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Petition circulated to change school board selection method

Concerns over the Southampton County School Board’s lack of compliance with public input led George Collins, of Newsoms, to create a petition to change the method of selecting the school board.

The question on his petition of qualified voters for referendum is as follows: “Shall the method of selecting the school board be changed from appointment by the school board selection commission to direct election by the voters?”

Among the supporters of the petition is Berlin/Ivor District Supervisor Christopher Cornwell Sr., who described how the Southampton County School Board is currently selected.

“A circuit court judge picks a three-person selection commission,” he said. “That three-person selection commission picks the school board, and we’re one of the very, very few (localities in Virginia) that still do things that way. They’re not elected by the people, they’re not appointed by (the Board of Supervisors).”

In mentioning election by the people and appointment by a governing body, Cornwell alluded to the other two main methods of selecting a school board in Virginia.

Collins said the issue addressed by his petition is something he has been looking into for several years because he has been fairly active in going to school board meetings and participating, and he said he was seeing the same thing happen over and over again.

“What we have in place wasn’t accomplishing anything,” he said. “Several years ago they went to a two-tier busing system, and they had several public hearings, and the majority of the public spoke against it, but then they still went to a two-tier busing system. 

“And that was kind of the start of my thought process of, ‘We’ve got to do something to change this,’ because it just seems like a lot of the board members were just kind of ‘yes’ men for the superintendent, that type of thing,” he added.

But Collins emphasized that he has had positive experiences with school board members personally.

“A lot of the board members I know personally,” he said. “I know them from the community, and I know them from my business and things like that, and the ones that I know are very nice people, are very helpful. When I have a concern, I call them, email them, that type of thing. But it seemed like to me that there was a lot of things going on that maybe some change needed to be made.”

Collins also cited a more recent example that prompted him to consider a change, noting that there was a school board meeting right before the 2020-21 school year was going to start, and most every district allowed public comments.

“They had a public hearing,” he said, referring to many school districts. “‘What do you think? How should we do school during COVID? What is your view on that?’ They asked for input from parents and teachers and that kind of thing. Southampton County Public Schools didn’t. They had a meeting, they discussed it, and they voted. That was it. They didn’t ask for any input from the public other than a survey. They sent out a survey to the parents. That was about it.”

Collins noted he has two children in the school system, one who will be attending Southampton Middle School in the fall and one who will be attending Southampton High School.

Christopher Cornwell Sr.

Cornwell also shared that he has his own vested interest in the school division, with a child at the middle school, one at the high school and one at Nottoway Elementary School.

“One of our biggest problems here — we have very little control,” Cornwell said. Referring to the Southampton County Board of Supervisors, he said, “Our responsibility is fiscal only. Once we give (the school division) the money, they can buy unicorns for the playground if they want to.”

The school budget is approximately $36 million, which represents nearly 55% of the county’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget.

Collins said that as of Jan. 1, there were 12,976 registered voters in Southampton County, and 10% of that number is 1,298.

“If we can acquire (1,298) signatures on the petition, then a referendum would be placed on the ballot in November during the general election,” he said. “Then it would be up to the voters to decide which way they wanted to have it. The petition doesn’t actually change anything. It just gets a referendum on the ballot.”

As of July 5, Collins said his petition was about halfway to the needed amount. It had been presented at multiple Independence Day celebrations over the weekend for more signatures.

He noted that according to law, the petition must be filed 111 days prior to the general election in November, which, this year, would put the deadline at July 14.

Cornwell stated that a petition signing event will be held July 7 from 6-8 p.m. at the Ivor Municipal Building.