Change is needed in local school board
[Note: This version corrects errors made in the original online publication.]
The Southampton County Public School Board held a special called meeting on July 27, 2020. The meeting was called to approve the school re-opening plan that was to be presented by the superintendent. The plan was presented to the board and approximately 75 citizens who were in attendance. The public was NOT allowed to comment or ask questions about the presentation.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees every American the right to freedom of speech. Mark Herring, Attorney General of The Commonwealth of Virginia, has issued several legal opinions in recent years, relating directly to public comments at school board meetings. Each of these state that public comments are protected by the First Amendment. However, since the Southampton County Public School Board chose NOT to include public comment time on the July 27 meeting agenda they were able to side step the First Amendment. This action effectively silenced the public. The only input that parents were allowed was a six-question survey that was sent out on July 6, before any reopening information was made public. The school employees were also sent a survey. The results of both were presented during the meeting. The general public was not allowed any input in the reopening plan.
This type of conduct seems to be the norm for Southampton County Public Schools. The Board of Supervisors requested three budget proposals from each department for the 2020/21 fiscal year. Each department complied with this request with the exception of Southampton County Public Schools, which submitted one budget proposal, as required by the Code of Virginia. The CARES Act, which was signed into law by President Donald J. Trump on March 27, 2020, allocated funds to public school systems. $496,235.09 was allocated directly to Southampton County Public Schools. An additional $1,500,000 was allocated to Southampton County and will be distributed at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors. The budget committee from the school board has not yet met with the Board of Supervisors to discuss how much of this additional funding would go to Southampton County Public Schools.
It is time for change in Southampton County!
The Southampton County School Board is NOT an elected body. Each of its members are appointed by a three-person selection committee. This system of school board appointments is a relic of the Jim Crow Era, which was an attempt at that time to keep citizens from having a say in how their school district operated. This clearly was also the case at the July 27 meeting when public comments were NOT permitted. In 1992, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that was signed into law by then-governor Douglas Wilder, allowing localities to have elected school boards. Southampton County is one of the few districts in the Commonwealth of Virginia that still uses the old system. The process to transition to an elected school board is lengthy, and unfortunately, there is not enough time this calendar year to begin this process. We must make this a priority for the 2021 calendar year.
It is time for the citizens of Southampton County to stand up and let your voices be heard. I am calling on all citizens, not just parents, but all citizens of Southampton County to start attending school board meetings. Southampton County Public Schools is the largest taxpayer funded entity in this county. We all have a constitutional right to have our voices heard, and we should not let them be silenced by procedural maneuvering.
The Southampton County Public School Board meets the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m. in the Wigwam of the Southampton Technical Career Center unless another venue is needed. The next meeting is Aug. 10 at 7 p.m.
I hope to see you there!
George Collins Jr.
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