be a last resort,” he went on to say, noting that, this year, it turned out that the school board didn’t have to close any schools after all. And the board still gave employees a small raise.
Willis has a personal interest in the quality of Bedford County’s public schools. His daughter will be in fifth grade at Bedford Elementary School. She started her school years at Bedford Primary.
Why vote for him?
“I will do my very best to say what I mean and do what I say,” he said. “The business experience I have will help in a tough budget year.”