District 4 School Board candidate profile: Jason Maresh

Published 1:21 pm Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Editor’s note: Jason Maresh is running against Laequinla Hunter for the District 4 seat on Isle of Wight County’s School Board. The Smithfield Times emailed the questionnaire below to both candidates on Sept. 5. Hunter’s responses can be found here.

Name:  Jason P. Maresh

Age:  47

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Occupation: Data Analyst

Prior elected offices held:  Isle of Wight County School Board, District 4 (Nov 22’ to present)

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

I ran in last year’s special election because I’m a parent who had concerns with the direction of IWCS and suspicions regarding a lack of school board oversight.  District 4 voters shared my sentiments and voted 68.51% in my favor.  When I came to understand the inner workings of VA’s public schools, my concerns were validated.  This past year I have dedicated countless hours to fulfilling campaign promises which include being a voice for parents, ensuring parental rights, re-focusing schools on academics (not social engineering), providing transparency, establishing open communication to represent all constituents, and demanding fiscal responsibility.  Based on constituent feedback I am confident my efforts have positively impacted IWCS but there is more work to do.  As a result, I am running for a full term to finish what I started so our children have access to the best education we can provide in IWCS.

2. What should be the School Board’s top priority right now?

School safety and security are top priority but a broader focus is necessary for overall student success and efficient school operations.  I have identified three additional priorities: (1) Reducing student behavior/discipline issues.  This year we approved extra positions in our high schools to reduce behavior/discipline issues and related administrative burdens.  We’ll compare metrics to evaluate progress at year’s end.  (2) Academics.  2022-23 Standards of Learning testing results show IWCS performed equal to statewide scores in science and above statewide scores in reading, writing, math, and history but we’re still below pre-pandemic levels.  The Superintendent has implemented various initiatives to accomplish this effort.  (3) Budget planning and oversight.  I’m confident I’ve contributed to unprecedented fiscal transparency in IWCS this year, but there’s room for improvement.  Taxpayers deserve to know how their taxes are spent and be assured those taxes are spent wisely. 

3. Has a March policy change that now prohibits educators from teaching students about “systemic racism” had a positive or negative impact on Isle of Wight County Schools?  What changes, if any, would you make to the policy?

Policy INB (Teaching about Controversial Issues) guides teachers and sets parental expectations on how controversial topics will be handled in the classroom – that’s positive.  I authored changes to INB which states in part, “There is no systemic racism or bigotry perpetuated by the United States…”  It does not restrict teachers from teaching racism exists.  Furthermore, INB states that instruction on controversial topics will include racism, and topics will be presented such that students are guided to “think critically without promoting, advancing the idea, or persuading students to presume that controversial topics should be viewed through any particular lens, within an atmosphere that is free from personal bias, prejudice, or coercion.”  In my view, students need not know their teacher’s political or ideological convictions to learn curriculum.  I encourage all readers to review the policy at (https://www.iwcs.k12.va.us/apps/pages/policysectioni).

4. What more can Isle of Wight County Schools do to attract and retain quality teachers?

Hiring and retaining quality teachers is a growing challenge across our entire country.  IWCS is fortunate to have started the school year with significantly fewer vacancies than neighboring divisions.  IWCS recruited numerous top-notch professionals from nearby divisions due in large part to IWCS’s reputation of having GREAT schools.  The recent 5% raise and hiring/referral bonus undoubtedly helped too.  Moving forward, compensation must be set so we’re competitive with nearby divisions.  We’re currently exploring options for conducting a division-wide compensation analysis to do just that.  We must work to keep our schools safe and continue to build on our team environment where teachers feel valued for their important and difficult jobs.  A school board and administration that maintains open lines of communication with the public will grow parental involvement, a supportive culture of community, and a positive reputation that attracts more quality teachers.  

5. Should Isle of Wight County Schools adopt the new transgender student model policies Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration released earlier this year?  Why or why not?

