County attorney: BOS doesn’t have authority to have names overturned
HANOVER— A recent Hanover County School Board decision changing the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School drew comments from a large contingent of citizens and several supervisors at last week’s meeting.
The decision and subsequent removal of placards and signs containing the names two days after the action by school officials was described as insensitive by one board member.
County attorney Dennis Walter clarified questions regarding school board decisions.
“The Constitution of Virginia and State Code provide that decisions regarding the supervision and operation of schools — which includes the names of individual schools — are made by the school board,” Walter said. “The board of supervisors does not have the authority or ability to overturn the decision by the school board on school names.”
During a public comment period, many speakers went further.
Marsha Boyce Rider referenced a 2018 survey conducted by school officials that revealed an overwhelming majority of those who responded favored keeping the names.
“The survey indicated by a 76 percent margin that the public was in favor of keeping the names the same,” she said. “Why wasn’t the community asked for their input like they were in 2018?” she asked.
She contended that the newest school board members, Sterling Daniel and Kelly Evko, were pressured to vote for the changes by superintendent Michael Gill and the NAACP.
“Why would Sterling Daniel, the newest school board member, be allowed to lead the charge on such an important issue over members who had been on the school board a lot longer than he has?” she asked.
Boyce-Rider also took aim at Gill over the removal of marquee references and other symbols in addition to deletion of the websites.
“I am also proposing the resignation of Sterling Daniel and Kelly Evko since they went against their board of supervisor who appointed them. I am also proposing the resignation of Michael Gill due to his unprofessionalism and the way he has handled this situation,” she added.
Wendy Yeoman also objected to the process by which the latest actions occurred, conceding that she knew the changes would eventually come. “I am not naive enough to believe the name would have remained, but what I am disappointed in is the way they went about being changed,” Yeoman said.”Our children in this county deserve much better.”
In addition to losing time in school and athletics due to COVID-19, Yeoman said students are now experiencing a lack of identity with the removal of school names.
“The upperclassmen at those schools — you’ve removed them from any ownership of that school. They don’t have a school. They don’t have a name. They have no association,” she said.
The ire from the speakers and the large contingency of supporters toward the school board and its administration was not limited to attendees, and several board members expressed their displeasure with the recent actions.
Mechanicsville supervisor Canova Peterson said recent actions displayed a “lack of leadership” and was critical of a move that set forth a plan for which no plan of implementation had been considered.
He noted that officials had reached an informal understanding that the school names would be changed when new schools were relocated.
“It was a logical compromise to those who wanted it done now, and those who wanted it done never,” Peterson said.
He also was critical of the near immediate removal of the names and symbols at the campuses.
“I was not at the [Hanover County] School Board meeting, but I have a hard time thinking that the word tomorrow was in the motion to change the names,” Peterson said. “I have a hard time thinking that any specific time was in that motion. My understanding is that it was not.”
Peterson likened the process of school name changes to redistricting and said it required extensive research and planning. “That has not happened here,” he said, referring to the recent changes.
“Instead, our schools moved in with a bulldozer efficiency to see how quickly they could do away with any indication of these schools’ identity even to the point of removing the names on the public school’s website,” Peterson said.
“Our students are heading back in just a few weeks to a school with no name and a building that resembles a warehouse,” he continued.
The Mechanicsville representative referenced school efforts to prevent bullying as he said, “Right now, I think the biggest bully of all is the school board and senior administration.”
He urged the school board to reconsider its timeline and said the school board had made “a knee jerk reaction in response to pressure from the current divisive climate.”
He called the action callous and inconsiderate, and said students were not even allowed the opportunity to take photos or capture other memories “with their school still intact.”
South Anna supervisor Sue Dibble said she felt “responsible” for the recent action since her recently appointed member did not reflect her position on the changes. Dibble had voted to retain the names when she chaired the school board in 2018.
When school board members adjourned a special meeting called to consider the name changes last month, the panel appeared deadlocked at 3-3, and Evko became the deciding vote necessary to change the names.
