Former Meherrin principal challenges for school board seat

Published 10:03 am Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Southampton County Public School Board Selection Commission held a public meeting on Tuesday morning in advance of its upcoming decision regarding the ending terms of the Capron and Drewryville seats held by vice chairman Jim Pope and Donna Rountree, respectively. Only Rountree is opposed in her bid to return to the school board, as former Meherrin Elementary Principal Syretha Wright has tossed her hat into the ring.

“I have been an educator for 39 years, starting out as a classroom teacher for 16 years and then I became an elementary school principal, which I did for 23 years,” she said. “I have two daughters, who are both grown now and live out of the county, but they were educated right here in Southampton County Schools.”

Wright retired in 2014, but remains active scholastically. She is a tutor at Capron Elementary School and is on the dean’s advisory boards at Paul D. Camp Community College and Longwood University.

“Children have always been my life, and I have formed a lot of partnerships and friendships with people in the community. I feel like I’m very qualified to be on the board,” she said. “I will dedicate myself to doing what’s best for the children as a member of the board, and I look forward to being able to continue to contribute to the community. I feel that it’s important to keep abreast of what’s going on in education because we have generations of kids that follow, and we want to make sure they all have a good education and that they are prepared for the future. Things have changed tremendously in my 39 years as an educator. Things come and things go, but the thing that doesn’t change is that kids need a quality education.”

Two people spoke on Wright’s behalf, including Robin Page, who cited an immediate connection she had with the former principal when she and her family moved to the county in 2012.

“We weren’t sure whether we were going to live in Franklin or Southampton County,” Page said. “We visited several schools, and what we found was that Meherrin Elementary was the school that we wanted our children to go to. What she did for our kids was make them feel welcome at a time when they were very nervous. She created an environment that says to me that my children are welcome.”

Rountree, who unseated 23-year school board veteran Becky Blackburn in 2012, said that some question the ability of a candidate who does not have a background in education.

“As a parent of a child in the school system, I have to disagree with that. We need a balance of both to blend the ideas, not rule it with one strong opinion. I have worked hard in my four-year term to listen and learn all that I can from experienced board members,” she said. “My oldest daughter graduated in 2012, and I have a rising senior, so I get to see first-hand all of the good that our county school system has to offer. I also get to see, as a parent, things we can do to improve.”

School board members Dr. Carolyn Modlin and Lynn Bradley spoke in favor of returning Rountree to the board.

“She makes decisions after thoughtful consideration,” Modlin said. “Some of us are very vocal, as you can tell, but Donna takes her time and thinks through very, very carefully. She doesn’t make quick decisions. When she speaks, you know that she’s thought about it and is giving you her honest opinion that’s not based on race, gender or any particular group of people. She is solely focused on what’s best for the children.”

Pope was also appointed to the school board in 2012, replacing the late Russell Schools, who retired after 41 years on the board. He serves as the school board vice chairman. school budget committee chairman and has two children in the district.

“Over the last four years, I’ve learned a lot of things while serving on the board. The toughest thing for me to accept was that you’re not going to make everybody happy, regardless of how hard you try. But if you can look at yourself in the mirror at night and know that you made the best decision for the students in our school system, then everything else is going to take care of itself.”

Pope prides himself most on helping the school board improve its relationship with the Southampton County Board of Supervisors.

“We’ve improved communication, and I feel that we’ve done our best to be transparent in all of our budgetary decisions,” he said. “I’ve worked closely with [superintendent] Dr. [Alvera J.] Parrish, our board and the board of supervisors to ensure that our main priority is improvement in student achievement.”

Modlin also spoke on Pope’s behalf.

“One of his greatest strengths is in monitoring the budget and being a liason for the school board and the board of supervisors,” she said. “I think that is critical because I’ve lived in this county most of my life, and I have seen years when there was a gap between the two. Jim is about building bridges between these two boards, and that’s extremely important.”

Southampton County Public Schools is one of 24 out of Virginia’s 134 school districts where voters do not choose school board members. Instead, a selection commission is comprised of chairman Mark Hodges, Wayne Cosby and Larry Rose. Most districts changed from appointed to elected school boards after the General Assembly enacted legislation in 1992 permitting them to do so.

In Franklin, city council chooses the school board, while voters do so in Isle of Wight County.

Under the appointment system, the Southampton County Circuit Court appoints three members to four-year terms on the selection commission. According to state law, commission members must be qualified voters who live within the county and are not county or state officers or employed by the school board to which they appoint.

Appointments will take place on Tuesday, June 14, at 11 a.m. in the school board office complex, 21308 Plank Road in Courtland.