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Candidates for two Bedford County School Board seats squared off at a forum Thursday night at the Bedford Science and Technology Center.
Jason Johnson, Charlotte Maxey and Jennifer Merritt are vying for the District 2 seat, currently held by Merritt; and Dr. John Hicks and Eric Thompson are vying for the District 3 seat held by Dr. Hicks. Both Merritt and Hicks were appointed to the board this year following resignations of those seats by Dave Vaden and Brad Whorley.
The event, sponsored by the Bedford County PTA Council, gave the candidates a chance to express their views on where education needs to go in the county and answer submitted questions from county residents. Robert Holmes moderated the event for the Council.
The candidates faced some pointed questions: from how many school board meetings they had attended to what they would do about leaks from closed door sessions held by the board. That issue came up at the last school board meeting when some information on the board’s discussion about renewing Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch’s contract was made public prior to a vote.
The candidates were asked if they would support raising taxes to provide more funding for education and what they would do to improve the board’s relationship with the county supervisors.
Johnson, who works at Virginia Tech, said he wants to work to make sure students from the county are as prepared as possible for the path they follow after high school.
“We have to make sure students are ready for the future, whatever that might be,” he said.
Johnson said personnel issues handled in closed session needed to be handled with discretion.
He said disagreements with the board of supervisors need to be dealt with by sitting down with them to talk through the disagreements rationally.
Johnson said it’s important to look at spending priorities when considering budget spending.
He said it’s not an easy call to make, concerning raising taxes, but he would be willing to have that conversation with the supervisors.
Maxey said she wants to minimize bullying in the schools and while she feels the school system is good, “it can be better.”
While she said she wouldn’t leak information about closed door discussions, Maxey did say that once information about Dr. Schuch’s contract became common knowledge, the public deserved more information. “It looked bad,” she said of the discussions.
Maxey said the school board seems to “hide” money which can lead to disagreements with the supervisors. She said, however, she didn’t think the school board hid the money on purpose. “It’s just that there’s some manipulation of the figures as it stands right now.”
Maxey said it’s not appropriate for a school to have just a half time librarian. She said the best aspect of the school system is both the teachers and the students.
Merritt said the leaks on Dr. Schuch’s contract looked bad because the information was inappropriately leaked in the first place. “You don’t share that information,” she said.
Merritt said the school board is not hiding money. “It just is not so,” she said.
She said the county needs to spend more money on education. “They’re cutting bone and muscle now,” she said of budget cuts. “We have cut and cut and cut our education budget. There isn’t any fat left.”
She said the goal is to provide the kind of schools that are going to draw businesses to the community.
Teachers need better salaries, Merritt said. “We have to pay them like we mean it and not just give lip service to it,” she said of teacher raises.
Dr. John Hicks
Hicks noted his 35 years working as a school administrator and a teacher, adding that because he is retired “I have the time to do the job right.” He said the first priority of the board has to be to do “what’s in the best interests of the students in Bedford County.”
Dr. Hicks pledged not to leak information from closed door sessions to the public.
He said animosity between the school board and supervisors needs to be alleviated and having joint meetings with the two boards earlier in the budget process could be one step to take. He said it’s important for school board members to forge good working relationships with their district counterparts on the board of supervisors.
He feels the county needs to spend more money on education, especially in the area of teacher raises. “We are losing excellent, experienced teachers to surrounding school divisions because they can make more money (there),” he said. He said there’s nothing left to trim from the budget.
Hicks said he would have no problem asking the supervisors to raise taxes to support education if that was the only source available. He added, however, the county is currently sitting on a budget surplus and additional money from the reversion of Bedford to a town could soon become available.
He said teacher morale is an area that must be addressed.
Thompson said he felt the public deserved more public knowledge about Dr. Schuch’s contract discussion prior to the board taking a vote. He said the public should have been able to weigh in on the issue.
Thompson said he already has a good relationship with several members of the board of supervisors. “We have to come to some common ground,” he said of the two boards.
He said it’s important to know where the school budget funds are being spent and evaluate that spending based upon the success of programs.
He said raising taxes to increase school spending should be a last resort.
Teachers are the best resources the school system has, he added.