CHARLES TOWN – Ten candidates are competing in the June 9 primary to serve on three Jefferson County Board of Education seats.
Two online election forums took place last week for those candidates. The Jefferson County League of Women Voters held a forum on May 12, and the Charles Town Middle School Builders, a student-led community service club, held a candidate forum last Saturday evening.
Both forums were conducted online due to the coronavirus social distancing restrictions. The forums included opening and closing statements from the participating candidates along with a series of questions and answers.
The League’s forum can be viewed on the organization’s website at lwv-jcwv.org. The student service club’s forum can be viewed on the group’s Facebook page.
Eight of the candidates joined the League’s forum. They were Wendy Whitehair-Lochner of Shepherdstown, David Morreale of Shepherdstown, Mark Osbourn of Sheperdstown, Erin Bajada of Shepherdstown, Regina Kerrigan of Kabletown, Donna Joy of Shepherdstown, Amanda Godlove of Harpers Ferry and Barbara Fuller of Middleway.
Two candidates—Daniel Swisher of Charles Town, and Dan Hournbuckle of Harpers Ferry—declined to participate.
Here’s an exerpt of the combined questions and candidates responses from League’s forum. Not every question and answer is represented due to space limitations in the Spirit. Some edits were made for clarity. Some introductions were combined but condensed to avoid repetition.
Wendy Whitehair-Lochner: I am a native of Jefferson County and have lived here over 45 years, and I’m a product of Jefferson County schools—and very excited right now that I have been interim school board member for the last couple of months.
I was a teacher in Jefferson County Schools. I taught special education at North Jefferson Elementary as well as at Charles Town Middle School as a special education teacher. And then after my career and education in Jefferson County, I was hired at the West Virginia Department of Education where I spent over 10 years working as a response to intervention specialist as well as a school improvement coordinator turning around low-performing schools all across the state of West Virginia.
David Morreale: My wife and I moved here in July of 2018, and we moved here with our two little boys. One of which is in second grade and one of which will be coming into kindergarten.
I am a strong believer in becoming a member of the school board for the same reason I became a teacher in the first place, which is my concern for students.
I am a believer in supporting teachers because I believe that teacher-centered systems create student-centered classrooms. I’m a believer in equity over equality. I believe equality refers to the same opportunity for all students. I think we need equity which concentrates on giving the necessary supports to individual students.
Mark Osbourn: A lifelong resident in Jefferson County, I have a diverse background in education. I was a teacher for 15 years and a principal for 23 years at C.W. Shipley [Elementary School] in Harpers Ferry. This is my eighth year serving on the Board of Education. I currently serve as vice president of the Board of Education. I think experience counts, and I think we’re going to need experience to navigate uncharted waters here as we progress through this next year.
Erin Bajada: I moved here in 2016, and I’m running for the Board of Education because our county needs more motivated and passionate people in local government to make positive change. … I firmly believe that providing greater education will uplift our entire county, beginning with supporting our teachers. I wouldn’t be here today without the wonderful teachers I have had in my life.
I’m a mother [and] an organic farmer. I’m a small-business owner and a student of education and I have spent many years providing services to children, teens and young adults with special needs. … Our country’s greatest resources are people, and I hope to be a voice that puts our children’s education first.
Regina Kerrigan: I’m a mom of three. … I grew up in Charles Town. I attended every grade [kindergarten] through 12 here in Jefferson County public schools. For the past year and a half, I have been a stay-at-home mom. Prior to that, I was a business owner of Billie’s Cafe in Ranson for five years. Prior to moving back to Jefferson County eight years ago, I lived in Northern Virginia, Pittsburgh and Seattle working in copy editing and copywriting.
Looking toward the future, I hope to have an active part in helping all students reach their potential. That means making sure they have clean air and water, making sure that we are lessening the impact of adverse childhood experiences and also improving our facilities, making sure we’re getting off on the right foot with our technology and facilities.
Donna Joy: I have bachelor’s degrees in elementary ed[ucation] and math, master’s degrees in special ed and psychology, and my Ph.D. is in educational measurement statistics research and evaluation. This allows me the ability to analyze data, research and statistics, which I believe that we really need right now on the board.
I have been teaching for 33 years. I taught special ed for 15 years and I taught special ed math. I currently teach math in the Jefferson County school system. … I started teaching at the college level in 2001. … I’m very experienced in online education.
Amanda Godlove: I am a mom of two boys, ages 8 and 9, as well as a small-business owner myself. Previously, I worked in corporate America and I’m hoping that some of those skills can transition over to working on the board and advocating for not just our families but our teachers and all the citizens of Jefferson County.
