Candidates spar at forum

Published 10:06 pm Thursday, October 23, 2014

Five Suffolk Borough candidates sparred in a West End/Lakeside Civic League forum Wednesday night at the Constantia House.

About 30 constituents were packed into the historic cottage behind R.W. Baker Funeral Home. The candidates for City Council and School Board gave opening and closing statements before taking an array of questions from the audience, ranging from teacher raises to city transparency.

“When the money shifts over to the school, it’s their responsibility to slice up the pie,” Councilman Charles Parr said regarding teacher raises. He also noted a new teacher event he attended at the beginning of the school year had about half of Suffolk’s new teachers from neighboring school divisions.

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“Obviously, things aren’t too hunky-dory in the other cities either,” Parr said.

One of his challengers, Don Goldberg, said he believes improved communication between the City Council and School Board is needed and might even help lead to teacher raises.

“We need to have our teachers be paid properly,” he said. “We’ve got to do something about that. We need to make sure we keep good teachers.”

The other challenger, Kerry Holmes, said it seems as if the city does not value teachers.

“You can tell me what you value, but if you show me your budget, I’ll tell you what you value,” he said.

School Board Chairman Mike Debranski, running for re-election, said education “has always been my only priority.” He said he believes the city has extra money in its budget to give to education but chooses not to do so.

Challenger Thelma Hinton, who has been on the School Board before but was drawn out of her prior district in 2012, said pay raises are needed in addition to better treatment.

“A lot of them left because of low morale,” she said of the 120 or so teachers the district lost after the 2013-14 school year.

Transparency was another topic that came up several times throughout the night.

Parr compared the city to glass and to a bottle of water when describing how transparent it is.

“The only thing we do in closed session is economic development, personnel and legal matters,” he said. “We are so transparent, if you hit us with a rock, we’d crack like glass.”

Holmes said the city has “at least the air of impropriety.”

“There’s a slight difference between following the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.” He continued later, “The only way to counter that (perception) is to proactively let people know what’s going on.”

Holmes said the pay raise granted to the city manager in January 2013, less than a year after a public backlash caused the council to backtrack on a plan to give her a raise, is part of what created the perception.

Goldberg agreed.

“It wasn’t that the city manager got the raise,” he said. “It was how it was done.”

The talk of City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn’s raise caused Hinton to insinuate people who oppose the raise are misogynists. She noted nobody said anything about former school superintendent Milton Liverman making more than $170,000 a year.

“I am offended,” Hinton said. “Get up off the females.”

Parr said he supports the city manager “100 percent.”

The City Council candidates also responded to a question about the treatment of the Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad, which last year was made a second-run agency, meaning it answers calls only when all of the city’s paid personnel are on other calls.

“We’re fully staffed to take care of all that,” Parr said of the extra work. He said the rescue squad had “some issues” such as response times.

Goldberg said he has talked to paid fire personnel who “would prefer to have a rescue squad that is ready to go,” he said.

“They’ve been put on a back burner. They like doing what they do,” Goldberg said.

Holmes said he believes there may have been another way to work through the problems the city saw in the rescue squad.

“I don’t know of the organization that tells a group of volunteers, ‘We don’t need your services,’” Holmes said. “I feel sorry for them.”