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School Board Gets An Earful

The Halifax County School Board heard comments from all sides Wednesday night during its public hearing on the proposed school budget for 2010-2011.
One prevailing sentiment among most of the 26 citizens who spoke Wednesday night was that they do not envy the task set before the board in formulating a budget. Several speakers touted the positives of the dual enrollment program, while others expressed less than enthusiastic support for students receiving college credit for high school courses.

Phil Hammond of Halifax described the dual enrollment program as “amazing, an incredible program.” Hammond said his son graduated from Halifax County High School with an associate degree and entered VCU this fall as a junior.

“It gave him more confidence when he went to college,” Hammond said. “He didn’t have to take any math, English or history, all his pre-requisites for college were completed from doing this dual enrollment program at Halifax County High School.”

Current high school teachers, Mary Eanes and Vicky Matthews, expressed concerns about the dual enrollment program. Eanes, who has 26 years experience in Halifax County schools, said new programs are being added at the high school, and the students are bused here and there.

“We’ve taken the high school, and we’ve picked it apart,” she said. “We’ve put it in all these different places (Higher Ed Center, STEM Center, etc.).”

Eanes said with the dual enrollment program the top students are being served, but those with middle and lower abilities are being “left out in the shuffle.”

She added, “I ask you to look at the programs and ask yourselves how much is it costing us to bus these children all over the county. When money is plentiful, I’m all for it, but we’re in a budget crunch here. We have to serve all the children in this county.”

Matthews, who teaches math at the high school, said CL classes have been watered down, and the CL classes her son took did not prepare him for college like the AP classes did. “At the high school, we are a high school,” she said. “We are not a college.”

Matthews also said the academies are wonderful when the school system can afford them, but now the school system cannot afford them.

Rex Crews, a parent, said he had two suggestions for the school board, the first being to close or “mothball” the STEM Center. Crews said such a move would preserve about 20 minutes of teaching time every day for the students who are bused to the center, it would conserve a large amount of fuel, reduce bus driver expenses, reduce administrative and clerical expenses and result in a large savings in heating and cooling expenses at the STEM Center.

Crews’ second suggestion was for the board to take a hard look at the Motorsports Academy. “Is this a luxury we can afford?” he asked.

Several others spoke in favor of the Motorsports Academy, including Sandra Conner, who is a parent of a high school senior who participates in the academy.

“The Motorsports Academy is more than just racing,” she said. “It’s so much more. Visit one of these classes, you’re just as likely to find these students solving a math equation as you are to see them under a car.”

Brent Younger, a senior student who participates in the Motorsports Academy, said students apply math, such as fractions and decimals, and learn how to do them quickly and correctly.

“Geometry is very important in the front end of a racecar,” he said. “We use angles, tangents and triangles to figure out the roll center and the pivot points which are critical to a race car’s handling and performance.”

South Boston Speedway General Manager Cathy Rice, Cassandra Crump, who works with hearing impaired students, and businessman and racecar driver Bruce Anderson also spoke in favor of the Motorsports Academy.

“It is more than just driving a racecar,” Rice said. “We have marketing, engineering, operations, public relations, catering, and that’s just to name a few opportunities where our children can further their education.”

Crump said the Motorsports Academy has been a positive factor in one of her student’s school career and is helping that student overcome the effects of his disability.

Anderson said the program is a great opportunity for students to learn real-life experiences. He said there is a waiting list for students to enter the Motorsports Academy. “If we can find one thing to get kids interested to come to school, then that’s what we need to do,” he said.

Anderson also said the Motorsports Academy’s racing teams are not funded by the school. “They are funded by local sponsors, my company being one of them, South Boston Speedway, Farm Bureau Insurance and others,” he explained.

Other speakers touted other programs currently offered in the county’s schools, including Mike Wilborn, principal of Sinai Elementary School, who stressed the importance of the Bridges Learning Lab at his school. He said the purpose of this program is to reduce the number of referrals to the special education program.