Part of my goal is to make things easier to increase communication with our families as well as with the citizens. One of the things that is also key is ensuring that every child has a successful school experience with Jefferson County, and that may not look the same for every child and that’s OK. I want to be able to work with each family, teachers, administrators to ensure that every one of those children can be successful—whatever that success looks like for that child and their family.
Barbara Fuller: I am the wife of a retired Air Force tech sergeant who now works for [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. I have four children ranging in ages from 30 to 15, with my youngest just finishing her sophomore year … at Jefferson High School.
One of the things that I wanted to accomplish while joining the school board was getting its finances where they need to be. We have a lot of problems with schools being older and they need to be updated, and we need to be able to get bonds passed and levies passed.
Question: In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the Jefferson County school system?
Morreale: One of the most overwhelming weaknesses we have here in Jefferson County is that we are losing a lot of teachers, a lot of great teachers, to adjacent counties. And I think that we need to think more about how to support the teachers that we have in the county and how to attract great teachers to come to the county.
When I came here, I knew that I wanted to serve on the Board of Ed as soon as the opportunity arose, and so I began teaching at a small private school here in Shepherdstown. I was looking at the salary scales in other counties, and I noticed that just the enormous disparity between what we pay our teachers here in Jefferson County compared to counties that are very easily reached in a very short commute. And so I think that we need to support our teachers with better pay.
I’m a big believer in small schools and small class sizes.
Osbourn: Our biggest strength is our staff and the people that serve our schools in Jefferson County, and I also have to commend our community for their support of the levy since 1946. And I think our weakness is, once again, funding from the state.
Our staff has trouble living in this area because of the high cost of living. Location pay, or whatever you want to call it, is very important, and our legislators and our government from the state need to recognize this and find some way to reward these teachers that work in areas where the cost of living is high.
Bajada: Our strengths are definitely our community and they are also our teachers and staff, and I think that many of our weaknesses would be … losing teachers. And also there’s a disparity among our schools, and there’s a dwindling annual budget, and we need more resources for our teachers for continuing education as well.
Kerrigan: One of our strengths is our diverse demographic as compared to the rest of the state. Our students come from all walks of life and income levels and religions, and that’s a great thing. It starts our kids off prepared to work with all kinds of people all over the world wherever their paths may take them.
However, that also leads me into one of our challenges, which is that a lot of the state regulations do not serve our county well. So we have a lot of challenges stacked up against us as far as locality pay. The state regulations put up a lot of blockers for us in order to offer locality pay, for us to really tackle our unique problems that we have here in this county.
Joy: We do a very good job with the after-school programs. … We have an outstanding [advance placement] and honors programs in high schools.
Some of the weaknesses, of course, are the teachers—teacher turnover. But there’s a lot that we can do without relying on state funding, starting with basic mutual respect. We could offer child care. Some of the other things—we need to repair our buildings; many roofs are leaking. The track needs to be fixed. The Shepherdstown educational complex needs to be built.
Then, finally, we have a serious problem with special education in the county. We are perpetually just about always out of compliance in special ed.
Godlove: A lot of folks agree that one of our the key assets of this area—and that I’ve learned through my children and their experiences—is the teachers here. They have heart. They have passion. They want to succeed. They want their children to be successful.
Another aspect, one of the greatest things about this county and its strength is the kids themselves. They have a desire to learn. They want to be in school. I’ve heard this. I hear them say how they’re excited to go. So it’s our job as a county to kind of foster that growth.
Although it’s outside the Board of Education purview to effect or enact locality pay, I would absolutely support the superintendent in advocating for that and providing them the reasons and numbers and resources so that she can go to our capital and get some of that for our teachers.
The other challenge that we have is actual support of not just our teachers but of the aides and the support personnel. Many of them have indicated that they would like additional training in different areas…, and I would like to be able to support all the staff and employees.
Fuller: Not to sound like a parrot, but, yes, some of our strengths really are our teachers. My children have had wonderful teachers. The weakness that goes along with that is that they don’t get the pay they rightfully deserve, and that needs to change at our state level. It’s detrimental to retaining our teachers.
One of our other downfalls is the lack of attention to special needs children. I have a son who is special needs and I had to advocate for him his whole schooling career. So there needs to be some extra attention towards those special needs kids. And if you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch our Jefferson County marching band, that is one of our biggest attributes. It is an amazing feat to see.
Whitehair-Lochner: It really, truly is our staff and our administrative leadership in our schools. We have some wonderful principals that are being very innovative and creative in our schools.
We just recently put in some instructional technology that’s going to support these new programs—STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] programs … . But, as already mentioned, our retention in getting teachers.
