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Candidates spell out priorities for Halifax County School Board

SoVaNow.com / October 21, 2021
Candidates for local office are talking about broadband, economic development, plans for the high school and other local issues as they seek voters’ support in the Nov. 2 general election.

Speaking at an Oct. 13 forum hosted by the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce, hopefuls for School Board in ED-3 each talked about their backgrounds and priorities if elected to serve for a four-year term. What follows is a recap of their remarks.

In future editions, the News & Record will present profiles of the other candidates for School Board and Board of Supervisors in ED-2, ED-3 and ED-6.

Sandra Garner-Coleman

Garner-Coleman, the current trustee in ED-3, is running as a write-in candidate after qualifying for the ballot, withdrawing from the race, then jumping back in. She recently served as vice-chairman of the School Board and is seeking a second term after first being elected in 2017.

She said her top priorities on the School Board are ensuring the academic excellence of students, raising compensation to recruit and retain teachers in Halifax County, and seeing that a new high school facility is built to replace the dilapidated Halifax County High School building. “I believe [a new] high school will be a flagship for this county,” she said.

She has 45 years’ teaching experience in public school and correctional facility settings. In her teaching career, she has taught courses in both math and business at Halifax County High School. Having taught in the building, Garner-Coleman believes it is a security risk, among other problems. With the school’s narrow hallways and other design flaws, it would be difficult to track down and stop school shooting if such a calamity ever occurred.

“If we have an active shooter in the building, there are so many hiding places that would make it impossible to identify where that shooter is [located],” said Garner-Coleman.

When Garner-Coleman was first elected to the Halifax County School Board, four out of nine county schools were fully accredited by the Virginia Department of Education. In 2020, all nine schools received full accreditation.

“Then after the pandemic we hit the bottom in 2021,” she observed. “We have a plan in place to bring us out of the hole we suffered from the pandemic.”

Garner-Coleman said she sees it as her job as trustee to strengthen the bond between the schools and community while making the schools greater. “If we do not change the hearts and minds of children, learning will not take place.”

She also expressed pride in the School Board’s ability over the past four years to raise teacher salaries, including by three percent this year. She supports a proposal by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg to reform the salary scale for teachers and school staff to sharply raise compensation for employees who have worked for years in the system.

“We are going to implement a salary scale that will make [pay for] our teachers competitive to the connecting counties and North Carolina,” said Garner-Coleman.

“We will attract highly qualified teachers and I think we will get some of our teachers back we lost last year. I know they would prefer to go around the corner to get to their place of work than driving 45 minutes to get an additional $8,000 to $10,000 more.”

Investing more dollars in the school system would be a “win-win” for Halifax County, she said. “Modernized facilities, highly qualified teachers, attraction of business to increase our economic base ultimately to bring in more tax dollars — they are interwoven,” she said.

Melissa Hicks

Hicks says she wants to represent ED-3 with a focus on well-rounded schools that offer learning opportunities for everyone. Hicks was raised in a small Minnesota town and after high school earned a degree in music education at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where she ran varsity track. She later earned a Master’s Degree in Divinity from Princeton Seminary. In 2017 she moved to the Vernon Hill area with her husband, Richard, who is an ordained minister with The Church of God.

Hicks would like the School Board to stick to the $120 million sum raised through the county’s 1-cent sales tax to address the poor state of the high school, but said that money is for improvements to all schools, not just HCHS.

While she called HCHS “a disgrace,” Hicks also believes “the best facilities does not mean best education” and said the School Board should “take care of what we have.”

She said she opposes the idea of closing small elementary schools, pegging the annual savings from such a move at $1.3 million dollars, which she suggested could be made up elsewhere in the budget. Under the school consolidation plan suggested by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg, HCPS would save an estimated $2.3 million to $2.5 million, a figure that has been vetted by independent financial advisors.

Hicks said the School Board should make a break with Branch Builds, its partner on school facility planning, to obtain other quotes on school construction costs.

While better compensation for teachers is important, Hicks noted that a survey of teachers who departed the system this year showed that lack of support by building administrators was the top reason for why teachers left. She also said lax discipline in schools drove away many teachers.

She also suggested that Halifax County teachers “should be rewarded on performance-based evaluations,” based on their work in the classroom. Merit pay is not part of state funding to support school employee salaries, the largest part of the School Board budget.

Hicks stated schools should be focused on getting back to normal during the pandemic. With a low death rate for children from COVID-19, Virginia parents should be allowed to make the decision for their child on whether to wear a face mask. That policy is currently mandated by the state.

“Wearing a face mask should not be mandated,” said Hicks, who suggested the school division is not following Virginia Department of Health guidelines for when to quarantine students and staff due to exposure to the virus.

