By WILLIAM PAINE
A forum featuring two candidates for the Pulaski County School Board took place this past Monday, Sept. 25 at the Robinson Tract Community Center. Dr. Paige Cash, who has served two terms on the school board representing the Robinson District, faced challenger Sabrina Smith Cox at this community led informational gathering.
Cecil and Tina King, along with Michelle Hall acted as hosts for Monday’s forum. Community members were asked to submit questions written on slips of paper and in turn,
Cecil King would ask each candidate to respond to these inquiries.
Candidates Cox and Cash began the forum by introducing themselves to the approximately 30 individuals who congregated inside the Robinson Tract Community Center.
Cash spoke about her education and her experience as a teacher. After earning English degrees at VT and RU, Cash earned her doctorate in English from the University of Alabama. She taught 10th grade Dual Enrollment English at PCHS for 7 years and has served on the faculty of NRCC for the past decade.
Cash listed the construction of the Pulaski County Middle School as one of her biggest accomplishments as a member of the board, as well as the addition of new CTE classes in recent years.
“We’ve also developed a partnership with the Virtual Academy of Virginia to increase virtual enrollment for remote students who will be enrolled in Pulaski County Public Schools,” said Cash.
“Since the pandemic, we discovered that our students are experiencing a mental health crisis,” she added. “So, one of the things that we’re planning to do in the future is implementing a school wide mental health task force in order to address those issues.”
“Thank you for your service, Dr. Cash,” said Cox in her opening statement.
Cox went on to talk about her two daughters who both attended Pulaski County Public Schools and are now attending college and doing well. Cox also spoke about her career as a financial advisor, planner and investment broker.
“I believe the primary goal of public education is to prepare students to be contributing members of a larger community,” said Cox. “To this end, obtaining levels of proficiency in reading, writing, math, science, civics and history are paramount. Students ought to be taught critical thinking skills to learn how to think, not what to think.”
‘I believe parents and guardians play an invaluable role in the education of their children,” Cox added. “Given the proper curriculum tools and making information accessible and transparent, parents are better equipped to participate in their children’s education.”
The candidates were asked about what sort of change they have brought forth in their careers.
“I think one of the obvious ones is one change that I tried to implement two years ago when we were talking about test scores and gap groups,” said Cash.
Cox drew upon her professional experience to answer the question, explaining how her company is always recruiting new brokers and how she spearheaded a new way of bringing in high quality brokers.
“That was change I advised and we implemented,” said Cox. “It’s working very well. Our recruitment numbers are up and it’s still being used.”
Candidates were then asked about some of the issues facing PCPS teachers. Cox suggested that elementary school teachers would appreciate ‘duty-free’ lunch periods. This would give teachers a break from work during mealtime.
Cox then talked about what she’s heard from teachers currently working in the school system.
“There’s a lot of turnover in the middle school and I think that school is not set up for success on many levels,” said Cox. “I think our teachers work in a culture of fear of retaliation and retribution and this is from what I’ve been told from various teachers within the system. I think the principal is lacking tools that can assist her in getting things on a better trajectory at that middle school. Teachers need their authority back in the classroom and they need to be able to count on their administrators to back them up in that.”
“The Restorative Justice that was ushered in several years ago has been a disaster,” Cox continued. “I witnessed it firsthand in the classroom. I was disrespected in a terrible way as a substitute teacher, and I went to administration and said, ‘You know what, there may be other people here that will stand for this. I will not. So I need to know what you’re going to do.’ And they moved me. They moved me … not the child, but me. And when I reflected on that particular incident, it bothered me because the child got what she wanted, basically, and that was me gone. And while I’m happy to serve wherever they take me, wherever they put me, I’ve just felt like that wasn’t exactly the totally appropriate response in that particular situation.”
“I think everybody would like more planning,” said Cash of the elementary schools. “I mean, the duty-free lunch is great, but planning would be premium.”
“Yes, we have had problems in the Middle School but we are currently working with administration in order to address those issues,” Cash explained. “I have not heard those same issues with middle school teachers this year that you have heard. What I’m hearing is that they love their working environment, now. Those interventions with the administration are working and they’ve never been happier. I think that we probably can agree that high school kids are a different breed. I would say around the entire school district, the biggest issue facing teachers is burnout with teachers in all schools.”
“Now, the point about restorative practices are very well taken,” Cash admitted. “Those had been moved to the backburner. We have returned to more traditional methods of discipline this year … I have not been a fan of suspension, which is one reason I liked restorative practices in the beginning. I am not a fan of suspension because as a teacher, you know that when you send a student out on suspension, they’re missing school … This year, we have instituted something called Night School and the students go to school at night. The teachers, God bless them, are teaching 12- and 13-hour days in order to put those students through Night School. Every night of Night School you go to, knocks off a day of out of school suspension.”
