Board leaders share thoughts from school tour

Published 4:00 pm Thursday, June 13, 2024

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The Southampton County School Board held a joint meeting with the Southampton County Board of Supervisors on May 28 for a tour of some school facilities.

The tour, which began at 11 a.m., had been requested by the Board of Supervisors.

Leaders from each board took time to share what they took away from the May 28 tour in separate interviews after the event.

Central District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards and Northwest District Supervisor and Board Vice Chair William Hart Gillette noted that the boards have not met formally in years, and they underscored a desire for better communication between the bodies.

Gillette said the tour explored parts of Southampton High School and Southampton Middle School.

“We saw several classrooms, we saw the culinary arts area, we saw the gym in the middle school,” he said. “We saw outside the greenhouse area and ended up back at the Wigwam area.”

Edwards said he thought the tour was a good start.

“It wasn’t what I envisioned that we would do, (that) we’d be able to go around and talk to people and go around on our own,” he said. “It was a little bit more guided than I thought it would be, a little bit more orchestrated than I thought.”

He said, “Pretty much everybody that we talked to knew we were coming and knew what was up. I’d have wanted to probably see something a little more spontaneous. But it’s a good start.”

Gillette said it was “a very general tour. There were several areas that we didn’t see.” 

He noted that School Board Chair Dr. Deborah Goodwyn and Southampton County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn P. Shannon led the tour.

“There were some specific things that I had wanted to see, if I could, and we saw a couple of those but didn’t really get in to see some of the others for lack of time,” he said. “We had to be finished up by about 1:30 or 2 (p.m.). The buses were going to be coming in, so that put a time constraint on the overall tour. 

“Hopefully we can have another one at some future date and get a little more familiar with the physical plant, the buildings and the areas of need,” he added.

Gillette said a key piece of information he learned on the tour pertained to mold, which was represented in the school division’s budget request by $500,000 for mold mitigation.

“The mold was one of the things that was a big item that they had asked for in the budget and found out on the tour that they had actually corrected that issue last fall before school started,” he said. “Based on what they told us, they brought in three companies and selected one, and it was determined that it was not a health hazard to students, and they had taken care of it before the start of school.”

Both Edwards and Gillette remarked about the number of classes they observed being taught virtually.

Gillette said he asked about sources of content for virtual classes and was told that the school division could not go outside of the Department of Education for subject matter.

Gillette was interested to learn that the middle school had three principals, one for each grade level.

“So the question in my mind — who do they report to?” he said. “It’s kind of a strange system to have a principal in three different grades in the same school. But that wasn’t clarified.”

He said the tour included one of the counseling offices.

“I was trying to get formulated in my mind a normal, structured day — average day, if you will — for a student since they had such a long list of responsibilities and duties for the counselors to carry out,” Gillette said. “It was extremely long, and with the number of students, it was hard to visualize. It seemed like it would open itself up to a loss of class time.”

Gillette expressed a desire that the tour had happened earlier in the budgeting process, which was set to wrap up for fiscal year 2025 on June 4.

“This year in this climate and with inflation and other things that factor into our revenue stream, there had to be some curtailment of appropriations,” he said, alluding to significant cuts made in local funding to the schools. “So therein, for that reason, the tour would have been much better around (the) first of the year, for sure, before we got deep into the budget.”

When asked if he would have felt differently about the Board of Supervisors cutting local funding of the schools as much as it did had the tour been held earlier, he said, “Don’t know. But at least you have a chance to talk one with another. When you get in this type of a situation, there are things urgent, and then there are things that can maybe be put in another fiscal year or even another quarter. For instance, there are some things that could be funded maybe in fourth quarter on a percentage basis and pick up part of it in first quarter of the next fiscal year.

“And there are all kinds of maneuvers that you can make in the appropriation process,” he added. “But the more you know about the receiving end of the funding, it makes it much easier to set the budget.”

During the tour, he took note of physical education in the gym at the middle school, observing different grades participating at one time.

He also addressed vocational and technical education and training.

