Expanding broadband Internet access to Halifax County residents, modernizing Halifax County High School and increasing teacher pay, and collaboration between the Halifax County School Board and board of supervisors were hot topics in a Wednesday evening virtual candidate forum.
The forum, sponsored by the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce and moderated by 95.3 WHLF broadcaster Nick Long, gave Election District 2 and 3 school board and board of supervisors candidates in the upcoming November election a chance to share their views with voters.
Participants in the forum were Larry D. Roller, who is running unopposed for the ED-2 seat on the board of supervisors, board of supervisors chairman Hubert Pannell and newcomer Amy J. Gautier, who are vying for the ED-3 seat on the board of supervisors, and the three candidates competing for the ED-3 seat on the school board: incumbent Sandra Garner-Coleman, who is a write-in candidate, and newcomers Thomas J. Lee and Melissa Hicks.
Roy Keith Lloyd, current vice-chair of the school board, also is running unopposed for the ED-2 seat on the school board, but he was unable to attend Wednesday’s candidate forum.
Roller, who currently serves as the tiebreaker on the board of supervisors, cited countywide broadband Internet access and operating the county’s school facilities with “well-paid, qualified staff to provide excellence in education” as two of his main priorities in his vision for Halifax County. Those priorities are shared by other board of supervisors and school board candidates.
Expansion of broadband and teacher pay also came up in candidates’ responses to Long’s questions later in the forum. Gautier named access to high-speed Internet as the primary economic development issue facing Halifax County, stating access to high-speed Internet is essential to the county’s economic growth.
“Society is very reliant on Internet for school, work and pleasure,” Gautier said. “While people want to live in our community for a slower pace, a quiet, get-to-know-your-neighbors environment, they’re not willing to sacrifice something such as Internet. Our children are being quarantined on a regular basis, and parents need Internet for children to continue their education at home. Many people are provided more work-from-home opportunities, and they need that access. Also the businesses out here that want to grow need that access in order to continuously grow.”
Pannell cited attracting new businesses to Halifax County as being key to the county’s economic development. He pointed to nearby Pittsylvania County and the city of Danville’s recent attraction of new companies including Caesars Entertainment’s plans to build a casino in Danville, stating the board of supervisors needs to find out, “How can we be part of that equation?”
All three school board candidates identified raising teacher compensation as being important to them, when asked by Long to share their views on that issue.
“It’s at the top of the list,” Coleman said. “We currently have pay scales in place to be implemented that will give teachers raises competitive to the connecting counties and to North Carolina…I think we’re going to get some of our teachers back that we lost last year when we implement those salary scales.”
Hicks said she believes in rewarding teachers based on their performance, and a teacher evaluation system should be in place, with high-performing teachers being rewarded with raises in compensation. Lee said he believes the quality of teachers the county attracts and retains will be a reflection of the teacher compensation.
The school system currently is working to address teacher compensation while also addressing the condition of the outdated Halifax County High School. Long asked the school board and board of supervisors candidates to share their thoughts on the board’s recent decision to build a new high school, using funding from the 1% local sales tax earmarked for school construction.
Coleman has been an advocate for building a new high school, and reiterated her reasons for supporting that decision, first and foremost the safety and security of the students.
“We need a new high school, if nothing else to secure our children to provide a safe container for our children when they are with us,” Coleman said. “I believe that high school will be a flagship for this county. When families decide on moving to a community, they look at the school system, and I believe with a new high school, we’re going to draw other people, professional people into this county.”
Lee also said he believes the county needs a new high school facility.
“It is quite necessary not just from the technology aspect but also for the individual students to feel this type of pride within a building that’s going to help them move into the 21st century,” Lee stated. “I think the condition of the school is quite antiquated and it just needs to be rebuilt or built in a better environment.”
Hicks, on the other hand, said she believes the school system should focus on maintaining its current school facilities and keeping all the community elementary schools open instead of spending all the sales tax dollars on building a new high school.
“We have $120 million available, so I say let’s work within our budgets…Don’t spend all the money on the high school, because that one percent sales tax is for all the schools,” Hick said. “The best facilities do not mean the best education. We need to take care of what we have, and I think the school should be focused on building the best programs with academics and athletics.”
Gautier said she believes the high school needs to be modernized and funds need to be allocated to maintain all of the school system’s facilities, but she does not believe building a new high school is necessary.
“I personally don’t think a building itself is going to bring people here,” Gautier offered. “I think what we have to offer with our teachers, with the initiatives that we can give them for job readiness, that’s what our kids need.”
Pannell, on the other hand, called the school board’s decision to build a new high school a “great decision.”
“I think the high school is going to be a pilot for people to come to Halifax County,” Pannell said. “I know that if you don’t have a great high school, you’re not going to attract great minds…Our high school is a bad eyesore for professionals coming here. You’re not going to get that professional bringing their child to put into that school.”
The board of supervisors ultimately has to make a decision about the funding allocation for school construction, impacting the school board’s ability to renovate or build a new high school.
“The board of supervisors will look at the monies that we have, but we’re going to offer the best product that we possibly can to our children,” Pannell said.
The board of supervisors’ ability to work hand-in-hand with the school board to address issues facing the county such as the building of a new high school also emerged in the course of the forum as important to the candidates.
“Overall the objective of the school board and the board of supervisors is one in the same: It’s the forward advancement of our county and keeping the county’s interests in mind first, but that also includes being a part of our children’s lives,” Lee said. “We’re here together…We’re not separate, we’re one in the same.”
Coleman said she believes it is “imperative” that the school board and board of supervisors communicate with each other and have a good working relationship.
Hicks shared that she has experience as a chaplain, and she believes her skills as being a “team player” and “active listener” would serve her well as a member of the board of supervisors.
Gautier shared her view that open communication and a “team approach between all the elected officials and the citizens” are essential to Halifax County being a proactive community moving into the future.
Another virtual forum will be held for ED-6 candidates at 6 p.m. Wednesday. For more information, call the chamber at 434-572-3085.