Q&A: At-large candidates for Franklin School Board

Published 7:41 am Saturday, July 4, 2009

Editor’s note: Tidewater News staff writer Nicholas Langhorne is conducting e-mail interviews of candidates for the Franklin School Board. Today we feature candidates for the board’s at-large seat. David Benton, 44, is production manager for Hubbard Peanut Co. in Sedley and the current holder of the seat. Phyllis V. Crum, 52, is service delivery coordinator for the American Red Cross’ Southeast Virginia Franklin/Southampton Unit. A third candidate, Dr. Peggy Scott, a Franklin minister, declined to respond, citing travel obligations.

Question: How are you qualified to serve on the school board?

BENTON: I have a child in the school system and a second who will enter school in the fall. I also have more than 10 years of service on the Franklin City School Board. I understand the thought process behind the policies the board has put in place over the last decade. There are a staggering number of rules and regulations that apply to public education, and knowledge of those is one of the keys to successful governance of our schools.

CRUM: I am a leader with a proven track record of problem-solving skills and coalition building at the executive level that consistently achieves meaningful and measurable results. I serve on boards and committees directed by the Commonwealth’s Comprehensive Services Act and the Department of Education as chairwoman of both the City of Franklin Community Policy Management Team (CPMT) for At Risk Youth and Families and the Franklin City Public School Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC). Serving our community on these boards allows me to serve as an advocate for supporting services that improve the quality of life for our children and their families. I also serve as a results leader for the Smart Beginnings Western Tidewater leadership project. This project is focusing on services that improve the quality of care for children that help them to enter school healthy and ready to learn. Additionally, I am an instructor for the Franklin Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s Life Skills Program, where I help residents, many of whom are parents, to improve their marketability skills (both professionally and personally) as they strive to improve their chances to secure and retain employment. My proven leadership skills, administrative expertise at executive levels, and 20 years of military service at executive levels would serve our community well as a school board member. My strengths and service in these areas will be of great use in contributing to a team that is committed to serving our children by providing a quality education, to serving our teachers by supporting professional growth, to serving our staffs but ensuring a safe, healthy work environment, and supporting our parents by being accessible for their inquiries, all the time holding each stakeholder accountable for doing his or her part to provide Franklin with its future workforce and community leaders. We can build a future that will hold great promise and hope, fueled by new perspectives and fresh innovation, and it starts with a quality education that is available to every single child. This is what I bring to the table in service to our community.

Question: What is the biggest issue you see facing the board right now?

BENTON: Full accreditation of all of our schools is my top priority. S.P. Morton Elementary School and Franklin High School have cleared the hurdle, and J.P. King Middle School is close to attaining full accreditation. We are awaiting the results of our spring SOL testing for clarity — and are hopeful that our middle school students have performed well. They have worked very hard to pass the tests. Our continued success requires a sustained effort on the part of students, parents, staff, school board and community. We will only be successful over the long term by working together as a group.

CRUM: Casting and executing a cohesive vision and plan that places education as the single most important issue facing Franklin today. Education is the answer to crippling poverty and the vicious cycle it fosters. Education is a key enabler that supports the building of good character and integrity as a partner with parents and spiritual leaders, who in their homes and places of worship influence a generation. Education is the answer to a future where our children can be equipped to become valued, committed, well-prepared, who are ready to be contributing citizens in our society. When these young people are released into the sphere of life that they will influence society in, they will recall that education was the key that unlocked the doors of success, independence and fruitfulness. Education is the catalyst that promotes satisfaction and dignity experienced by hard, honest work done well by a prepared child, all grown up, who is a prepared adult. Such an adult is prepared, equipped and ready to provide the answers that are buried within each of them to the challenges that will face our neighborhoods, our nation and our world. These answered challenges will equip them to lead families, businesses, governments, churches, communities.

Question: In your opinion, what is the school board doing right?

BENTON: I am excited about the new leadership that the board is developing with Dr. Michelle Belle as our superintendent. I am very proud of the exceptional staff members we have in all three of our schools. Our teachers and support staff don’t get enough credit for all the good work they do with our children on a daily basis. They are the unsung heroes in Franklin.

CRUM: They raised the minimum GPA for extracurricular participation to 2.0. Now students have a fighting chance in today’s world.

Question: What would be your top priorities if appointed to the school board?

BENTON: We need to improve our overall student discipline. Children cannot learn in an environment that is not conducive to the teaching/learning process.

CRUM: Making education everyone’s priority and establish partnerships with community stakeholders like local civic organizations, businesses, faith-based organizations. Cultivate leadership that unleashes creativity at all levels.

