Prince Edward School Board races part of NAACP’s forum

Published 5:08 am Tuesday, September 26, 2023

FARMVILLE – On Monday, Sept. 18, the political season officially started in Prince Edward County. That is, the first candidate forum was held at the Moton Museum. Organized by the Prince Edward County chapter of the NAACP, it brought together candidates for the Prince Edward School Board, the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors, the Prince Edward Sheriff, the Prince Edward Treasurer, Prince Edward’s Commonwealth’s Attorney and Prince Edward’s Commissioner of the Revenue. 

I served as moderator for the forum, asking each group a series of questions. And we’re giving you each person’s answers in a series of articles today and Friday. But first, we have a couple things to mention. Not every candidate for each race was on hand. So if you don’t see a candidate’s answers, they weren’t left out. That candidate didn’t show up. As we get into October, we at The Herald will have a written Q & A for candidates in Prince Edward, as well as Buckingham and Cumberland counties. 

This piece will focus on the Prince Edward School Board candidates. There are four seats coming open, including District 1, District 2, District 4 and District 8. In each race, there is only one person running. Those include J. Harvey Tackett in District 1, incumbent Doug Farley in District 2, James Arieti in District 4 and Cainan Townsend in District 8. Townsend filed late for District 8, so he’s running as a write-in candidate. 

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Out of those four, only Farley was absent Sept. 18 for the candidate forum. So here are the questions asked and answers given by the three school board candidates that showed up. 

Prince Edward School Board Q1:

Absenteeism is a problem across all Prince Edward schools. In fact, it’s the only reason Prince Edward Elementary wasn’t fully accredited without conditions, as those younger students excelled in the classroom. But the problem is getting them in class. 

A total of 29.55% of students attending Prince Edward Elementary were chronically absent for the 2022-23 school year. That means out of 704 students at the school, 208 missed either 10% of classes or higher. At Prince Edward Middle School, 30.56% of students were chronically absent, while the same could be said of 30.15% of Prince Edward High students last year. With that in mind, how do we address chronic absenteeism?

Cainan Townsend: Part of that is not just kids not wanting to come to school. We are a very large county. Some families only have one vehicle or no vehicle. If a kid misses the bus, they have no backup on how to get to school. We need to figure out ways to mitigate that issue first. But my main answer is that a rising tide lifts all ships. We need to increase salaries for teachers, get the teachers paid right, make them feel supported, let them collaborate when they need to in the classroom and students recognize that. The kids know when the teachers aren’t invested. 

Harvey Tackett: The big piece is supporting our teachers and supporting our kids. The school board needs to work with staff, to find out what activities and what strategies are working and potentially others that could come on board as well. Student morale is critical. And parents need a go-to, a way to get kids transported (if they miss the bus). 

James Arieti: The first thing to get kids to school is for parents to get them up out of bed and make sure they get on the bus. We need parents engaged on this. Also, the way to get students to want to come to class is (for it) to be exciting. I have heard from teachers that the ability to be creative in their classrooms has been taken away. I would persuade the superintendent to allow teachers to be creative in their classes. In France, elementary schools, the kids are doing the same thing 

Prince Edward School Board Q2:

The state recently released accreditation data for all schools in Virginia. Here in Prince Edward, the numbers are going up in most cases. Prince Edward High beat the state standard in English for the first time since 2019, with 78% passing. Science scores jumped almost 10 percentage points at the high school, going from a 48% pass rate to 55%.

Middle school students also improved in science, going from a 42% pass rate to 56% in science, while 71% of students passed the English test, compared to 70% last year. How do we continue this improvement and how do we market this improvement, to show prospective teachers things are changing?  

Townsend: I look forward to the chance to work with the superintendent and her staff and try to figure out how we do that. It’s tough, I’m not going to lie to you. But our kids can (improve). I’ve seen these kids, I’ve worked with these students weekly. They can do it and they want to. Part of (marketing improvement), I think is if we can get constant and clear communication.

We’ve got some great work coming out of classrooms right now, but I talk to students and they say ‘I’m not hearing anything about it come out of Prince Edward County’. All I hear is about people fighting. All I hear is about school repair or this or that. So how can we expect teachers to want to come to Prince Edward County if this is all they’re hearing? Part of it is a public relations campaign. I have friends from here that went to Harvard, that went to Yale and went to Notre Dame, doing amazing things, but you don’t hear about it. Perception goes a long way. 

Tackett: We need to celebrate our successes. I was able to attend that school board meeting a few months ago where Dr. Johnson was able to show that for the elementary school, there’s been three years of growth, one of 93 elementary schools in the whole state of Virginia being named an exemplar. We need to be the biggest cheerleader for our kids, for our staff, for our schools.

Sure, there’s always going to be areas to improve and that’s (done) by working with staff, with kids to minimize the achievement gaps. But test scores? They’re not everything. The last nine years of my experience was being a superintendent in the state of Kentucky. We took a school system, similar to Prince Edward and continued to improve. And when I left, we were continuing to improve, just like our middle school and high school. They’re getting closer and closer. It would be different if they were regressing. We need to celebrate our successes, pat our kids on the back. 

Arieti: I think we can look at programs that have worked elsewhere. I taught Latin, Greek and Ancient History and I can tell you about an experiment that was performed in inner city schools in Philadelphia by a bunch of professors at the University of Pennsylvania. They went into the school and persuaded the school system to try something completely new and it worked. They went into the school system in the 1970s and started with first graders, teaching them Latin. By the time those students arrived in seventh and eighth grade, they were doing better on the state tests. I think if we concentrate on teaching little children something and they master it, they’ll build confidence in themselves and they’ll be willing and eager to learn new things, of which they’ll also excel and it’ll pay off for the rest of their lives. 

Prince Edward School Board Q3:

Let’s switch to the physical buildings for a minute. We’ve all seen the effort put into renovating Prince Edward Elementary, but unfortunately, it won’t be the last in need of repairs. How do we develop a plan to address the district’s construction needs? And more than that, how do we pay for it? 

Townsend: I think you nailed the answer in the question. It’s not so much creating a plan as it is finding the money. And until the state will allow the locality to decide for ourselves what we want to do, there’s unfortunately not much we can do. But I do have a lot of experience advocating Richmond and that’s something I am prepared to do. 

Tackett: I do have some experience working with a board (on this) before. When I was superintendent (in Kentucky), we went through two major renovations, making sure our schools and facilities were such that as the students and staff entered, they were proud of (it). That was something I was excited to be a part of. But at the same time, you can only stretch a dollar so far. 

Arieti: The school board, as I understand, can’t go out and find the money. But they have some power to persuade the board of supervisors to prioritize schools. I remember when my wife Barbara started working with the school system and she persuaded me to go with her to the supervisors’ meeting when they were discussing the school budget. The supervisors who were in charge of the county then, this was in the mid-80s, they just saw the schools as something like the fire department or parks or roads, it wasn’t a high priority. The supervisors need to be persuaded that the schools filled with children are for the future forever.

What happens next?

We’ll have more from the NAACP forum this week, featuring the sheriff’s race, Prince Edward Board of Supervisors and the Commissioner of the Revenue. Beyond that, a reminder that early voting has started here in Prince Edward and across the Commonwealth.

For details on what you need to bring to vote and where to go, just click here.