If elected, Hicks promised to “be a voice for ED-3 while creating excellence in Halifax County schools with interest focused on academics, arts, and athletics.”

Thomas Lee

Lee, who qualified to have his name listed on the ballot for the ED-3 School Board race — fellow candidate Amy Gautier also will also appear on the ballot — has a background in law enforcement. Born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of 12 siblings, Lee worked for the United States Postal Service and in law enforcement till 2000 when opened a private investigation firm in New York City.

In 2017, Lee retired and married his wife, a Vernon Hill resident and mother of four children who attended elementary school in Halifax County at Sinai and Meadville. Recently, Lee started a notary business to serve his adopted community.

Lee said one of his main objectives if elected to the School Board will be to focus on the mental health of students who have been affected by the pandemic. Following a year of remote learning at home, students who have fallen behind should feel comfortable as they re-enter the school environment, with the support they need to catch up academically and not feel left out.

He said a new high school is needed to provide a 21st century learning environment for students, and to shore up the security of the high school, which is lacking. Lee said a new high school would go hand-in-hand with academic progress for county students.

“It is quite necessary, not just from technology aspect but for students to have a sense of pride,” said Lee.

He sees a new HCHS facility as an asset to the county and a critical part of the school division’s push to reverse the exodus of teachers from Halifax County. “Keeping the teachers in the area is going to be paramount,” said Lee. “We would like to bring good business to our community and grow our community, and to have that foundation of a good school environment, good teachers, with good curriculum will do so.”

In time as a law enforcement officer, Lee said he learned a great deal about the importance of listening — lessons that helped him to train fellow officers, become an instructor and handle hostage negotiations, among the various assignments he took on during his career. This emphasis on listening will be an asset if elected to the School Board. “Having these skills I think is so, so important coming into an environment like this,” said Lee.

Improving Halifax County’s schools will have benefits that go beyond education, although that is foremost. Lee said he would be an advocate for more funding for Halifax County Public Schools. “The price is what you pay but the value is what you get,” he said.









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Comments

Hicks is the only one out of these with a brain. The other 2 dodes are fools.

Comments

I said, "I think a (new) high school at the cost of teachers losing their jobs is a disgrace." Not, "HCPS is a disgrace." Go to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce FB page (15:30). Also, it seems like commentary has been built into my responses but no one elses. That's weird. Merit pay could come from another part of the school budget rather than the state part. (Authorized by Melissa Hicks)

Comments

To respond to the fact checking on me, here are my calculations based on the comprehensive plan. Closing 3 elementary schools would save about $75 million over 30 years. Out of that, however, about $35 would need to be used to renovate the remaining elementary schools. That is a $40 million difference / 30 years = $1.3 million/year, not $2.3-$2.5 Perhaps I missed some change to this master plan since Sept., which is possible, but more to the point, numbers are changing and being played, making it hard to follow for even those paying attention. No decision on HS should have been made until research done on remodel quotes and until all areas represented. Authorized by Melissa Hicks.

"Closing those three schools, Lineburg said, could generate $6,679,000 in utility and maintenance savings and $69,225,000 in personnel savings over 30 years."
http://www.yourgv.com/news/education/decision-build-a-new-halifax-county-high-school/article_ae92da14-159a-11ec-beba-c743386f4cfa.html

Comments

First, the school board should do what the members of the community elected them. The will of the people. I get sick when they say they are here for the children. Well no you are public servants and you do what the electorate wants! They need to have a spine, stand up to the state and teh central office.

Comments

SO, so, glad I escaped the county. It's funny because every time a new member gets elected, they say that they will stand up to the state and then they get in office they find out all of the legal aspects that are involved and how uneducated on the whole process they are. Stand up to the state and lose state and federal funding, it is that simple. That happens and taxes will go astronomically high. Hicks also wants to stand up to a state mandate on masks. Again it is a state mandate. I'd also love to know what type of assessment she plans on using for performance based raises. A PE class is way different than an AP or DE class. Can't say SOL's, because very few classes have SOL's.

Comments

Allpolitical2, you again? It is I, snowflake. Everything you write is fiction. Did you take any government classes in high school or did you leave early. Do you know the process? The school board and the board of supervisors represent all of us, but they vote their heart and what they think their district wants. You may be voting republican for governor, but he is planning on opening 20 plus charter schools in Virginia. From what I read yunkin is planning the largest teacher raise in the states history. DESERVED! And a large state employee raise, especially state police and deputies. DESERVED! And he is going to freeze alot of state taxes for one year. So, you may even see a need to come up with more local money. Where will that come from. Why don’t you attend the next county meeting, without your sheet, so we can see who you are!


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