Valley superintendents discuss school challenges with area legislators

Published: Nov. 3, 2022 at 6:17 PM EDT
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MOUNT JACKSON, Va. (WHSV) - Superintendents and school board members from several valley school divisions met with legislators at Triplett Tech in Mount Jackson on Thursday morning. Superintendents from Harrisonburg, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah, and Warren County Public Schools were in attendance.

During the annual ‘Take Your Legislator to School’ event superintendents highlighted the different challenges local schools face and asked legislators for help.

“The thing we hear about the most that is perhaps the most troubling is the extent to which the school systems have to deal with whatever kids are bringing into the schools from home and the need for additional resources and personnel to help grapple with those things,” said Todd Gilbert, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and a Republican who represents Shenandoah County.

Legislative aides for Rockingham County Delegates Tony Wilt, Chris Runion, and State Senator Mark Obenshain joined Gilbert at the event. They heard about several challenges that school divisions face, including the need for more mental health resources.

“We need more school counselors we need school psychologists, we need social workers, we need behavior specialists, and we need more special education and support personnel. All of that costs money and requires people,” said Page County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Antonia Fox.

Dr. Fox gave a presentation on the need for more mental health resources in area schools. She said that these types of positions have been difficult to fill and hopes that schools and legislators can work together to find solutions.

“We can’t educate a child unless they’re mentally ready for us to educate them. Maybe you all could consider refining some of the current training programs that are out there, the pathways to those programs, or even consider incentives for example if you come and work in a public school system would some of your student debt be reduced,” said Fox.

Fox said that it will be necessary to provide both short and long-term mental health resources and finding an effective solution will require collaboration between schools, legislators, mental health professionals, and law enforcement.

“There just needs to be some kind of way that we all collaborate together to work through this. We see that all of these groups want the best for these children and their families. We want them to be safe in our schools,” said Fox.

Rockingham County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Oskar Scheikl gave a presentation about the hostile rhetoric that has become common when talking about issues in public schools.

“When we demonize people when we simply assume the worst motives, then the conversation changes, then it turns into these Facebook Echo chambers that are not good for education and are not good for our kids,” said Scheikl.

Scheikl said that when there are disagreements over issues in schools it is important to discuss them with respect.

“Let’s get back to talking about how can we make public education the best it can be without assuming that whoever the other side is, it goes for both sides too, that the other side is evil,” he said.

Scheikl said one other problem when having these conversations is the amount of misinformation out there about schools. He citied a false rumor that there are litterboxes in school bathrooms for students who identify as cats.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many phone calls I’ve had to answer about the litter boxes. Every superintendent in the country deals with it, schools have kids that identify as cats and now we have litter boxes in bathrooms, how do you even combat that other than to say ‘That’s just ludicrous,” he said.

Another major issue that was discussed was the problem of teacher retention in schools.

“This year Shenandoah County Public Schools hired 65 new teachers but we started the school year with 28 vacancies. We’re at 17 or 18 vacancies now but we still have classrooms we weren’t able to fill a teacher with,” said Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Melody Sheppard.

Speaker Todd Gilbert said a lot of money in the most recent state budget went toward incentives and pay increases for teachers but in the competitive hiring market it will take more work. For him, it’s an issue that hits close to home.

“My mother was a public school teacher so I understand the challenges of entering that profession and staying in that profession,” said Gilbert. “Every industry, every occupation trying to staff properly is trying to staff properly right now and so hopefully we can help make the public education sector more competitive and help retain good people.”

Melody Sheppard said that she hopes legislators will take even more steps to help schools with recruitment.

“Make teacher licensure requirements more flexible to enhance the teacher pipeline. Allow retired teachers to return to work immediately instead of requiring a 12-month break,” she said.

Sheppard said another strategy could be to improve the retirement plans offered to teachers.

One other issue that was discussed during the event was the divide between urban and rural school divisions.

“The more urban areas have their own permanent funding streams of revenue that they’re able to enjoy because of their situation, bigger populations and more affluent populations. We don’t have those opportunities here so funding is always a challenge for rural areas,” said Gilbert.