Council and school board candidates talk

Published 10:27 am Thursday, October 23, 2008

Candidates for city council tackled the issues of lowering spending, improving services and managing growth during a forum Tuesday night.

School Board candidates also answered questions at the forum, which was sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Eight candidates were at the forum, although Curtis Milteer, the incumbent for the Whaleyville borough on city council, left after opening statements, saying he had a previous engagement. Other candidates were, for city council: Nansemond challenger Trisha James; Robert Barclay, the only candidate for Sleepy Hole; and Whaleyville challenger Jay Quigley. For school board, Sleepy Hole rivals James Perkinson and Diane Foster were present, as was Whaleyville challenger Phyllis Byrum; and one of two candidates for the Nansemond seat, Thelma Hinton. The Nansemond seat on the school board has been filled by an interim member after John Riddick Sr. resigned in July.

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Candidates were given three minutes at the beginning of the forum to introduce themselves. Questioning alternated between the council and school board candidates, and each candidate received two minutes to answer the question. There were 10 questions altogether – five for each group.

The first question for council candidates was a given. “In light of the current economic situation, what immediate strategies do you recommend that the city administration take?” asked moderator Cheryl Wilkerson.

Quigley said the city needs to restore trust in the taxpayers by taking only what they need for necessary services, and making sure property assessments are conducted fairly and accurately. Doing so will force the city to be more frugal, he said.

Barclay said the council needs to take a forceful look at the city’s resources and make cuts where necessary.

“It’s a very simple question and a very simple answer,” said James. She said the city should do what every common citizen must do – look at the budget and see where cuts can be made.

The next question for council candidates asked what they saw as the greatest challenge and their role on council to fix it.

Barclay said the council needs to guide the city successfully through the transition from a rural community to a suburban city. He said the council could use his real estate law expertise to make progress.

James indicated that she saw as a challenge that much of the electorate is apathetic. A lot of people she has spoken with in the Nansemond borough couldn’t name their city councilperson, she said.

“Restoring trust in our city council and in our city government” is a challenge for the council, Quigley said. Too much decision-making has happened behind closed doors in recent years, he said. “If it’s not a personnel matter, then it shouldn’t be in closed session.”

The questioning continued to include a question about population growth. The candidates were asked if they would support the creation of an eighth borough after the 2010 census.

James said she would support the eighth borough because redrawing the boundaries could create more cohesiveness in the city.

Quigley said he would be more apt to support an eighth seat on council if it were elected at-large, rather than creating an eighth borough. Creating an at-large position would take less time and resources than making another borough, he said. He also feared an even number of boroughs would cause the council to hit a stalemate on hot-button issues and “spin its wheels.”

“It’s worth considering,” said Barclay, noting that any change in the election process would require a change in city code and approval by the Virginia General Assembly and the U.S. Department of Justice – all of which would take time and resources.

The School Board candidates answered questions focusing on gangs, class offerings, school safety and the on-time graduation rate.

The questions about the on-time graduation rate asked candidates about the problem and ways to improve it.

Thelma Hinton suggested after-school programs as a way to remediate students who are in danger of dropping out.

“Everybody has to get involved in education,” said Phyllis Byrum. She pointed out that the graduation rate was much higher at Nansemond River High School than at Lakeland or King’s Fork, suggesting a disparity in the schools and questioning its source. She suggested more technical and vocational programs to keep students involved in their education.

Incumbent James Perkinson said there are measures now being put in place to track students who are transferring to other schools, as well as several initiatives to keep students in danger of dropping out from doing so.

“The problem is they can’t read,” said Diane Foster, who is a reading specialist. At-risk and special education students especially are struggling with reading, and Suffolk is not doing all it can to help them reach their full potential, she said.

Another School Board question asked the candidates if they thought there were gangs in the schools, and what can be done to remedy them.

“There could be a problem with the gangs,” said Perkinson. “We are taking very proactive steps … (when it arises) we immediately address that problem.” He said the schools are training teachers to recognize gang activities and symbols.

Foster said gangs are definitely present in the schools, and more training for teachers will help identify those students who are participating.

“I do believe” we have gangs in the schools, said Byrum.

“Yes, of course there are gangs,” said Hinton, adding that her plan to add a life skills course in middle school would address gang violence, as well as related issues such as peer pressure, bullying and anger management.

A separate question asked the school board candidates if they would support former gang members, now advocates against gangs, coming into the schools and speaking to students, parents and teachers. All four candidates agreed that it would be a good move.