Question: What specific facilities improvements would you push for if appointed?

BENTON: Our elementary school needs permanent classroom space added to replace the trailers that currently house several grade levels of our students. Trailers are not a permanent solution. In addition, we need to renovate cafeteria food-prep spaces at the elementary and high schools. These areas are 30-plus years of age, with much of the original cooking equipment still in service.

CRUM: Update computer systems, teaching tools and equipment, update textbooks, update lunchrooms/expanded menu options, and lab equipment.

Question: Do you agree with the school board’s recent decision to raise the minimum grade-point average for extracurricular participants? Why or why not?

BENTON: Yes, I voted to raise Franklin’s minimum standards for extracurricular participation. Bottom line: Our students can do the work. I firmly believe that children rise to the expectations that we as adults place on them. All of our children can be successful in school if proper support systems are in place and functioning appropriately. The most critical piece of this support system (by far) is a caring, nurturing home.

CRUM: Yes, and it is long overdue. I cannot imagine a situation that would support participation in extracurricular activities without the minimum GPA of 2.0 since there is not a college or university in the country that would accept as a freshman anyone who had below a 2.0 GPA. Anyone participating in any extracurricular activities gets to do that by earning the privilege to do so with the requisite GPA. The best day of a student’s life should not be limited to the day when the team won a tournament or championship then limit their chances to be ready for life because they did not have the GPA to enter college or earn a scholarship, or have enough credits for vocational or technical education. We have to make sure they finish well.

Question: Would you support an increase in Franklin’s real estate tax rate in order to raise additional funds for public education? Why or why not?

BENTON: I personally believe our City Council does an admirable job of funding our schools. It is our state and federal governments that have fallen short of financing the programs and services they place under the purview of public schools. Too many mandates from Richmond and D.C are never fully funded, leaving the locality to try to find a way to pay for the added burdens that are placed upon us. This can be very frustrating. Our local school board works through the Virginia School Boards Association and the National School Boards Association to lobby for appropriate support of our city’s schools at the state and national levels. Having said that, I would not be in favor of raising real estate taxes until we have exhausted opportunities in our own back yard to collaborate with Paul D. Camp Community College and other local school divisions on shared services, where they are appropriate and make good fiscal sense for all parties involved.

CRUM: I am not certain that we have exhausted all of the opportunities available to us yet. We could intensify our grant search efforts to apply for federal, state and local grants before we consider increasing taxes. Wise use of the funds that are budgeted for education must be our primary focus when it comes to budgeting.

Question: Would you support shared services or consolidation with Southampton County Public Schools?

BENTON: Only if doing so will improve or enhance the teaching/learning process and offer our students a wider range of alternatives. I think shared service makes sense for both localities at this juncture. We are a small, rural area. Our children could benefit from economies of scale and we could still maintain our small class sizes and small-school, community feel. This is preferable to the larger, impersonal size of many of the mega-schools in the Tidewater area for educational reasons.

CRUM: This seems to be a point of concern for many people. But it is to everyone’s advantage, especially in these tough economic times, to make the most of the resources we can cultivate. We all want the same thing: the best for our children. I would absolutely support leveraging all partnerships and alliances possible. For example, Southampton County and Franklin both have students going to various programs in Tidewater; we could use the same buses to make the trip.

Question: Is the school board doing enough to ensure a high-quality education to all students in Franklin?

BENTON: Yes. Most people don’t realize the many long hours our board works in an effort to help all of our students and staff be successful. I am very proud of my association with our school system. There is a lot of good work going on here.

CRUM: There is always more that can be done. Our efforts and good intentions have taken us as far as we can go. Creative, purposeful and insightful leadership that can anticipate and look ahead will adjust our focus to increase our chances for a moral, prosperous, healthy and promising future for the next generation. I am hopeful that if we set a new course for the future, we can employ more innovative methods and support systems to continuously improve upon what has been built so far. Taking a serious look at where we have been and honestly evaluating what has worked and what has not worked, coupled with tools that we can use to measure results by accountable agents, will set us on the course where excellence is expected and not left to chance. Then we will see an increase in our graduation rate and an increase in our graduation quality. Our children deserve nothing less. They are facing many exciting and dangerous challenges ahead, and we can help them live well and finish with greatness. I do not know every student, teacher, administrator and support staff personally, but I do know this: We all want what is best for our children. We all want to ensure that they enter school healthy and ready to learn. We can create an atmosphere for learning that searches for the best individual approach based on various learning styles that give our children the best possible chance to become everything that God intended them to be.