IWCS should adopt the VA Department of Education’s “Model Policies on Ensuring Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in VA’s Public Schools” as per Virginia Code § 22.1-23.3 which mandates boards “adopt policies that are, at a minimum, consistent with these 2023 Model Policies”.  The 2023 model policies available here:    (https://www.doe.virginia.gov/home/showdocument?id=46509&t=638252835940748322).  We are reviewing revised IWCS policies JFCAA (Student Dress & Grooming), GBA/JFHA (Prohibition Against Harassment & Retaliation), JO (Student Records and Identification), and new policy JFCAB (Student Participation in School Activities).  These revisions prohibit schools from hiding student information from parents, outline the facility usage and participation in athletic programs based on biological sex (not gender identity), ensure parents’ rights to be informed about their child’s well-being, and address pronoun and name usage.  This is common-sense and the right thing to do for IWCS.

6. What more can be done at the school division level to keep students safe from shootings?

Preparing to respond to a school shooting demands establishing clear expectations for a properly trained staff with an understanding of both the capabilities and limitations of personnel and facilities.  There is no single solution, instead, this requires a multi-faceted mindset.  During my time on this board, we have hired a “Security & Emergency Management Specialist” whose sole purpose is to oversee all aspects of school safety and security.  This person consults with all local and county emergency agencies and first responders.  We’ve initiated division-wide threat/vulnerability assessments, which include appropriately screened community volunteers having various expertise, to identify potential threats, and vulnerabilities unique to each school.  Training, plans, and security equipment are all under review.  Vestibules and night locks are being installed, and a plan to implement weapons detection devices has been approved while sourcing funds is ongoing.  Bottom line: This is IWCS’s top priority and is an ongoing effort.  

7. Should sitting School Board members endorse political candidates?  Why or why not?

School Board members should not endorse political candidates “while on duty, while on school property during school hours, or while representing the school division” as per IWCS policy GBG (Staff Participation in Political Activities).  If a school board member opts to engage in political activity on their own time, it should be made clear that their actions and views “are made as individuals” and not representative of the school.  Some may recall when this policy did not prevent former Chair Denise Tynes from publicly endorsing ex-board members Renee Dial and Michael Vines (former candidates) during a 2022 school board meeting.  School boards approve policy and members should adhere to policy.  Double standards are detrimental to the credibility of the board and establish a negative precedence regarding the accountability of elected officials.  For this reason, I assisted in drafting and adopting the IWCS by-laws shortly after being elected.   

8. Are board members doing enough to keep track of Isle of Wight County Schools’ budget and spending?  What, if anything, more can be done?

Since well before I was elected, I was a harsh critic of IWCS’ spending and lack of budgetary oversight.  My questions and concerns were routinely met with silence and dismissal from board members.  Upon my election, I made it a top focus to ensure tax dollars are spent appropriately, wisely, and with transparency.  I’ve worked hard to break the “that’s the way it’s always been done” mentality and the “rubber stamp” approach of previous boards.  Fiscal scrutiny and budgetary oversight are complex efforts that require considerable time and dedication to develop an understanding.  I make a deliberate effort to ask questions during public meetings so that taxpayers know what I have learned.  To improve fiscal oversight, I am in the process of developing additional monthly reports that assist the board (and the public audience) in tracking changes in the budget, so yes, there is room for improvement.       

9. Should Isle of Wight County Schools continue its membership in the Virginia School Boards Association?  Why or why not?

I voted to renew IWCS’ membership with VSBA this year, but I am not certain if I will vote to renew my membership again if I am re-elected.  VSBA membership does offer useful training opportunities, resources, and services, but it came at a cost of approximately $60,000 to IWCS taxpayers in 2022-23.  VSBA claims to be “voluntary,” but membership requires fees for all board members; individuals cannot opt-out.  VSBA claims to be “non-partisan” but maintains an active legislative lobbying effort.  Not surprisingly, the VSBA provided “recommended” policies when Governor Northam released his 2021 “Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students” which in part allowed students to use whichever bathroom they choose.  This year the VSBA refused to provide recommended policies following Governor Youngkin’s “Model Policies…” which states students must use bathrooms that correlate to their biological sex (not gender identity).  This refusal speaks volumes about VSBA.