Sharp exchanges between candidates, moderators mark Newport News School Board debate

NEWPORT NEWS — Candidates for the Newport News School Board engaged in a sharp debate Thursday night at the school division's administration building that included repeated terse exchanges between the moderators and candidates.

The debate was hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and moderated by Bill Thomas, director of governmental relations at Hampton University, and Newport News City Councilwoman Pat Woodbury.

Candidates were asked questions about what the school division can do to improve standardized test scores and whether or not the school division should embrace city efforts to combat gangs.

Thomas and Woodbury repeatedly interjected into candidates' statements to draw on their own experiences. At one point, Thomas engaged in a lengthy exchange with incumbent school board vice chairman Jeff Stodghill, who is running for the Central District seat against former board member Betty Dixon.


View/Submit Comments for this story

Stodghill argued the school division had made progress during the past four years.

"I don't believe we're failing," he said. He noted the state had raised benchmarks and the school division faces "a continually raising high bar."

Thomas cut Stodghill off. "If you don't think we're failing, that's not true," Thomas told Stodghill. "I'm in the business of education. I've been there for 20 to 30 years now. Our children cannot write, they cannot read with comprehension, they cannot get into college at [Hampton University] at Christopher Newport. It's not happening.

"I didn't want to come here tonight because I see failure. I think they're a failure and no different from Norfolk or Chicago or New York."

Thomas also took issue when Curtis Bethany III, who is running for the open at-large seat, described Standard of Learning tests as difficult. Thomas said he had taken an unspecified SOL test and found them to be "simple."

Bethany asked Thomas when he had taken the SOL. "About eight years ago," Thomas said.

Woodbury asked candidates if they would support using school division resources to support the city's anti-gang initiatives. Woodbury said in her experience on the School Board, the division discouraged teachers from writing discipline referrals because it would make "statistics look bad."

Rick Jones, running for the at-large seat, said "gangs don't just happen in neighborhoods, they happen in schools." Dixon said she believed gangs were a more prevalent issue than being reported in schools.

Pricillia Burnett, an incumbent board member running for the North District, said she didn't believe school resources should be used to "criminally process" gang members, but to give them options in alternative schools.

Thomas said in closing remarks that he wanted to "ring the alarm" about the condition of schools in the city and the country.

After the debate, Gary Hunter, also running for the at-large seat, said he was surprised at the tone of the moderators.

"I thought it was a little hostile," Hunter said. "I didn't like that (Thomas) called our schools a failure."

Douglas Brown, running for the North District seat against Burnett, said he thought Thomas' remarks didn't "strike the right tone."

Stodghill said the debate underscored larger disagreements happening throughout the nation.

"I didn't come here and expect a nice calm water event," Stodghill said.

Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-247-4536.