IW School Board candidates debate at forum

Published 1:56 pm Monday, October 28, 2019

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Should teachers carry guns? How would you reduce student “lunch debt?” Should two aging elementary schools in the Smithfield area be renovated or replaced?

These were among the questions that moderators Jarad Ford of the Isle of Wight NAACP and Jim Henderson of the Isle of Wight Citizens’ Association posed during a candidates forum on Oct. 16 to each of the four candidates running for Isle of Wight County School Board this November.

The forum was held at the Smithfield Center in downtown Smithfield. In addition to the Isle of Wight Citizens’ Association and NAACP, sponsoring groups included the Southern and Central Isle of Wight Citizens’ Group, the Carrollton Civic League and the Southern IW AARP.

Challenging incumbent Vicky Hulick for the Newport Distrct seat on the School Board is Lawrence Rotruck is an Army and Marine Corps veteran and former Smithfield High School teacher who now teaches at Bethel High School in Hampton. Hulick is also a former teacher, and both Newport District candidates have children enrolled in the Isle of Wight County school system.

The other contested race is for the Smithfield District seat, where Matthew Thomas, a stay-at-home father of three children in the Isle of Wight County school system, is challenging Denise Tynes, a former School Board member who already serves on Smithfield’s Town Council. Kirstin Cook, who  holds the Smithfield District seat, will step down when her term expires at the end of December.

Candidates had exactly 1-1/2 minutes to answer each question, as monitored via stopwatch by Herb DeGroft, also of the Isle of Wight Citizens’ Association.

As for guns, all four candidates opposed arming teachers, instead favoring working with the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office to place school resource officers in all nine of the county’s public schools. While on the topic of school security, Thomas added that he would like to see the Nightlock devices, purchased last year for all nine schools, reinstalled. These are door locks manufactured by the Michigan-based company Nightlock, which consist of an aluminum locking handle, floor plate and door plate. According to Nightlock’s website, each device, when dropped into place, can withstand up to 2,000 pounds of force on a door that opens outward.

Isle of Wight County Schools had purchased the devices following the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with the intent of providing an added layer of security in the event of a similar active shooter or lockdown scenario. Later that year, the Virginia Department of Education directed any school system using these devices to remove them, citing noncompliance with state building and fire codes. Earlier this year, IWCS invited Isle of Wight County emergency services and inspections personnel to observe a lockdown drill at Carrsville Elementary using the devices, and received the OK from the county government to reinstall them at that school, but later learned that the state’s prohibition on Nightlocks in schools was still in effect, necessitating their removal once again.

As for “lunch debt” — which is debt students incur when they do not have money to pay for a school lunch but are still provided with a meal — Hulick said that IWCS’s collection efforts, which included robo-calls to parents and involving the county treasurer, had reduced the school division’s $72,000-plus cafeteria fund deficit reported in early 2019 down to about $6,000 as of the date of the forum. She added that this school year, the board implemented a new policy requiring all students to return the free/reduced-price lunch form, even if their parents checked the box stating they did not wish to apply for free or reduced-price lunches, so that no students are singled out among their peers as being from low-income families.

Tynes said she would prefer IWCS to implement policies so that no students have to pay for lunch. Thomas, however, said, “It’s a fine line of never turning a kid away from a meal that might be their biggest one of the day, and trying to prevent abuse of the system.”

He added that he would like to see the school division make more of an effort to examine each debt situation on a case-by-case basis to determine who cannot afford to pay and who was taking advantage of the system.

Rotruck then said he did not believe robo-calls were particularly effective for collecting lunch debt, but Hulick disagreed. Rotruck also suggested re-examining School Board lunch debt policies to determine “what can be revised, what is working, what is not.”

As for whether to renovate or replace Hardy Elementary and Westside Elementary, both of which were built in the 1960s, Tynes suggested building one combined elementary school, similar to how Smithfield’s high school and middle school are connected, which could accommodate the student populations of Hardy and Westside. Hulick then said she was “all on board” for a new Hardy and for a new Westside to create equitable facilities throughout the county school system and address capacity issues at Carrollton Elementary.

Thomas said his biggest fear is that the county might take too long to come up with a solution for Hardy and Westside, and end up needing not only to renovate or replace both schools, but also build a new school to accommodate a population influx.

Rotruck agreed that a solution for Hardy was “long overdue,” but said he would prefer Carrollton to be expanded, since that’s where the county’s population growth is happening, rather than rezoning Carrollton students to a new or renovated Hardy. He added that he was uncertain whether there was any asbestos still in Hardy, and emphasized that whatever solution is chosen needed to be “fiscally responsible.” Hulick then said Hardy’s asbestos was abated in the 1990s, but was uncertain as to whether there was any still in Westside.

As for fiscal responsibility, Thomas said paying for the renovation or replacement of Hardy and Westside should be “driven by the growth itself,” meaning housing developers paying “their share” of the cost to have schools in place that will accommodate their housing developments via proffers. He then added that imposing proffers on developers was the responsibility of the county’s Board of Supervisors, and not the School Board.