Group calls for postponing Isle of Wight superintendent search

Published 5:22 pm Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A group of county residents have called upon Isle of Wight County’s School Board to delay its search for a new superintendent until after the November election.

Board members Renee Dial and Michael Vines, who hold the District 2 and 4 seats, respectively, joined as interim appointees last year when their predecessors, Vicky Hulick and Julia Perkins, resigned mid-term. Should they wish to continue to serve, Dial and Vines will each need to run in a special election on Nov. 8.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, who’s led Isle of Wight County Schools since 2015, announced in March that he would retire at the end of June. Per state law, the School Board has 180 days starting July 1 to name Thornton’s successor.

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“No new superintendent should be hired while appointed, and not elected, members are on the School Board,” said Carrsville area resident Volpe Boykin at an April 19 public hearing on the matter. “To do otherwise absolutely steals — yes, steals — the rights of the citizens.”

Boykin further urged the School Board to choose a candidate who will “strictly adhere” to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order No. 1, which bans the teaching of “divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” in Virginia’s public K-12 schools.

Critical Race Theory argues American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minority groups. For nearly a year, a vocal group of county residents — Boykin among them — have accused Thornton and other school officials of bringing CRT, as it’s often abbreviated, and its tenets into the school system via diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Thornton and other school officials have repeatedly denied CRT is being taught, but critics see Smithfield High School’s “Read Woke” challenge, which encourages students to read social justice-themed books available at the school’s library, as an example of CRT’s influence.

“People get jobs, raise families and pay bills by learning academic subjects,” Boykin said. “Social engineering subjects do not make a company money; being proficient at good old reading, writing and arithmetic does.”

“I echo Mr. Boykin’s comments wholeheartedly,” said Jason Maresh of Windsor.

Maresh, another outspoken opponent of the “Read Woke” challenge, then urged the School Board to choose a candidate with a “vision that focuses on academics, not social engineering or social/emotional learning” and on “equal opportunities” rather than “equal outcomes.”

“The next superintendent does not need to be a career educator, nor does he need to be a doctor,” Maresh said. “The ideal candidate may not be on the VSBA’s list of approved candidates.”

The Virginia School Boards Association is assisting Isle of Wight’s School Board in the selection process. According to VSBA adviser Gina Patterson, Virginia maintains a list of eligible superintendent candidates who have the education and experience required by state law. School boards also have the option of appointing a superintendent from outside the education field, such as a former chief executive officer or senior military officer, if they make such a request to the Virginia Department of Education.

“We do have unelected officials that are making very serious decisions for this county … I would like to ask you also to delay a decision on the superintendent because of that,” added Laura Fletcher, who’s also spoken against the perceived influence of CRT.

“I have been one that has been speaking with other parents about very real concerns and very real issues, and nothing has ever been addressed … this is ridiculous, and it’s not a representative government,” Fletcher said.

Others had a different take on the issue.

Ariane Williams of Carrollton, who teaches outside of the county’s school system, blames resistance to change for the increased polarization she’s seen at recent board meetings.

“The way that I saw the school board growing up, that’s not what I see anymore, and it’s a shame and an embarrassment … I’m hoping that you all can see the brokenness,” Williams said.

Teresa Mitchell Shand of Smithfield then told the School Board she’d started school at Isle of Wight County Schools in 1963 — two years before the school system began allowing Black parents the option of enrolling their children in formerly all-white schools, and six years before the school system fully integrated in 1969.

“I’m very concerned about the future of my grandchildren … I have never seen the division in this school and this county that I see now, and I pray to God that you will all come together for the children and not for the politics,” Shand said.

Natalie Roberts, a mother of four from Smithfield, said she worries the continued political polarization will drive away Isle of Wight’s next superintendent, just like Thornton, who lamented in a written statement on his impending retirement that he’d become “saddened that staff and children have been directly affected by politicians that have used k-12 education to further their political agendas.”

“We all just need to pray and ask God to give us the person for this county, and even when they do come, I would really appreciate it if people stopped coming to the School Board meetings being rude and disrespectful. … Stop thinking that things are going on in schools, and they’re not going on,” Roberts said. “I’m sick of the drama, I’m sick of the disrespect, and I want it to end now … We have to stop coming here spewing crazy.”

The School Board will hold a second public hearing on the matter April 23 at 10 a.m. in Georgie D. Tyler Middle School. School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes has pledged to keep the selection process “as transparent as we can.”

Per advice from the VSBA, the School Board plans to keep the identities of superintendent candidates confidential.