“They don’t have a welding class,” he said. “Hopefully in the future they can get that up and going, because there’s a huge need for well-paying jobs in that field, along with the electrical, along with several of the other trades as well. So hopefully they can get that up and going. There are certain grants out there for that, the career technical grants.”

Gillette said he thought it would be good for both boards to meet in the future and come up with strategies to meet the school division’s needs.

He also expressed a desire for another tour of the physical plant of the school system without time constraints.

Edwards said, “I’d like to see some more spontaneous meetings, not so organized, orchestrated, so to speak.”

Edwards noted that the school board is gradually changing with its shift from formation by appointment to formation by election.

“I think hopefully that will change the level of communication,” he said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to improve things is I think new leadership there, as far as being open, and we need to have transparency, and we need to get answers to questions. We’re not answering any questions to hurt anybody, we’re just asking questions because we’re all interested in the education and doing whatever we need to do.”

He said that until there is more transparency and more communication between the boards, the budget process is going to be difficult.

“If they want to ask questions of us, that’s fine,” he said. “They can come down and look at the books, whatever they want.”

At the end of the tour, Gillette said he asked Goodwyn what the school system’s needs were, and he said she told him it had none.

In her reflections of the tour, Goodwyn provided context for her answer to Gillette’s question, noting that she did not mean that the school division has no needs but rather that those needs had already been shared in the form of the budget request submitted to the county.

“Yes, there are needs,” she said. “Those needs were outlined in the needs-based budget that the school board submitted to the Board of Supervisors. And even knowing those needs, the Board of Supervisors reduced the budget below the level of funding provided for the ’23-’24 school year.”

Goodwyn said she thought the May 28 tour was productive.

She noted that to her, it was an opportunity for the Board of Supervisors to not just walk through the school buildings but to learn something about what goes on inside them.

“For example, lunch was served (to the supervisors) by the culinary arts students, but in addition to that, they got to meet some of the central office staff, some of the building-level administrators, a few teachers, a couple of school counselors,” she said. “So it was an opportunity to share some information about what goes on inside the building, some of the programs, some of the offerings.”

She said it was also a chance to answer some questions. She noted that Gillette had a question about the roles and responsibilities of school counselors, and not only did she and Shannon give him some information on-site, but she was able to provide hard copies of information on the subject at the Board of Supervisors’ regular monthly meeting that evening. 

These hard copies shared what the Code of Virginia, Virginia Department of Education and American School Counselor Association say about the role of counselors.

Goodwyn also noted that, like Edwards and Gillette, she desires future meetings between the boards, and she had a couple topics in particular that she wants to see explored.

“I’m hopeful that there will be more meetings too, but I would like to see us have a meeting that would focus on the plan that the Board of Supervisors has to replace aging facilities,” she said. “So for example, Southampton High School, which is now the middle school, so the building that houses Southampton Middle School, was built in 1954, so it’s about 70 years old. The space that houses the Career Technical Center is about 50 years old. What we still call our new high school is about 30 years old. And of course the Capron Elementary building is about 70 years old. 

“So school buildings, the facilities themselves, don’t last forever, so I’d like to see us talk about a plan to address the aging buildings that we have in the county, aging school board buildings in the county,” she said.

Then she added, “I would also like to see us talk about things like parks and recreation, because our county doesn’t have a department of parks and recreation, and the Board of Supervisors does not fund parks and recreation. So I’d like to see us have some conversations that would talk about measures the Board of Supervisors could take that would enhance opportunities for students’ facilities. 

“So yes, there is a need for us to meet again, but the need is for the Board of Supervisors to provide some information and some clarity about what they plan to do and how they plan to invest in the lives of the youth of Southampton County,” she said.

School Board Vice Chair Christopher Smith Sr. was quite pleased with how the May 28 tour proceeded.

“I thought that it was a very, very productive meeting, just coming together, getting to know each other on a fairly personal level,” he said. “I think that will help the whole situation. We are two boards that have been constitutionally formed, and it’s important that we understand what our charges are and how we can partner in this whole situation.”