Eight people are vying for one seat on Hanover County’s School Board.
The Mechanicsville District seat on the seven-member board expires June 30. Hanover is one of 16 localities in Virginia that appoints its School Board members. There’s no public election; rather, board members are appointed by the county’s Board of Supervisors for four-year, staggered terms. The Mechanicsville supervisor is W. Canova Peterson.
Mechanicsville’s Sterling Daniel is seeking reappointment after joining the board in March 2020 to fill the seat following the unexpected departure in December 2019 of former School Board member Roger Bourassa. In addition to Daniel, the nominees are Kimberly Thurston, Ryan Hudson, Jerry E. McCormick Jr., Paul Heizer, Ryan Martin, Johnny Redd and Sarah Gragnani Butler.
Each individual publicly nominated themselves at the supervisors’ April 27 board meeting, or were nominated by someone else. A ninth nominee — Chris Cray — was nominated by another individual at that meeting, though Cray has since declined the nomination.
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Each candidate will be interviewed by Peterson, and the full Board of Supervisors will vote on the appointment at its May 25 meeting.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch asked each candidate a series of questions. Daniel, the incumbent, will kick things off. The remaining candidates’ responses will run daily through next week in alphabetical order.
QUIEN: Sterling Daniel, a father of two boys in Hanover schools, is the associate dean for business and administration for the VCU School of Nursing.
QUESTION: Since your appointment in March 2020, the School Board has faced a number of controversial issues, including the renaming of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School in July 2020 and, more recently, the board’s ongoing actions regarding state-mandated policies for transgender students. Now, in 2022 and beyond, what do you consider the School Board’s most pressing challenging/needs, and how would you address them?
DANIEL: It’s not the School Board’s practice to comment on pending litigation, so I don’t have anything further to add regarding the board’s policy approach for transgender students. Beyond that, I’m focused on several issues that the board will be dealing with in the coming years. Recruiting and retaining a highly skilled workforce in a very competitive job market is an ongoing area of focus, and we have implemented a multiyear plan to tackle this issue. This effort includes addressing pay competitiveness and salary compression among our teachers and staff.
Effective July 2, we have approved a 5% pay increase for all employees [and] our longest-serving employees will also receive an additional increase to address areas where they have fallen behind and to acknowledge their many years of excellent service to our school system. We are increasing the pay for several support positions, including nurses, custodians and food service employees, to be more regionally competitive. I’ve never seen a hiring environment like the one we’ve faced over the past couple of years. I experience it daily in my work when trying to make competitive offers to candidates and watching the expectations continue to climb.
When it comes to capital improvements, we are planning to replace three of our oldest elementary schools in the next five years at a budgeted cost of more than $100 million. Given the current state of inflation on construction materials, ongoing supply constraints and climbing interest rates, it’s a very challenging environment right now to initiate capital projects. We are going to have to make smart decisions to control costs and bring these projects to fruition on schedule. Design and finishes can have a significant impact on the overall cost of a project. We need welcoming, functional learning spaces for our students at a reasonable cost within established budget parameters.
Last year, we considered consolidating the International Baccalaureate program to a single high school. Ultimately, the board decided not to make that change, but it did highlight the relatively low enrollment in the program at several schools. I would like to see more students take advantage of this opportunity, particularly those who plan to pursue higher education, as the IB program is considered one of the best ways to address the college readiness gap among high school students.
Enrollment of English Language Learner students continues to increase significantly, up nearly 17% just this year. This requires additional instructional resources and other targeted support to meet the specific needs of these students that will enable them to succeed in the classroom. The approved budget includes two new teacher positions to address this growth, but we will need to continue monitoring this enrollment trend to account for any additional needs in future years.
Federal funding during the pandemic allowed us to advance our timeline for deployment of Chromebooks to all students. Now that each student has a device, I think there are opportunities for us to enhance their effectiveness as a learning tool, particularly with applications aimed at helping our youngest learners gain essential literacy skills.
QUESTION: What have you learned as a School Board member? If reappointed, would you do anything differently?
DANIEL: My time on the board has been unique, having started just as the pandemic hit in early 2020. My first four board meetings were held virtually, a first for the school division. I haven’t experienced a time on the board when we were not facing health and safety concerns related to COVID-19. But I joined the board at a time when I could use my years of experience in education administration to help guide the school system through a very challenging period.
It has been a privilege to work alongside our remarkable team and watch every employee, no matter their role, step up in a way that no one else was willing to do in Virginia. We put the needs of our students first by preserving in-person learning, five days a week for the entire school year, and we were the only school division in the state to accomplish this feat. I’m grateful to have been a part of our school division during that time to witness those heroic efforts firsthand.
Moving forward, I don’t think my approach to the work would change if I am fortunate enough to be reappointed. I relish the budget and policy work. I would look forward to having more opportunities to be in schools and interacting with students — activities that were limited during the pandemic but returning now.
One thing everyone should understand about joining a board — of any type — is that the real power is granted to the board itself. I’ve been asked at various points over the past two years why I didn’t take a certain action, and I would remind them that I cannot take any action on my own. We must come together as a board to act, whether it’s approving a budget or modifying a policy. Fortunately, I’ve been surrounded by board members who are engaged on the issues and ready to tackle complex problems together. It’s been an honor to serve with them.