Education debate ruffles feathers

Published 10:59 pm Thursday, October 18, 2012

A feisty debate hosted by the Education Association of Suffolk Thursday night included spars between candidates who aren’t running against one another, questions and shouts from the audience and rounds of applause for candidates who suggested involving the teachers in decision-making processes.

Moderator Lucy Bustamante, a news anchor on WVEC, drew on her experience covering the schools to tailor the questions posed of the candidates in the theater at King’s Fork High School. About 40 people attended.

The three mayoral candidates, as well as one City Council candidate each from the Sleepy Hole and Nansemond boroughs, participated in person.

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Sleepy Hole candidate Raymond Batton sent a written statement. He and fellow candidate Roger Fawcett are out of town on separate business trips.

Challenger Lue Ward in the Nansemond borough did not respond to invitations to participate.

Much of the debate took place between Mayor Linda Johnson, who is running for re-election, and Kevin Alston, who is running for the Sleepy Hole borough, on the topics of shared services between city and school offices, capital improvement plans and school funding.

The assistant superintendent for Suffolk Public Schools, Alston took the mayor to task for what he perceives as low funding of the schools, building a new city hall while proposing to move school offices into a renovated building and shared services policies that were unfair to the schools.

“I think that Suffolk is just as good as every other city in our surrounding area,” Alston said, going on to explain that Suffolk pays only 73 percent of its state-determined “ability to pay” for education while most other localities pay more than 100 percent.

“We are not funding education in the same manner that other cities are,” he said. “We’re competing with these same localities for jobs.”

Johnson said the city had done its best in tough economic times while trying to cover unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments.

“We have done our very best that we could to fill these holes,” she said.

On shared services, Alston said past experiments were unfair to the schools. Fueling up at the same depot cost the schools 33 cents more per gallon than it cost the city, Alston said. If the schools needed a vehicle part from city stock, there was a 26-percent markup on it and a $4 fee to fill out a form to get it, he said.

“When we have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to share services, that’s not helping us,” he added.

Johnson said she had been unaware of the inconsistencies until Alston pointed them out.

Other candidates spoke to issues of trust and communication between the City Council and School Board.

“I think the School Board and the City Council have a good working relationship, but it can improve,” mayoral candidate and Councilman Leroy Bennett said. He added later that the city and schools should communicate more about the budget process before the school budget is submitted to the city.

In the past, mayoral candidate Art Bredemeyer said, there has not been enough communication between the two entities.

“There was not enough communicate going on, in my opinion, to have that trust,” he said, adding later that the schools and city “sink or swim based on what the other one is doing.”

Nansemond borough candidate and Councilman Robert Barclay said he would work to build relationships between the two bodies by working with the School Board representative in his borough.

“I try to break down those barriers,” he said.

At the end of the forum, Bustamante read a prepared statement from Sleepy Hole candidate Batton.

“Now is not the time to reduce funding,” part of the statement read. “We need to make priorities.”

The Education Association of Suffolk’s Political Action Committee has endorsed Bennett, Alston and Barclay for their respective seats.