School board holds final meeting of 2021

The Pulaski County School Board met for the final time in 2021 to pass several agenda items relating to the course catalogue, school calendar and a Memorandum of Understanding between Pulaski County Public Schools (PCPS) and the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office.

School board members also heard from parents who expressed their dismay over the lack of communication following a school bus accident involving their child.

In the first public comment period, Gina Paine inquired about the need for an additional Resource Officer to be stationed at Pulaski County High School.

At November’s meeting of the school board, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers insisted that two Pulaski County Sheriff’s Deputies (Resource Officers) were necessary to keep PCHS students safe on “such a large campus.”

Paine noted that the campus is the same size as it was 40 years ago with the smallest student population PCHS has had in its history.

Paine then asked if additional Resource Officers were required to keep students safe from outside threats or from dangers posed by the students themselves. She asked if the school system’s implementation of “Restorative Justice” policies have led to a general lack of discipline and if the Resource Officers, instead of school administrators, were now being used to maintain order within PCPS.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Paine. “I’m all for keeping our kids safe at school. I have a student at PCHS. But this latest request begs the question, what has changed in the last couple of years that now requires another law enforcement official be present at the high school?”

Other than Chairman of the Board Timmy Hurst notifying Paine that she had 20 seconds left in her time, no board members responded to Paine’s questions.

Later in the meeting, board member Becky Cox stated that Resource Officers were needed to present students with positive role models and that interaction between students and law enforcement “builds trust.”

Ritchie Thomas, who filled the role of the interim Principal at PCHS after Mike Grim was reassigned, gave an update of the Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance (VISSTA) Program.

VISSTA is a voluntary weekly COVID testing program, done in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health, for any student or staff member in the school system who signs up for the free test.

“The Program is going really well,” said Thomas, noting that VISSTA had been up and running for 6 weeks with almost 100 students and 28 staff members enrolled.

Two cases of asymptomatic COVID were discovered from taking these tests leading Thomas to say the VISSTA Program has “already paid off.”

Test results come back in about one day’s time and those who signed up do not have to get tested every week.

“That’s the beauty of it,” said Thomas. “That and it’s free!”

These tests and those who run them are paid from federal grant money and not taken from the school system’s budget.

Thomas went on to effusively praise the Pulaski County School System as one of the best run in Southwest Virginia.

Next, PCPS Finance Director Chris Stafford gave an analysis of the budget and stated that, “All major budget expenditures are under budget at this point in the year.”

Stafford added that enough money was left over from renovating the school cafeteria’s Dish Room to give all school nutrition employees health insurance.

PCPS Operations Manager Jess Shull spoke next and listed several capital improvement projects that were currently or soon to be underway.

At the high school, a new air conditioning system is set to be installed in the gym, the Art Room and the Dish Room are being renovated, and the CTE school will be converted from electric to gas powered heat.

Dublin Elementary school will have air conditioning installed in the gym and the school’s kitchen. Critzer and Snowville Elementary Schools will have rooftop HVAC units replaced as well.

Becky Cox, Chairwoman of the Governor’s School Board asked that the roof of the Governor’s School be repaired as soon as possible because leaks there are becoming more pronounced.

Shull also mentioned that there had recently been two school bus accidents, but that no one was injured in either incident.

In the Action Items section of the meeting, the board unanimously passed the Course Catalogue for next year and the and school calendar for the next two school years. In upcoming years, no school will be held on the Monday before election day nor election day itself. Winter Break for next year and the year after will provide students and teachers two weeks off before January classes begin.

The board also voted to allow those as young as 20 years old to work as Substitute Teachers at Pulaski County High School. The move comes as administrators at PCPS have had difficulty in hiring enough substitutes to keep teaching positions staffed.

Put forth after last month’s call to hire another Resource Officer at PCHS, the board voted unanimously to support a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the school system and the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department.

The MOU reads in part that the goal of this collaboration is, “To create and maintain safe and secure school environments … to reduce and prevent crime, violence, victimization and fear in and around the schools.”

As he did in last month’s meeting, School Board member Bill Benson requested that administrators find money in the budget to better compensate school bus drivers. Benson noted that school bus drivers are sometimes on the road before sunrise and after sunset and must be “on call” in the hours in between because of weather or other emergency situations.

The shortage of school bus drivers at Pulaski County Public Schools has resulted in frequent and lengthy delays in picking children up from school and taking them back home from school. Benson suggested that the county provide health insurance or some other financial incentive to keep the busses rolling.

Siers stated that there was no room in this year’s budget for better compensating bus drivers, but that this could be considered for the next year’s budget.

The topic of school busses came up again at the second public comment section of the meeting. Brandon Hinkley, father of 11-year-old Natalie Hinkley, informed the board that his daughter was on the bus when a crash happened on December 9th.

“No one informed me about the accident,” Hinkley stated. “I know when my child doesn’t show up for school because you guys call. I know when she didn’t wear a mask because somebody complained. I know about SOLs because I get two or three phone calls about that a day. But absolutely nothing about the welfare of my child … shame on you!”

Board member Paige Cash said that she was told that no one was hurt in the accident.

“Who told you?” asked Brandon Hinkley.

“Dr. Siers told all of us,” Cash responded.

“That’s fantastic,” said Hinkley. “That’s more communication than I got, and my child was on that bus.”

“We don’t have a list of which child is on which bus,” said board member Benson.

“How many administrators called to check on those children?” asked Hinkley.

“I can’t answer that,” said Benson.

“I can,” Hinkley retorted. “None of them.”

His wife, Jessica Hinkley addressed the board next. According to Jessica, trauma caused by the accident caused her daughter to have a serious headache.

“I’m not upset there was an accident,” said Jessica Hinkley. “I’m upset because no one cared enough to call and ask if my daughter was okay. Mr. Shull informed my husband that the people in charge of communication were all on vacation.”

After some discussion, Cash agreed that the school system should inquire about the health of students involved in school bus accidents.

“That’s fair … that’s fair,” added Hurst.

Board member Penny Golden apologized for the oversight and vowed to find a way to correct the communications breakdown.

Siers apologized, as well, and assured the board members that “another step in the protocol” had already been added to notify parents when their child is involved in an accident.

By WILLIAM PAINE, For The Patriot