Members of the Patrick County School Board and Board of Supervisors recently clashed during a discussion of supervisors touring local schools.
Denise Stirewalt, of the Peter’s Creek District, said Clyde DeLoach was nice enough to accompany her on tours of some schools.
“We toured the schools, and they were very nice. It was nice to see such well-behaved children. We asked the teachers ‘what do you need,’ and everybody seemed to have everything they need,” she said.
During the tour, Stirewalt said she and DeLoach, chairman and of the Blue Ridge District, learned one teacher commuted from Winston-Salem, N.C., and another traveled from Roanoke. She noted that the teachers appreciate the children and the quality of life in Patrick County.
“I understand the request for a 10 percent increase for teachers. I’d like to say that promoting the quality of life here and the well-behaved students could be a better way for attracting and keeping teachers versus throwing money at them. I understand money is an issue, but I’d just like to say that,” Stirewalt said.
The tour took place over a period of two days in late April, with the two supervisors touring Blue Ridge, Meadows of Dan and Woolwine elementary schools, as well as Patrick County High School.
Before the recent joint meeting, Schools Superintendent Jason Wood said he was thankful for the compliments DeLoach gave the school.
“However, their role as a board member should also not give them extra access to a school. If a parent requested access to a school, it would be the same process,” he said.
Wood said visitors to any school are asked to make an appointment for a tour to ensure potential visits do not clash with other activities.
“We don’t want to interrupt students learning and things,” he said.
Neither Deloach nor Stirewalt made an appointment.
Additionally, Stirewalt toured Stuart Elementary School in March and counted the number of students per class, teachers, and teacher aids. Following that tour, and examining principal Sandra Clement’s enrollment numbers, Stirewalt said she did not believe the school needed as many teachers or teacher aids as it had.
During the March 28 supervisor work session, Stirewalt said she wanted the supervisors to work with the school board to find ways for it to cut its budget. “I think this is one way we can do that is by actually going into the schools and looking,” she said.
Also, after the tour, Clement emailed supervisors. The email stated in part that the school has always welcomed supervisors and school board members to its buildings.
“So, when Dr. Adams came into a class observation and asked if Mrs. Stirewalt could walk around, of course, I welcomed her. Dr. Adams walked with her as she did her pencil and paper headcount. I initially asked her to allow me to give her an accurate count from PowerSchool, but she refused,” Clement wrote.
Clement added that she was beyond upset, and at the time “had no idea she (Stirewalt) was ‘researching what she could cut in my building.’ This is a highly unethical practice.”
Doug Perry, of the Smith River District, responded to Clement’s concerns.
“My deepest apologies for Mrs. Stirewalt’s actions. They did not represent me as she took it upon herself to do that. I feel her actions were out of line, unprofessional and cross several boundaries breaking an element of trust,” he said.
Walter Scott, who represents the Smith River District on the Patrick County School Board, asked Stirewalt how many county departments she had toured. Stirewalt listed the Emergency Management Services (EMS) and Building Inspection Department, and has spoken with James Houchins, of the Tourism and Recreation Departments, about its needs. She has not visited the Maintenance Department within the past two years.
“I just find that interesting,” Scott said.
Stirewalt said Scott, who is also a county employee in the Maintenance Department, could talk to her or County Administrator Geri Hazelwood if there is a need in that department.
DeLoach said he did not understand Scott’s insinuation and asked if Scott thought there was something wrong with him and Stirewalt visiting the schools.
“Personally, when we have board members saying in a public meeting that they want to close a school, and then show up to a school, the perception of that” makes some people nervous, Scott said.
Stirewalt said closing a school is not a decision the supervisors can make.
“My job as a county supervisor is to see what the taxpayers are paying for. I have every right to visit anywhere, any county department, any school department that I would like to because it is my responsibility. How they perceive that is up to them,” she said.
“I have a duty to the citizens of this county to know where the taxpayers are going. If I didn’t feel comfortable because of the situation that happened last year, that’s what I have to do. I have to go see that the need is actually there,” Stirewalt said. “In my opinion, I am one board member, and that’s all I am is one board member that has a duty to the citizens.”