We have a national teaching shortage. Those are the hurdles we have to overcome, but sometimes as much as I would love to be able to give everybody tons of money, sometimes it’s about a culture that’s in a community and in the schools that keeps our teachers there.
I was a teacher that had to make that decision: Did I want to go to Loudoun County for more money or stay here? Obviously with children in the school system I wanted to stay here and make it the best system that I could make it. But we do have infrastructure that we need to work with. We’ve purchased some land. So there’s been some good decisions being made, but we need to keep moving forward.
Question: Do you believe that all students have equal and adequate education in Jefferson County schools?
Fuller: I would like to believe that all children have equal education opportunities in Jefferson County, but the fact is, is that there are children that fall through those cracks. … I would like to see those kids that fall through those cracks though—the lower-income families—be given further training, further guidance on things that they can do so that they can experience the same educational standards that other kids have.
Whitehair-Lochner: All students are allowed a free appropriate public education. It is not a free, perfect education. But our students, you know, we’re trying to provide the best we can at Jefferson County Schools. … Our students have differentiated needs, and we need to address all of those differentiated needs of all of our students, and that takes a lot of work and we have a lot of good programs.
We are starting to implement the social-emotional in providing the support. Intervention is something that I think our county needs to really ramp up for our students—particularly elementary students—so that we can help those students that are marginalized. So we’re getting there, but even as a state our data shows that we’re not there yet.
Morreale: I would echo Miss Lochner. I think that equal is not where we need to be concentrating. I think we need to look at equity in education. I think we need to understand that social identifiers—religion, race, ethnicity—those things need to be viewed as assets, not merely as something that we need to equalize.
We need to make sure that each student has access not to the same support as every other student, but the support that that individual student needs.
And I’d like to see acknowledgment in both curriculum and in professional development needs for both administrators and teachers—you know an acknowledgment of those equitable needs.
Osbourn: This is an area that we always need to evaluate and look at and find ways to get all students to find their niche.
I think the area of special education, I think we have some room to improve in that area. I don’t think that we are meeting the needs of all those students. I think we need to differentiate instruction much better than we’re doing.
In another area that is close and dear to my heart is Vo-Tech. I do not believe that we’re doing a very good job with Vo-Tech at this time.
We need students to come out of our Vo-Tech departments that are job-ready for employment. And I do not think that we’re doing that at this time.
Bajada: Unfortunately, not all our schools are created equal and not all our students come from equal backgrounds. There is no one path to success that fits every child. Jefferson County schools are trying hard to adjust [to] all the students’ needs, but I would like to see more. I would like to see an increase in our infants and toddlers program and bring it to our elementary schools to adjust their needs from the very beginning.
And we need to offer better services to our children with special needs, and we really need to look at our students’ diversity and individuality and acknowledge each one and provide them with an education that suits them and gives them their best path to success for their future.
Kerrigan: It’s widely understood that certain situations and disadvantages can hinder individual access to opportunities. Here in this county, it is front and center in the minds of our teachers, our admin and staff—whether it’s trying to make sure every student has access to the internet during this COVID crisis, making sure all kids are getting enough food to eat.
But, of course, it goes beyond that in many ways. It’s not something that we can simply judge without constant evaluation. We need actual data to look in which ways kids are being disadvantaged, and I think that only with that data we can really make any meaningful solutions.
Joy: Well, definitely not [that county students have equal access to education] and a lot of the reasons are because of the policies that our county relies on. Number one, the credit recovery—that’s severely abused. We have kids that maybe show up five times out of the year. They end up walking across the [graduation] stage because the policy is to graduate. It doesn’t matter if they’re achieving or earning the credit, but we really are pushing kids through using credit recovery.
Number two, special ed. We’re always out of compliance with special ed. Our county has a policy to limit the number of [Individualized Education Programs] that are written [for special education students] in order to save money. And these kids are falling through the cracks.
We don’t follow research-based strategies. Our reading strategies—even though somebody came and did an article on how wonderful they are doing—that’s not what research says is the ideal way to teach reading.
Kids are driving an hour and a half to go to [James] Rumsey [Technical Institute] for Vo-Tech. We need to bring those Vo-Tech programs here.
Godlove: I don’t think all of our students are receiving equal opportunities to succeed, [including] Vo-Tech opportunities. Are we talking to them about, you know, military service? Every one of our children, their level or what bar they set for their success is going to be different based on their unique needs, and I don’t think as a county we’re addressing all of those unique needs at this time.
The other piece of that question was “adequate.” We may be adequately educating all of our students, but are we as a county OK with adequate. I would not be, so I would say we need to evaluate, gather more information on what areas we can improve and then move forward with making those changes.