Wilborn said the program has operated at Sinai Elementary for five years, and they are currently serving 80 students. Students attend the lab twice a week for 40 minutes each. He also said if parents were to send their child to the lab at another site, it would cost them $5,000.

Connie Manning, fashion design instructor at HCHS, spoke on the value of vocational programs. “Most of the students I teach are at or near poverty level,” she said. “They need jobs in the community because many of them will not go to a four-year institution.”

Manning said students learn skills in vocational courses they can put to work in everyday life, as well as on the job. She said in the state of Virginia there currently are 129,000 retail jobs, 76,000 restaurant workers not counting fast food, 108,000 homebuilders including carpenters and masons and 11,000 cashiers. “I’m not asking you to preserve my job, but just remember, the kids come first,” she said.

Marliss Barczak, associate principal at Cluster Springs Elementary School, said disaster is on the way, and our teachers are right in the path, and more importantly, our children are at ground zero. She said she was speaking for teachers who are too afraid to speak and for the children who are too young to speak.

She said many teachers must find summer jobs in order to make ends meet. She said these hard-working teachers take money out of their own pockets to share books with their students, on student incentives, supplies and other necessary items for their classrooms and students.
“We don’t want to lose any outstanding teachers in Halifax County,” she said. “We have the most eager, enthusiastic and technologically fine-tuned staff, and they come to us with student loans to repay.”

Barczak asked the board to give teachers the praise, prestige, resources and salaries they deserve and to keep the classroom teacher-student ratio lower than the state averages.

Several speakers supported the vocational agriculture program in the schools, including Scott Crowder, president of the Halifax County Farm Bureau, Dustin Francis, 2009 graduate and former agriculture student, and Thomas Hudson, member of the Agriculture Advisory Committee.
Daniel Clementson, aquatics director of the YMCA, asked the board to continue the collaboration between the school system and the YMCA through the “Learn To Swim” program and the swim team.

Suzie Robbins, Stephanie Lewis and Cheryl Kashmer touted the positives of the pre-k program. Robbins, pre-k arts instructor, said with both parents working, children need to go to school earlier in life to get the vocabulary and communications skills to help them succeed in kindergarten.

Lewis, whose child is in the pre-k program, said the program is the building foundation for the children. “These children are the future of Halifax County,” she said.

Kashmer, who teaches at Clays Mill Elementary, spoke as a parent. She said school has become harder for children, and more is expected of them. She said pre-k is the foundation of schools, and what children are expected to know and do in kindergarten now is what children did in first and second grade before.

“So we have now become more of a kindergarten,” Kashmer said. “We’re preparing the children so when they get to kindergarten, they’re ready to learn.”

Sandy Slayton, who teaches at Cluster Springs Elementary, stressed the importance of music, P.E., library and art at the elementary level. Dennis Seamster, alternative education, discussed the need for alternative education and the G.E.D. program. He said if the daytime alternative education program is dropped, the board would gain $155,000 for the budget but lose 100 dropouts.

Ricky Gordon, who teaches at the STEM Center, said the school system provides a well-rounded education. He said all branches of education are needed, and there is no one part the board needs to lose from the system.

Margaret Coleman spoke on the need for providing a good education for the children of the community. She recommended balancing the budget with non-personnel items that don’t directly affect instruction.

Her husband, the Rev. Frank Coleman Jr. said the board should be careful when considering cutting in the realm of education. “When we cut education, we’re saying it’s ok to cut from our children’s future success,” Coleman said.

Parent Dorothy Daniel said she was there to talk about fiscal responsibility. She said the “bloated administration” is out of control and has been for some time. What has been offered from the central office needs to be analyzed, she said.

She also said former school boards have been intimidated by the board of supervisors and the central office. She said the central office is supposed to answer to the school board. “We need you to stand up and actually be the authority that you truly are,” she said. “We’re tired of the shell game.”

Farmer Bernard Mitzler said the school system needs to get back to the basics and cut expenses. He suggested using motion detectors in the schools rather than continuing to light them at night.

The school board has scheduled its next budget work session for Thursday, March 25, at 6 p.m. in the first floor conference room at the Mary Bethune Complex.