Scott said there are county departments that he knows could use a visit from the supervisors to see what they need.
“It goes two ways. You are more than welcome to contact me anytime, Walter, just like any other department,” Stirewalt said, adding that she feels like the Maintenance Department is getting closer to having everything that it needs.
Scott said that when Stirewalt and the other supervisors put the perception of wanting to close a school out to residents of Meadows of Dan, it did not go over well with many of them.
“It’s just the perception of what was said before and then you showing up later, which is the very first time you showed up there. So, it makes people nervous,” he said.
DeLoach said he was with Stirewalt when she toured Meadows of Dan. Scott asked if he had interrupted any of the supervisors when they were talking, to which DeLoach responded that he had not.
“Okay, then let me finish,” Scott said, and added that his point was that the school division and all its employees work hard to keep the system going.
“I’m a little bit disappointed when I feel like someone’s undermining us or accusing us of not doing that. Counting students and things of that nature,” he said.
DeLoach said he failed to understand how anyone could take his visit to Meadows of Dan the wrong way.
“If they did, they’re ultrasensitive, I’m sorry,” Deloach said.
Noting his background in education, Deloach said that he asked Wood if it was alright for him to visit the schools.
“If I want to go visit and look at the schools, then I have every right to do that, and if someone takes offense then I won’t apologize. They need to grow up,” Deloach said.
Shannon Harrell, of the Blue Ridge District on the Patrick County School Board, said the situation was upsetting, particularly as the two boards are trying to work together.
“To hear close a school, you never visited, and now you go visit. If you go visit every year, and you go visit, there wouldn’t be a thought about that, I think. But it was because of the comment,” she said.
Harrell said people are nervous about their jobs and where their kids go to school.
“Teaching was hard enough, then we live through a pandemic, and then to have your Board of Supervisors there and then you’re like ‘oh shoot, are we getting ready to lose our job? What about my kids that go there,’” she said.
She said she believes the two boards need to work better together, and not just meet at the end of the fiscal year.
Stirewalt said she would apologize for her comment, but not apologize for her actions.
“My comment was maybe we should look at closing a school, how much it would save. If any one of those schools were closed it would save $300,000. Point made,” she said, adding the decision to close a school was in the hands of the school board, not the supervisors.
DeLoach said he saw no reason for the two boards to get together until they had resolved the basic disagreement.
“Once we resolve this basic disagreement, then I think we can move forward. That’s why I didn’t have this meeting because I thought it would disintegrate into these kinds of charges,” he said.
Rob Martin, of the Smith River District on the Patrick County School Board, said there have been appearances been put out by several supervisors towards school system, particularly on social media.
Martin referred to a post by Clayton Kendrick, of the Mayo River District, where he discussed a March 1 budget presentation by Wood. “This is rather long but all of Patrick County taxpayers need to listen and study it, if it is passed there will be a large tax increase to pass it,” the post stated.
In his position, Martin said he does not want to play politics. “This is my first year elected and this sucks. However, if my school system is going to get hit by perceptions form somewhere saying it’s all our fault that is not a perception I’m going to live with,” he said. “I’m in 100 percent agreement” the two boards should work together.
However, “we need to keep the perceptions down because it interferes. Since March 2, it has not been this side,” Martin said, and added that he would not support closing any of the county’s schools or cutting the division’s employees.
“Because when we do, your healthcare that you’re trying to help all the employees out is going to go up because we’re going to have less people on the healthcare. It’s going to hurt everything that you’re trying to accomplish right now,” he said.
Martin encouraged the supervisors should look at county’s financial reports.
“Next year, I think the main principal on the major loan is $1.1 million. We’re not even there yet and we’re fussing about this. In about three years, it goes to $5.5 million,” he said.
Amy Walker, who represents the Mayo River District on the school board and serves as clerk to the Board of Supervisors, said the two boards go at one another tears her apart.
“I wish we could have met long before now to have these conversations, so they don’t come off like we’re pointing fingers because it’s making my skin crawl,” she said, adding that conversations between both boards also need to happen more often rather than two people from both sides.
“I think we need to side down, and if we have to hash it out then hash it out, but do it more often so it doesn’t come to this,” she said.