And I don’t mean by just addressing the needs of a few at the cost of many. I’ve heard from some of our educators that that could be a concern at times as well. So we need to find and be able to strike a balance between meeting the needs of a few and meeting them all and allowing every child to have an opportunity to be successful.
Question: What specific actions should the Board of Education take to address one of the challenges you identified?
Osbourn: Well, one of the first things we have to do is set a date for the excess levy and to support it and to try to get it passed because we have about one year before that levy’s up. And that levy funds about 108 teachers over the formula that we have from the state. Plus it supplements the pay of all of our staff.
The next thing we need to do—we’re going to be proposing, hopefully, a bond [school building construction and renovations] bond in November. We do need [to have] some schools built, and we need some safety measures taken in some of the schools that we already have, such as man locks and things like that, so all of our schools are up to snuff on safety issues.
Bajada: I would like to increase transparency, accessibility and accountability by the school board, and I want to have the school bonds initiated and move forward so that we can fix our schools and build new schools, and fix our athletic fields and sort of decrease the disparity among the schools in our county.
I would also like to set policies that could update our curriculum. I would like to focus on our curriculum. I know that we are very state-mandated as far as our curriculum goes, but I would like to make some updates to our county schools. I know that we offer financing, but our students need to be able to graduate with some certificates in Vo-Tech.
Kerrigan: First, I would like to continue the initial public outreach that has started concerning educating our public about why the yes votes are needed for the levy and bond to battle some of the misconceptions about our funding and which funds go to which purposes.
Secondly, I would like to strengthen the board’s partnerships with organizations in the community that are already working to lessen some of our devastating childhood experiences, such as addiction within the home and poverty. The board already works with many organizations, but again I would like to strengthen those.
Joy: We have a big divide in the county for several reasons, but there is definitely a break in the trust between the school board and the community. So and I don’t know unfortunately if that means that we start over with a new administration if that’s what it takes.
But, as a minimum, we could create community committees where these committees are formed to help with the building plans. We are looking for sustainable buildings. And then committees to help with the drug situation in the schools. … Also, a lot of the community members have complained that they don’t know how to reach the board, that the board is not accessible. So to make the board more accessible.
Godlove: The Board of Education’s website right now could use an overhaul to be more user-friendly. This is a great opportunity for us to be able to convey information to the community on such things as bonds that are coming up for a vote, what bonds have passed, how much money we’ve received and, most importantly, what are we doing with those funds. I think an updated website with a portal that’s easy to access will help convey that information.
In addition, I’d like to support teachers by proposing a teacher liaison position within the schools and that person’s sole job is to support the teachers, listen when they say, “Hey, I have a lot of kids in my class that have special needs. I need more support.” Or a teacher that says, “Hey, I need a little more training in this area.” This individual is going to be there to see that they get the tools that they need.
Fuller: I would start with locality pay. We need to get our legislators on board with changing the laws as they stand in West Virginia because right now they forbid locality pay and, in the meantime until we are able to get locality pay, I would use block grants to their fullest extent to get money for our teachers that will create at least a reason why [teachers] should stay.
Then I would also focus a lot of our energies on fixing our schools. Athletic fields are needed. Our sports need to be funded. Our extracurriculars need to be funded. Our band things need to be funded, and I would like to be at least moving in this century because it, as it stands right now, they seemed to take forever and a day to get going.
Whitehair-Lochner: Certainly finances are a big thing, and there’s a lot of things taxing our system, and the bond is absolutely imperative for us to get that Shepherdstown school. Even though there may be some community disparity, we need to bring our community together to realize that we need to make these decisions that are good for our students and for all of our children.
I would continue to work on that commitment to our community and provide that transparency so that there is that access to school board members. It’s imperative. There’s ways on the website to contact us, but there does need to be more broadcast of how do we have the voice of the community so that we can actualize that into action steps. …
I really think that we need to continue to look at all of the data that comes in on our special education subgroups as well as we have some other subgroups of students that there’s disparity. We need to provide the professional support to our teachers to be able to take that gap and diminish it.
Morreale: I am that rarest of animals in that I am politically liberal but fiscally conservative, and so while I support the bonds moving forward, I would support a comprehensive review of our spending so that we can increase that teacher salary, that teacher pay on an ongoing basis. Not just for this year, but to increase their steps every year moving forward.
So a comprehensive review, including review of PILOT agreements, such as the one with Rockwool that in my view was going to pull a lot of money from our school systems and from our county for the next decade.
I would like to review existing plans for new buildings and instead see if there’s anything that we can do with our existing structures that might prove more cost-effective than building new schools. I am a big proponent of using data to make decisions, and so smaller schools and smaller class sizes might be the way to go.