BEDFORD — Four candidates for the Bedford County School Board on Tuesday discussed their ideas of how to best move the school division forward after the Nov. 5 election.

Incumbent District 5 representative Julie Bennington, District 5 challenger Georgia Hairston, Incumbent District 7 representative Martin Leamy and District 7 challenger Patti Kese discussed their candidacies during Tuesday’s meeting of the Bedford Professional Women at Liberty Station. The group hosted a forum for Bedford County candidates in contested races for the sheriff’s office, Bedford County Board of Supervisors and Bedford County School Board.

Bennington, who was appointed to the school board in 2007, is the current chairwoman of the school board and has served on the Virginia School Board Association.

“I first joined the school board because I was asked to fill out the remainder of a term,” Bennington said. “I thought at the time that I would serve for six months but then I developed a passion for our schools. I want to continue serving Bedford County schools if elected for another term.”

Hairston, the former principal of Otter River, retired last year after 37 years in education. Hairston said her experience as a teacher and administrator would allow her to continue serving students in Bedford County.

“I decided to run because I care deeply about the students of this county,” Hairston said. “I want to see every student succeed. We must put our students first no matter where they live. All of our students deserve a good education.”

Leamy, who was elected to the Bedford County School Board in 2015, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and the former operations manager at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. Leamy said if elected to a second term, he would continue to work on addressing teacher recruitment and retention in Bedford County as well as evenly distributing resources throughout Bedford County schools.

“Right now we have about a 10% to 11% turnover each year,” Leamy said. “We are losing too many quality educators and we need to continue STEP increases for our teachers and possibly look at some type of merit pay. We also need equal facilities and equal curriculum at all schools. I’ll say it again, equal facilities and equal curriculum. That’s only fair.”

Kese, who has lived in Bedford County for 25 years, said she has five years of volunteering experience within division schools.

“I’ve answered phones, dealt with parents and worked on attendance,” Kese said. “I’ve worked with teachers, students, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, school nurses and parents with the PTA at several schools. I have spent a lot of time in the four walls of the schools, which has given me a unique perspective.”

During the meeting, members of Bedford Professional Women asked candidates about the performance of BCPS Superintendent Doug Schuch, the closing of schools in Body Camp and Thaxton, and a recent study of Bedford County’s elementary schools that may lead to future elementary school closings.

“I think Dr. Schuch is doing a great job,” Bennington said. “When he started, about 50% of our schools were accredited and now 100% of our schools are accredited. We needed someone with a vision, and I think he has done an incredible job.”

Hairston said she has concerns about some of the initiatives Schuch has initiated within the division, such as the division’s push for personalized learning.

“I worked with Dr. Schuch for nine years, and I certainly have a lot of respect for him,” Hairston said. “However, I have concerns about some of the programs in our schools. We can’t expect to put a computer in front of our students and expect them to learn. Technology is a wonderful tool but we have to find a balance between that technology and real classroom instruction.”

Leamy agreed.

“Technology should be a tool of the teacher,” Leamy said. “Technology should never replace the teacher.”

Leamy expressed concern about potential school closings after the findings of the elementary schools study was released.

“What got me involved in the the school board was the closings of the schools in Body Camp and Thaxton,” Leamy said. “Those communities had their identity taken away from them and that is something we need to stop.”

Kese said the school board needs to carefully consider what it decides to do regarding the report but said Schuch should not be blamed for the closings of the two schools.

“When we talk about the closing of these schools, that was a decision made by the school board at that time,” Kese said. “No one has a magic wand that they can just wave around and close a school because they want to.”

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Shannon Keith covers Bedford County for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5530.

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