School Board sets criteria for next IW superintendent

Published 12:50 pm Friday, May 6, 2022

Isle of Wight County Schools’ next superintendent must come from a state-maintained list of eligible candidates, and preferably will hold or be working on a doctoral degree, per the School Board’s unanimous vote April 26.

Chairwoman Denise Tynes called the special meeting to discuss the results of an online survey the school system had distributed to stakeholders in April, and to decide on what qualifications to list when advertising the opening.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, who’s led IWCS since 2015, announced in March he would retire at the end of June. Per state law, the School Board has 180 days starting July 1 to name Thornton’s successor.

The application window for the position opened May 2 and will close May 27. Interviews will take place in June.

At an April 19 public hearing, a group of county residents unsuccessfully lobbied the School Board to delay its search until after the November election on the grounds that seats held by two of its members — Renee Dial and Michael Vines — will be on the ballot, and may change hands. Dial and Vines joined as interim appointees last year when their predecessors, Vicky Hulick and Julia Perkins, resigned midterm. Should they wish to continue serving, both will need to run in a special election on Nov. 8.

Jason Maresh, a candidate for Vines’ seat who was among those pushing for the delay, had also proposed during the hearing that the School Board consider a candidate from outside the education field. State law allows school boards to do so if they make such a request to the Virginia Department of Education.

Board member John Collick, however, said that per the results of the survey, “overwhelmingly, the community wants an experienced educator.”

Vice Chairman Michael Cunningham had initially proposed requiring a doctorate on the grounds that Isle of Wight County Schools’ central office already had staff with Ph.D.s in positions lower than the superintendent. Vines agreed with him, but Tynes, Dial and Collick said they’d rather list a doctorate as “preferred.”

“We could block ourselves out,” Collick said, stating roughly a quarter of Virginia school systems are also seeing turnover in their leadership this year.

Cunningham also urged other board members to choose a superintendent who would be a “team-builder,” agree to reside within 50 miles of the central office, and not be “politically motivated.”

“We don’t need anybody to destroy what we’ve already had built,” Cunningham said.

Thornton had planned to continue as superintendent through the 2022-23 school year but had asked the School Board to release him a year earlier, stating in a letter he’d become “saddened that staff and children have been directly affected by politicians that have used K-12 education to further their political agendas.”

For nearly a year, a vocal group of county residents has accused Thornton, board members and other IWCS employees of bringing tenets of Critical Race Theory into the school system via its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. CRT, as it’s often abbreviated, argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minority groups.

Thornton and other school officials have repeatedly denied CRT is being taught in Isle of Wight, but critics say Smithfield High School’s “Read Woke” challenge, which encourages students to read social justice-themed books, is an example of its influence.

Collick, who’d campaigned for his seat last year on a platform of opposition to CRT, then urged the board to choose a candidate who “responds to concerns of the people, whether he agrees with them or not, in an appropriate manner.”

As a final matter of business, the board voted formally and unanimously to retain the Virginia School Boards Association to assist with Isle of Wight’s superintendent search. Tynes had invited Gina Patterson, a VSBA adviser, to brief the board on the process in April.

“It was my thought that everything was progressing exactly the way it was supposed to be until a constituent came up and said, ‘Hey, have you guys ever voted on that?’” Collick said. “It wasn’t trying to be a thorn in anybody’s side … . I want to make sure we follow all the policies and the laws so nobody can come back and say you did this wrong.”