PENN LAIRD — The three candidates to represent District 3 on the Rockingham County School Board met for a debate on Wednesday at Spotswood High School in Penn Laird.
The audience reached nearly 60 people throughout the 90-minute event, held in the auditorium and hosted by the Spotswood High School Youth in Government Club. District 3 encompasses the town of Grottoes and communities of Melrose, Keezletown, Massanetta Springs, Cross Keys, Port Republic and part of Penn Laird.
The event was mostly calm, but several members of the audience heckled candidate Matt Cross when he invoked Martin Luther King Jr. saying people should be judged by the content of their character while discussing equity in schools.
After a short back and forth between members of the audience and Cross, moderator Emmett Sheahan, Spotswood teacher and Youth in Government Club adviser, asked the members of the audience to stop interrupting.
The three candidates were faced with numerous questions throughout the night, including how to handle growth in the school system, masks, what they would do with advanced classes, wages for staff and how they would approach diversity, including of gender identity and access to lockers and bathrooms.
Hilary Irons and Cross agreed in many instances, while Lori Mier frequently broke from the other two candidates.
One area Cross said he agreed with Mier was her point that School Board members should be walking the schools to understand what’s happening on the ground level.
All candidates said they would protect upper-level math classes from potential changes or removal by the Virginia Department of Education.
“Some students do need access to upper-level math classes,” Irons said. “Our future engineers need to be able to take trigonometry, our future architects, biologists need to be able to take calculus.”
Mier said the claim the state will take away upper-level math classes is a political boogeyman, but she supports keeping them.
“I do not believe there needs to be a math race to the top,” she said. “All children have critical thinking skills and are capable and I think that it would be a good idea if we spent more time on the deep level math understanding and other subjects so that everyone has a strong foundation. We should actively be working to enroll all students also in AP courses, which would mean more support for our students and teachers to do so.”
Irons disagreed that it is just a boogeyman and said the state has plans to change math programs until 2025. Parents should be paying attention because the language of what the state intends to do is unclear, she said.
“We need to make sure we are not creating inequity by addressing inequity,” she said.
Cross and Irons disagreed about mask policies at Rockingham County schools.
Cross said masks should be optional for students and teachers, and said residents are sick of members of the School Board looking down on them, especially at meetings.
“What we’re doing is taking away people’s constitutional rights to be able to do what’s best for them, for their children,” he said.
Cross said he loves the “boldness” of other school boards that have bucked the state mask mandate.
Irons said school mask policies are similar to how schools ban peanuts when there are children who are seriously allergic and could go in to anaphylactic shock or face other serious health problems if they are near peanuts.
“We do that because we care for people with a peanut allergy,” Irons said. “My child’s right to have peanuts is not more important than the child’s right to health and safety around him, so I think the same thing for masks.”
Mier said the community has a voice when it comes to safety and policies, but it should not be the only factor in a case like the pandemic, where there can be extreme outcomes.
The candidates agreed that many staff members are in need of raises so the county can retain and attract teachers, staff and bus drivers.
Irons said there needs to be community outreach and incentives for people to work for the school division.
Cross said he will fight to raise wages for coaches and teachers and make sure bus drivers have good benefits. He said he will divide up his first check from being on the School Board and gift it to varsity and junior varsity coaches, who have not received a pay raise in 20 years. He said they provide more than just leading teams on the field — they help guide young men, sometimes with anger issues, through the hard years of high school.
In his closing remarks, he also said he would try to establish a professional safety manager position to overlook the schools to prevent a potential tragedy like a mass shooting.
Mier said its not just bus drivers and teachers who need increased wages.
“I will always support increased wages for staff — that includes bus drivers, custodians, food services, nurses, etc.,” she said. “These positions are paid far less than teachers, but they are not any less important for our students.”
She also said access to bathrooms of a students’ choice is not just about a room — it’s about respecting a child’s choice. Mier also said anti-racism should be a priority for the School Board.
Irons said bathrooms are issues of privacy and cognitive development, since children don’t have fully developed brains.
She said access to individual bathrooms is way to ensure safety and that students can go to the bathroom.
“It doesn’t need to be a political statement. We just need to honor privacy and have respect for others,” Irons said.