When asked how best to raise the average test score for a PCPS student, Cox claimed that lack of discipline in the classroom was negatively affecting the student’s grades and once that was under control, test scores would rise.
Cash talked about plans to increase tutoring capabilities within the school system and also listed absenteeism as a major factor in hindering student’s progress.
“We’re going to have to address some of the issues of absenteeism,” said Cash. “I recently saw another news report where they talked about mental illness as a reason students don’t want to come to school because they suffer from anxiety and depression.”
Cecil King then read a question inquiring about vandalism that occurred in the middle school bathrooms and if anything happened to the students who did the damage. As the question was being read, Cash chuckled quietly.
“It’s not funny,” said a member of the audience.
“I’m laughing because you all are not going to believe what they did,” Cash explained.
“It’s hard to catch them because they go in the bathroom. We don’t have cameras in the bathroom and that’s for obvious reasons. And they did this at the high school, too.”
Cash went on to explain how this behavior emanated from a Tik Toc challenge before going into detail.
“Students started by tearing soap dispensers off the walls,” said Cash. “And then, when that wasn’t enough for them, they …. and I don’t want you to think for a second I think this is funny because I think it’s disgusting. I’m just not sure if people are going to believe it. Then, and this is particularly unfortunate, they started peeing in the soap dispensers, so that our students will go to wash their hands, it would be soap mixed with urine.”
Cash explained how the soap dispensers have since been elevated and equipped with a bar across their opening to prevent future student access.
“Now, this happened at school but this is a behavior problem,” stated Cash. “But we do need community and parent buy in and I can’t imagine that we would ever have to say to children, ‘Please do not urinate in soap dispensers’ but apparently, we do.”
“Dr. Cash has admitted here tonight that what they’ve been doing for the last 5 or 6 years hasn’t been working,” said Sabrina Cox in reference to Restorative Justice practices that were implemented in the school system.
Cash held up one finger as a reference to how long Restorative Justice has been in effect in the Pulaski County Public School System.
“One year”? Asked Cox.
“Well, two,” responded Cash. “We’ve only had Restorative Practice for two years.”
“That policy has been a disservice to our students and community at large,” said Cox. “I believe that it has taken people stepping up and stepping out and running to get this issue addressed in a real way and I’m glad that it is finally being understood and addressed.”
The practice of Restorative Justice was first introduced to the Pulaski County School Board by Superintendent Siers in the summer of 2019 and the first professional training on Restorative Practices took place in August of that year.
The next question asked why Cash supported Superintendent Siers and even went so far as to give him a substantial raise.
Cash responded by saying the emails sent to the Virginia State School Superintendent, which disparaged some members of the community, were a “plea for help.”
“He was referring to some comments made by some individuals that other parents and grandparents took issue with and came to him and said …Why do we have this kind of speech at a school board meeting?” Cash said. “Now as far as why did we give him a raise? Did I like that language? No. Did I really support what he said about the KKK? No, I did not but one mistake does not mean that you do not support your employee.”
When asked why the Pulaski County School Board decided to no longer provide a home for the Southwest Virginia Governor School, Cash claimed that the idea came from the Governor’s School Board and not Pulaski County Public Schools.
“We didn’t have money to fix the roof of the Governor’s School (at Northwood Elementary School),” Cash stated. “We didn’t have the money to do it on our own. The other schools for good reason could not kick in any money. So, we just could not fix it.”
Cash added that Governor School students seem quite happy about their new home at New River Community College.
When asked about increasing student proficiencies, Cash mentioned that a new reading program was being introduced at the grade school level and has seen some success. The new program is based on phonics, which is very similar to the program that was in place several years prior.
Cox was familiar with the new reading program.
“It sounds like we’re moving on the right track there,” said Cox. “Here’s some real-life data for you. My sister manages the Tractor Supply Store in this town. She regularly has people apply to work there who cannot read. It really blew my mind. So you know, we have issues.”
Lastly, candidates were asked what compelled them to run for the school board.
“I value education in my community,” stated Cash. “I think it’s paramount to community success and longevity. So that’s why I want to serve on the school board.”
Cash also talked about eliminating the “us versus them” mentality regarding teachers and members of the school board.
“My life is a mission for education,” stated Cash. “I have been involved in policy making, studying education, pedagogy and educational theory all of my life … all of my life. None of this is new to me. And it’s, I feel that this is the greatest gift that we could give our community and our kids.”
“Our kids are falling behind on basic educational standards,” answered Cox. “They can’t carry a conversation with direct eye contact. They can’t do basic math without a calculator on their cell phone and they think history is what happened yesterday. It’s unacceptable … We’re looking at the same problems that plagued us for years with the idea that it will get better. It’s not. Boil an egg 100 times and it will come out boiled and not fried … Thank you for your eight years of service but our kids are not all right. It’s obvious that what you’re doing isn’t working. So, let’s get together and give change a shot. If nothing changes, Nothing changes.”