The Chesterfield County School Board’s vice chairman in March became the last of the board members to announce he will not seek re-election, leaving all five seats up for grabs in November’s general election.
Javaid Siddiqi is instead seeking the Midlothian District seat on the Board of Supervisors, joining board member Carrie Coyner and Chairman Rob Thompson in leaving to pursue higher office.
Thompson is vying to become the Matoaca District supervisor. Coyner is running for the House of Delegates seat in the 62nd District.
School Board member John Erbach said he’s leaving to focus on his law practice and to have more time with his family. Dianne Smith said that after two terms working to make improvements in the school system, she feels it’s time to pass the reins to someone else.
Thompson said the new board will face a learning curve. Chesterfield County Public Schools this school year welcomed a new superintendent, Mervin Daugherty, after the former division chief left to become the state’s superintendent of public instruction.
“Will it be maybe a little slow at first as everybody ramps up to speed? Yeah. Will it be a little bumpy because there’s no institutional knowledge? Maybe,” Thompson said. “But they’re all going to come up to speed, and they’re all going to do the best of their ability and make things happen.”
There’s no shortage of candidates. As of Friday, the Chesterfield registrar’s office reported a dozen people had filed to run for School Board seats — a number that could rise before the June 11 filing deadline.
Here’s a list of who has filed so far:
Ann Coker sees the lack of an incumbent member next year as an opportunity.
“I think there’s a time for fresh ideas and new people to step in and others in the community that want to have their voices [heard],” said Coker, 43, an accounting manager.
Coker said a key issue facing the school system is the need to repair and replace its buildings, as well as the need to ensure schools are as safe as possible.
Also seeking the Bermuda seat is Will Ares, 22, who said the Bermuda District has been shortchanged in school funding and services. Ares, a 2015 Thomas Dale High School graduate, said he’s seen firsthand the impact School Board decisions make.
“A lot of the decisions we make on the School Board, arguably all of them directly impact the students,” said Ares, who works for a company that makes heating and cooling coils. “It would be in our best interests to keep them in our thoughts, keep them as our focus.”
Debbie Graves Bailey, who taught in Chesterfield public schools for 34 years, said she’s concerned about “unfunded needs” such as having school resource officers at elementary schools and safety upgrades to school buildings. Bailey, 57, suggested the school system pay for students to take the SATs during the school day, noting that some can’t afford the standardized tests.
“When you’re talking about equity in education, you want to give the opportunities to everyone,” Bailey said.
Also seeking the Dale District School Board seat is Shedrick D. McCall Jr., a Virginia State University professor who has degrees in counseling and psychology. McCall said teachers and students need to be trained to spot potential threats, such as a student who may be a danger to themselves or others.
McCall, 48, said he’d like to see renovations at L.C. Bird High School to bring it up to code, adding that he has safety concerns about students at some facilities being separated in trailers from the rest of their school.
“I would like to do away with trailers [at schools],” McCall said.
John V. Hilliard Jr., 73, said a fresh board would be helpful because the School Board and the Board of Supervisors have not worked well together in recent years. Hilliard, a retired chief operating officer for a physician’s practice, wants to ensure school funding is spent efficiently and effectively.
“We’ve got to make sure the teachers get their appropriate raises,” Hilliard said. “We’ve got to make sure our schools are safe and clean. There have been some issues with cleanliness in the schools in Chesterfield County.”
Denisha N. Potts, former vice president of the Chesterfield NAACP, said she’d like to see full-time licensed counselors in every county school. Potts, a policy review specialist at the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said she would work hard and ask tough questions.
“I want to continue to fight for the underserved and dismantle the status quo and add minority representation to what has historically been a conservative board,” said Potts, 42.
Ryan Harter, a civics and economics teacher at Salem Church Middle School, also filed to run in Matoaca. Harter, 37, said he would bring financial discipline to the board and cited student safety as a priority. Harter said he’d work to retain bus drivers in a county that had its share of transportation problems this year with late student pickup and drop-offs.
“There should be no reason that elementary school students are getting home at a quarter to 6,” Harter said.
Justin Smith, an information technology support specialist at the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, said he’d like to increase public engagement by providing more opportunities for residents to speak at meetings. Smith, 38, said he’d like to have two board meetings a month, rather than one, adding that people shouldn’t be asked to sign up ahead of time to address the board at meetings.
“This is something that is affecting them and their children,” Smith said. “They shouldn’t be barred from that opportunity to speak.”
Arika Phillips, the CEO of a tutoring and enrichment nonprofit program at Providence Elementary School, said she’d like to see more retired residents and other mentors at the schools reading with students and helping in the classroom. Chesterfield and other school systems face an ongoing challenge, she said, in having to rely on the government to fund programs.
“You’re dependent on the local government, the state government, the U.S. government to fund your needs for your school system. It’s always going to be a challenge,” said Phillips, 39. “We have to continue to ask. We have to continue to advocate. We have to continue to explain and educate our society about what our children really need.”
Dorothy “Dot” Heffron, a Providence Middle School teacher, said she learned how difficult navigating the special needs education process was when her oldest child required special education services. Heffron, 42, said she advocates for a “needs-based budget” that better addresses funding school system necessities.
“If we need $20, why are we asking for $10? Because that’s how I’m seeing the Chesterfield school budget right now,” Heffron said. “There should not be unfunded needs. If they are needs, then they are not an option.”
Kathryn Haines, a former urban planner, said she’s been attending school and county board meetings to learn more about the school system and its funding. Haines, 45, said she supports boosting bus driver pay to help address driver vacancies. A board member overseeing a system of about 60,000 students should be a full-time commitment, she said.
“I’m there. I’m not going to be in my office downtown,” Haines said. “I am committed to being a School Board member basically full time, which I think is what is needed given a division our size.”
Patrick Regan, a 36-year-old attorney, said he hopes to eliminate the administrative burdens on educators, such as redundant training and excessive testing.
“As the husband of a Title 1 CCPS teacher I hear how so many resources are not making it into the classrooms and too many changes are made in our schools without consulting our best resources — our teachers,” Regan wrote in an email.