Wood County Board of Education candidates gather for public forum

Wood County Board of Education candidates Judy Johnson, left, Justin Raber, center left, Walter Bonnell, center right, and Rick Olcott, right, answered questions Monday evening during the League of Women Voters’ candidates forum at the Parkersburg Municipal Building. (Photo by Michael Erb)

PARKERSBURG — Community members Monday night heard from a handful of candidates seeking seats on the Wood County Board of Education.

Eight candidates are vying for three seats on the Wood County Board of Education, but only four candidates were able to attend the League of Women Voters-sponsored forum Monday at the Parkersburg Municipal Building.

Attending were Judy Johnson and Justin Raber of District B, and Walter Bonnell and Rick Olcott of District C.

Kathy Stoltz, vice president of the League of Women Voters, said incumbent Jimmy Asbury of District B and newcomer Debbie Hendershot of District A were unable to attend due to out-of-town responsibilities. Incumbent Peggy Smith of District C was sick, she said.

Stoltz said candidate Garrett Foggin of District A “did not accept our invitation” to participate.

About 100 community members gathered Monday evening at the Parkersburg Municipal Building to hear comments from four of the eight candidates vying for three seats on the Wood County Board of Education. (Photo by Michael Erb)

State code allows for only two members of the five-member board to serve from the same district at any given time. Current members Ron Tice and Rick Tennant represent districts A and B, respectively, so voters can elect one candidate from each district or one candidate from A or B and two from District C.

At Monday’s forum, members of the public were allowed to submit questions which were asked of all four candidates, each given one minute to respond. On many issues the candidates agreed, such as the need to upgrade technology and infrastructure in schools, the balance between academics, sports and the arts, and the importance of local decisions in curriculum.

All candidates agreed the opioid crisis was putting a strain on public schools, which are often “the first line” in dealing with learning and behavior problems, as well as recognizing abuse and neglect, of children.

The candidates were asked about teacher morale.

“I believe our system needs a lot of improvement in that arena,” said Olcott, who previously served three terms on the school board and has worked for the past two years as a substitute teacher for Wood County Schools. Olcott said he believes choosing a new superintendent, a process the school board is undertaking right now, is vital to providing leadership and respect for employees. “It’s critical that you have good leadership at all the schools, but also at our central office.”

“We need to have key people in leadership positions that respect our staff and that are respected by our staff,” said Johnson, who served as an administrator at Wood County Schools, including as Director of Curriculum.

“It is something we have to look at and be very cognizant of, and it starts at the top,” said Raber, an attorney. “I’m never going to ask them to do something I’m not willing to do. Teamwork is what is needed to make sure every child meets their fullest potential.”

“This here is something we have to stop and look at at all angles,” said Bonnell, who has resided in Wood County for 51 years and who has had six children and dozens of grandchildren attend Wood County Schools. Bonnell said while he believes morale has been very good, it does vary throughout the county, and he believes better pay would help them improve.

Another hot-button issue was school consolidation. All of the candidates agreed it was something the district must consider, but said it would require a great deal of community input.

“I think we need to come together and make some tough decisions in the next few years,” Johnson said. “I don’t rule it out, but I don’t think we look at it lightly either.”

“The fact is, this is something we are going to have to deal with as a community sooner rather than later,” Raber said, pointing to aging facilities and some schools not being handicapped accessible. “There is a lot of discussion we’re going to have to have as a community.”

“We do have a lot of schools that are in bad condition, small schools that are in bad condition, and they need to be condensed,” said Bonnell. “However, we do not want to overload our teachers with a bunch of students where they are not going to be able to give those students proper attention.”

Olcott said 10 of the district’s 19 elementary schools have enrollment below the state’s economy of scale requirements, and Wood County Schools’ comprehensive education facilities plan has already called for some school closures which have not happened.

“I don’t think it’s whether I support it or not,” he said. “I think it’s essential for the future financial health of Wood County Schools.”

The primary election will be held May 8, with early voting opening April 25.