Board requests meeting between school, county leaders

Published 12:10 pm Friday, February 4, 2022

The Southampton County Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 on Jan. 25 to ask that a smaller meeting between county and Southampton County Public Schools leaders be held prior to a facilitated joint work session between the school board and Board of Supervisors that is expected to be held in February.

William Hart Gillette

The dissenting vote was from Boykins District Supervisor Carl J. Faison. Drewryville District Supervisor Dallas O. Jones was not present at the meeting.

Capron District Supervisor and Board Vice Chair William Hart Gillette indicated that the smaller meeting between leaders would be like the one that occurred July 14, featuring the county administrator, school division superintendent and the chairs and vice chairs from both boards.

In his report of that July 14 meeting, Southampton County Administrator Michael W. Johnson stated that the school board asked that any requests for information by the Board of Supervisors regarding the schools be routed through the county administrator to the superintendent.

On July 27, the Board of Supervisors acted on this, preparing some questions that it wanted the school system to answer and routing them through Johnson to SCPS Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn P. Shannon.

Johnson also noted that the county and school leaders agreed at the July 14 meeting to follow up with additional meetings between the respective chairs and vice chairs on a quarterly basis, with the next meeting to be coordinated by the superintendent and county administrator for some time in October.

During the Board of Supervisors’ Oct. 26 meeting, Jerusalem District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards said, “We contacted (school leaders) on September the 28th, gave them dates, (said,) ‘Let’s meet again.’ We’ve heard nothing. Mr. Johnson contacted them again on October the 19th; we’ve heard nothing.”

Alan W. Edwards

On Jan. 25, the Board of Supervisors discussed how plans were proceeding for a joint meeting with the Southampton County School Board, and Edwards and Gillette expressed frustration at how School Board Chair Dr. Deborah Goodwyn had emphasized that the joint meeting will have only one item on the agenda — discussing the Board of Supervisors’ proposed resolution on parental rights.

The resolution expresses serious concerns with the school division and accuses it of violating state law.

Gillette said that if the joint meeting is restricted to one topic, “we’re still left with a lot of unanswered issues.”

Edwards said he agreed 100% and considered the school system dictating the structure and aspects of the meeting to be “a slap in the face.”

“As far as I’m concerned, what we have to clear up is we want to talk about other issues (beyond the resolution),” he said. “If they want to confine this just to one little narrow thing, that doesn’t solve anything. We have questions that have been unanswered since July.”

He said that unless the Board of Supervisors adds some stipulations of its own, he does not feel like the board is ever going to get its questions answered.

“And they’re not bad questions,” he said. “They’re legitimate questions dealing with taxpayers’ money, with education, and it’s all for the benefit of the people being educated — not us.”

Edwards also took issue with the facilitator that Shannon had selected.

At the Jan. 10 school board meeting, Shannon shared how she had reached out to several entities, including the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. On the Cooper Center’s team is Charles W. Hartgrove, who is director of the Virginia Institute of Government. Shannon asked him if he would agree to serve as facilitator, and he did.

Johnson told supervisors Jan. 25 that Hartgrove’s background is similar to his own.

“He was a town manager for the town of Ashland, a deputy city manager in the city of Lynchburg and then went to work for the Institute of Government approximately five years ago,” Johnson said.

Edwards said, “As far as the facilitator goes, from my research, that facilitator is not a neutral person. And I’ve talked to some people up at U.Va., and this is not a neutral facilitator. Now, for (the school division) to unilaterally choose a facilitator is not right either; that should be something (chosen) by mutual agreement. I’m not going to a meeting under these circumstances. I don’t feel this board should be obligated to do that.”

Gillette favored having someone from the superintendent of public instruction’s office being the facilitator.

Johnson said, “Let me be clear — (Shannon) is searching for somebody from the superintendent of public instruction’s office to be the subject matter expert.”

Carl J. Faison

Faison said he thinks it is very important that the boards do have somebody from the Virginia Department of Education present because things will change with the new governor’s administration.

Faison also said he approved of a single-issue agenda for the joint work session.

“As far as the agenda, I have no problem with this particular meeting just being what the school board has outlined, because we’re having people come down to listen to our problem and to listen to this, and I think that somebody from the state school board certainly has a say in this,” he said. “But the other questions we have, I don’t see why we have to do it at the meeting where we’re having these people come down and see us.”

Faison said he agreed the Board of Supervisors needed some followup from the school board on other issues, but he stated that this facilitated joint work session was not the setting for it.

Edwards said that he wants a guarantee from the school board that there will be more meetings between the two boards.

Gillette later reiterated that school division leaders have declined invitations from the Board of Supervisors to meet in the past.

“They’ve done it twice, and in my world you don’t get very favorable results from appropriating agencies with that kind of response, and I don’t think it’s any different for a county,” he said. “Yes, we don’t have authority to run the school system, we’re not doing that, but there’s certain information that we do need in order to carry out our function as an appropriating agency.”

“And I think Charles can help you with that,” said Johnson, who noted that he knows Hartgrove.

“I hope he can,” Gillette said.

Faison said he thinks the facilitator can serve a purpose and that the combination of Hartgrove and a subject matter expert from the Virginia Department of Education could be one that leads to a productive meeting.

“I think the important thing is that we get through this meeting and go forward,” he said, encouraging his fellow supervisors to approach this meeting with the school board open mindedly, knowing that there is no perfect meeting. “If we set it up, if they set it up, or whoever, we’re not going to have it perfectly according to all that they want or all that we want. But if we can go into it with an understanding that we want to meet and we want to get the best out of this that we possibly can and respect one another and care for one another, then the meeting would probably be a good thing if we go into it that way.”

For this joint work session, Johnson said the school division had “tentatively set up two dates, Feb. 8 and 9, when the facilitator and the Workforce Development Center are available.”

Near the end of an approximately 30-minute discussion Jan. 25, Gillette was successful in advancing his plan to propose the smaller meeting of county and school leaders prior to the joint board meeting.

“It’s only three people involved in the meeting from either side,” he said of the smaller meeting. “We ought to be able to take care of that in a couple weeks, or certainly three weeks. Then the following meeting can take place.”

“That makes sense to me,” Franklin District Supervisor Robert White said, and Newsoms District Supervisor Lynda T. Updike added, “Me too.”

Berlin/Ivor District Supervisor Christopher D. Cornwell Sr. reminded his fellow supervisors about how school leaders did not adhere to the understanding that these smaller meetings would happen quarterly, but he was supportive of Gillette’s proposed smaller meeting happening.