Michael Cunningham

Published 5:54 pm Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Can you briefly summarize why you decided to run for School Board?

I decided to run to bring more professionalism to the Isle of Wight County School Board.  I’m a retired Army officer and a retired federal employee who has been a member of and led large teams throughout my careers. To be a good leader, you have to also know how to follow and make well thought out recommendations.

I’ve completed numerous state and federal team-building courses and will bring this training and experience to the IW School Board. My training and experience will not only enhance what the board is currently doing but will also bring new ideas and opportunities for IW students. I want to help get our students ready for what follows after grade school whether it be college or going directly into the workforce.

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The groundbreaking of a new Hardy Elementary was supposed to begin in March of this year but has been delayed twice, and the estimated cost, originally thought to be around $27 million, had risen to $34 million – the entirety of what the county borrowed last year – as of June. The county’s estimate of the cost to buy water from Smithfield for the school has also nearly doubled from $2.2 million to $4.29 million, and the school now isn’t slated to open until 2023. Do you feel building a new school as opposed to renovating the existing one or postponing the project is still the right way to go?

On the issue of building a new school or renovating the current one, I need more information to give you a good answer. I believe a school board member needs to know the entire story before he or she votes yeah or neigh on an issue. Here I don’t have the entire story so I cannot give you a good answer.

Same question for replacing Westside Elementary, which is currently grades 4-6, with a new middle school for grades 5-7 and making the current Smithfield Middle/High complex grades 8-12. Replacing Westside was budgeted in the current IWCS capital improvements plan at $28 million, with the first round of funding in the 2022-23 school year, but now is anticipated to cost at least $40 million. Is replacement rather than a renovation or postponing the project the right way to go?

I have to give you the same answer here as I did in question number 2.  I need to see the different courses of action and the bottom line before I can make a decision.  This is the professional way to do things.

Isle of Wight’s School Board voted on Aug. 12 to rely on the division’s existing nondiscrimination policies and simply add a legal reference to the state’s new transgender protections law, Virginia Code 22.1-23.3, and make other minor changes rather than adopt the Virginia Department of Education’s model transgender policies. The vote came 10 days after the division received a memo from the state warning superintendents that relying on existing nondiscrimination language could put them in danger of noncompliance with the law and open them up to lawsuits. Did Isle of Wight’s School Board make the right decision the day of the vote? If not, what action do you wish the Board had taken?

I will not criticize what the current School Board has decided and voted on. I have to believe board members have additional information to help with their decision-making processes.

In Virginia, political party affiliations aren’t shown on the ballot for any elected office below the state level. Since you both have identified as independent candidates, can you explain why you believe bringing political parties into a traditionally nonpartisan local office will help or hurt the School Board’s ability to function?

On the issue of political party affiliation, I don’t believe a candidate for the IW School Board should identify himself/herself as a Republican or Democrat. I feel School Board members have to be nonpartisan. Our students should not be used as pawns in a game following guidelines of certain political parties. Board members are elected by and represent the people of different districts in IW. They are the voice of their districts and should vote that way.

Critical Race Theory argues American law and institutions have perpetuated social, economic and political inequalities among minority groups. Can you explain why you do or don’t believe Critical Race Theory is influencing Isle of Wight County Schools’ curriculum?

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not influencing the IW County School’s curriculum. I’ve attended several School Board meetings and have heard citizens speak on the subject. The School Board has voted to not include CRT in the curriculum. There is nothing else to say on this subject.

Editor’s note: The current School Board has taken no formal vote on CRT, but administrators have said it will not be taught to students.

Isle of Wight’s 2021 SOL data showed some increasing disparities in student performance among different demographics. For example, on the reading SOL, Isle of Wight’s 2021 pass rate was 23 percentage points lower for Black students than white students. When the test was last given in 2019, the gap was 19 points. Further, only 34% of students with disabilities passed the reading SOL compared to the division’s overall 73% pass rate. How do you, as a school board member, plan to help close those gaps? 

On the issue of closing educational gaps, I like to look at what other school districts are doing in neighboring communities to reduce educational gaps among different demographics. The School Board could also stand up a committee to investigate the gaps and recommend solutions.

Overall, Isle of Wight saw 7- to 22-point drops in the percentage of students who passed the reading, math and science SOLs in 2021 compared to 2019. What can Isle of Wight do better this school year to improve student performance?

COVID-19 has been a major issue for all school districts for the last two years.  Some students did well taking classes online while others didn’t.  I believe students will do better this year attending classes in person.

Can you explain why you favor continuing or changing the School Board’s policy of keeping citizens’ comments to no more than 30 minutes without a vote by the board to extend the allotted time?

I believe limiting the amount of time a citizen can speak is acceptable. The current time limit is fine. This allows more citizens to speak.

 Should Isle of Wight join other school boards that have voted to defy Virginia’s universal mask mandate for K-12 schools?

On the mask mandates other school boards have voted to defy, I believe IW should follow CDC guidance in preventing the spread of COVID-19. At this time the CDC recommends we should wear masks whether vaccinated or not. IW should not defy this guidance.

Are there any COVID-19 precautions not currently in place for Isle of Wight County Schools that you feel should be in place? (Ex: assigned seating to allow for easier contact tracing should there be an outbreak, as Surry is doing)

I believe IW should follow CDC guidance in regards to COVID-19 precautions.