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Bus drivers, unions and metal detectors: Charlottesville School Board candidates discuss priorities

Four new candidates will be filling four seats on the Charlottesville School Board next year.

The quartet appeared at a candidate forum Wednesday night where they took questions on school safety, teacher retention, the bus driver shortage and much more during a substantive 90-minute session.

While Amanda Burns, Shymora Cooper, Chris Meyer and Nicole Richardson will not officially win office until they are elected on Nov. 7, each is running unopposed and thus virtually guaranteed a seat on the board.

Some 25 members of the public joined the forum at the Jefferson School, which was moderated by Charlottesville Tomorrow education reporter Tamica Jean-Charles. Below are excerpts from their responses. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and concision.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your relationship with Charlottesville City Schools?

Richardson: I am originally from New York City, and I transferred to Charlottesville in 2007. I graduated from Charlottesville High School in 2008. I have two boys who attend Charlottesville City Schools, and I do a lot of community work around Charlottesville, Albemarle County, the Haven, and Habitat for Humanity.

Meyer: I had two children at Charlottesville City Schools. I did run for school board back in 2019. Even though I was not successful during that race, I jumped back in and helped run the PTO at Jackson-Via during COVID. I was one of the co-founders of the joint PTO fund that successfully I think raised about $160,000. I am now a project developer for a renewable energy company in town. And previous to that, I was an executive director of a local energy alliance program about 3 1/2 years.

Cooper: I have two children that graduated from Charlottesville City Schools, and I have a son that is currently attending. I’m a community organizer. I’m a co-founder of Charlottesville United for Public Education. I wear many hats in the Charlottesville community. I’m from Charlottesville, born and raised.

Burns: I have two boys, one who will be 21 on Election Day and the other who is 14. He’s at Charlottesville High School. We have been through the Charlottesville city school system from kindergarten all the way through. I work in health care as a health care administrator. My expertise is really in project management implementation, human resources, accountability, patient outcomes, and I’m looking forward to stepping into the city school space to lend my expertise in those areas in addition to the work that I do with the #100Cuts Initiative to provide free haircuts to children in middle school and high school.

As a school board member, what will your biggest focus area be and why?

Cooper: My biggest focus areas would be early childhood education. I think that we not only need to focus on our children, but we need to also focus on our parents, because a lot of parents’ trauma can affect their children’s learning abilities. And so making sure that we have wraparound services not only for our children but also the parent. We need people at our schools that are advocates for the parents, so that if the parents don’t understand, especially with children with 504 plans, or maybe individualized education programs, for some parents, they just go along with it, and it’s not really what their child needs.

And then also supporting our teachers is important, because teachers are not just teachers, right? Teachers are sometimes parents, teachers or sometimes mental health specialists; teachers are sometimes counselors. How do we stand behind our teachers? Are we having conversations to see what it is that our teachers need? And making sure that we’re creating a healthy work-life balance for our teachers as well.

Richardson: I agree with everything that Shymora said. I would like to say also financial assistance. I think the school should also be a place for parents and students to be able to tap into local resources and gather that information in their schools as well.

Meyer: I’m going to focus more on the operational side of things, the funding side of things. How do we work with the city to maximize the budget? And have a challenging conversation with the city about operations, not only CAT but our facilities and the management of them. I want to focus my time and effort on making sure those operations are effective and efficient as possible.

Burns: I probably echo Chris a little bit. I’m going to leave the education piece up to the educators and administrators who are doing that great work. My focus is really clear and consistent communication so that we’re putting out messaging early and on time and that we are clear about what we are asking our parents and asking of our students and asking of our administrators. I think transparency is important, that on the occasion that we get something wrong that we say we got something wrong, and that we have the opportunity to grow and to learn from that.

And I think also accountability. We are elected officials here to do a job, and when we’re not performing up to par, people should hold us accountable. And let us know that we’re not doing the work that we were hired to do.

We now have an ongoing teacher shortage and teacher unions fighting for collective bargaining. As a school board member, how do you plan on supporting teachers?

Meyer: I appreciate the productive and constructive engagement the previous school board has had with engaging the union and supporting the collective bargaining. I imagine continuing to support that. I think they just formalized their bargaining unit. I had a conversation with the union president and all the things she listed I think were very reasonable, and I, at this moment, don’t see a conflict with any of the things that were requested.

Richardson: I’m always for discussing salary increases and making sure our workers and myself have the best insurance, so I’m 100% supporting them for that.

Burns: I do support the Charlottesville Education Association and their right to collective bargain. I think it’s important that they have a unified voice at the table to talk about their working conditions, their benefits, their wages, their barriers to teaching curriculum in the classroom.

I certainly appreciate the work that they did to get to this and thank the current school board for their work and for listening and coming to the table and being open to that. It is hard to get to that space, as we see with what’s happening in Albemarle County right now.

How would you address the bus driver shortage?

Meyer: City Council runs the buses, hires the bus drivers.

You have to think about the total compensation. While you might have $25 an hour, if you’re only working 25 hours, 20 hours a week and you don’t get to do that during the summer, that’s not going to pay the bills. And if you don’t have vacation associated with that and you don’t have health care associated with that.

All those things need to be considered, and we need to make this a career, and it needs to be paid for like that. I think other neighboring counties have done that, and guess what? They don’t have school bus driver shortages. In Louisa, for example. So when I hear CAT officials say it can’t be done, well, why is the county next door from us able to solve this problem?

Cooper: Bus drivers are not paid enough money, and they don’t work full-time hours. So figuring out how we create that position so that it is full-time and that they are able to get benefits, because that’s important. And so maybe even looking at bringing it from under the city and bringing it to the Charlottesville City Schools so the schools are able to govern it versus city transit. If we could figure out a way in their downtime that they could maybe help out inside the school so that they are full-time and able to get benefits, then we may see some changes.

Burns: I agree bringing transportation back under the purview of Charlottesville City Schools is the way to go. I think it’s hard to hold bus drivers, leadership, school administration accountable when the city school district is really the middleman in all of that. How do we negotiate salaries and benefits when they’re not under our authority?

What do you think can be done to help students feel safe and properly equipped to handle the potential violence that may happen to them in or outside schools?

Cooper: I think just having conversations, right? Having conversations in the community, having conversations with the kids, encouraging parents to have conversations and providing safe spaces in our schools or talking to kids and asking them if they have safe spaces. And if they don’t, figuring out how we connect them to be able to identify a safe space.

We have a lot of community spaces. And I would like to utilize those spaces. How do we go into those spaces and start having those conversations with parents to talk about some of the things that we see or that children may talk about with their teachers or the guidance counselors or the mental health specialists. Start having those conversations so that we could figure out what is it that our children need and then support them in that way.

Richardson: This might be an extreme from me growing up in New York City, but has anyone ever thought about metal detectors maybe? If we’re just trying to make sure that there are no weapons coming into school, guns, knives or anything like that. I don’t really see that too much around here in the city, but that’s what popped in my head for safety.


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