“This vote a couple of weeks ago has taken me by surprise,” Dibble said. “I feel a certain responsibility. I feel South Anna was not represented in the way I had hoped it would be when I moved from the school board to the board of supervisors.”
“I think of the South Anna kids as my own, and it breaks my heart to think of the pain we have caused these young people,” Dibble said. “I’m not sure how we’re going to fix this right now ... but we have really created a mess and I going to do all that I can do to try to turn this around. I hope and pray in the next week or two that we can come together as a community and get our school board to reach back out because it’s you that we represent,” she added.
“I do feel responsible for what took place and I’m going to do my best to help my school board member and the rest of the school board members and this board to turn this around and do what we can,” Dibble concluded.
Chickahominy representative Angela Kelly-Wiecek said she would not be asking for the resignation of her school board appointee, Bob Hundley.
“I have been in frequent conversations with my school board member on this issue for quite some time. I wish to reiterate that I do not believe Mr. Hundley’s actions were cowling to current pressures or simply seeking ... political correctness,” she said. “I will not be asking for Mr. Hundley’s resignation.”
Hundley voted to retain the names in 2018, but voted for the changes earlier this month.
Gill provided the following statement regarding comments from the previous evening: “I am aware of the comments that board of supervisors members and citizens made during last night’s board meeting. Understandably, this is a complex and emotional issue, and we are sensitive to the various perspectives of our students, families, staff, alum, and our broader community.
“We are working with great care, dignity, and respect to retire the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School as directed by the school board.
“I sincerely regret if anyone has interpreted our actions in any other way. I believe this is a time for unity and healing, not further division and conflict. As we move forward, we will do everything to make this transition as dignified as possible,” he concluded.
School board chair John Axselle, Beaverdam, also responded to the comments, and noted a long-existing working relationship with the board of supervisors.
“I would like to re-emphasize our commitment to the partnership we value with the board of supervisor and our community. Our focus has always been, and will hopefully remain, providing our children the best educational opportunities possible to prepare them for a successful future,” Axselle said via email.
“We also realize the board of supervisors support us in this endeavor and we take their leadership, comments and suggestions seriously,” he said.
Axselle, who voted against the name changes, indicated concerns expressed by supervisors would be addressed.
“The Hanover County School Board, superintendent, and senior staff will be working with the board of supervisors and county administration to successfully resolve their concerns,” he said.
“This partnership we value so much has taken years to develop and foster and has proven to be very beneficial to the citizens of Hanover County. We will make every effort to keep it and strengthen it as we move forward,” he concluded.
In other matters considered at last week’s meeting:
Since Hanover began a new service providing transportation for seniors throughout the county, more than 800 trips have been provided for county residents aged 60 or over or disabled.
After its launch in December, the program enjoyed continually increasing ridership and interest, but the onset of COVID-19 slowed that progress.
DASH provides rides for seniors aged 60 and up and disabled riders of all ages to doctors appointments, shopping or social activities throughout the county, and in some cases beyond. Destinations include McGuire Veterans Hospital.
Six months since its inception, director Lisa Adkins indicated the program is catching its second wind as riders return, and services improve.
Adkins said the pandemic not only affected riders, but also created challenges for the companies that provide those services. Hanover contracts with private providers like Roundtrip to ensure efficient service.
To celebrate the six-month anniversary, Adkins said the program is rolling out a “Gifts of 6” promotion that includes added incentives for clients.
For the first six months of the program, service was available from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and riders paid $6 for a one-way ticket. Caregivers who accompany those clients are not charged.
That co-pay is eliminated during the promotion which runs through Sept. 30, and hours have been extended to 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Medical offices located in the Stony Point area also have been added to the list of destinations, and clients can utilize the service to access employment opportunities too.
DASH manager Susan Richards said, as of July 15, 165 regular riders had taken advantage of the service. Providing more than 870 trips in total, the service has received only 15 complaints during the initial six months.
The program received a $127,000 grant from the Commonwealth’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), and a similar request for 2021 has been approved.
Kelly-Wiecek suggested the program expand its communication efforts to include caregivers or others who may know seniors or disabled persons in need of the transportation service.