Candidates worry about area's future

By Shannon McGovern

With a daughter in high school and 3-year-old twin sons on their way to pre-school, David McDaniel says he is motivated in his unopposed campaign for the Natural Bridge seat on the Rockbridge County School Board.

“I have a lot invested in the school system,” he said.

But so do  candidates for other districts, based on what they told county residents Wednesday at the county Democratic Committee’s non-partisan candidates’ forum. The local election is Nov. 8.

Jay Lewis, the school board candidate for Walkers Creek district, also has a young son entering the school system and he too said he has a vested interest in the success of students.  “I think that’s a general motivation [for all of us],” he said.

About 130 residents from all over the county filled the meeting room in the County Administration Building in Lexington to hear nine candidates for constitutional offices – county treasurer, commonwealth’s attorney and sheriff – followed by candidates for county board of supervisors and the county school board.

Residents continued packing the room after the 7 p.m. starting time and were lining the walls by mid-way through the two-hour meeting.

The candidates described their qualifications, education and presented personal information, but it wasn’t until the second panel that the speakers got to the heart of what people seemed to want to hear about: creating jobs and sustaining the local economy.

The proposed closing of Rockbridge Middle School, which would send students and staff to an expanded Maury River Middle, also tied in to the public’s worries about job loss.

Kerrs Creek Supervisor Rusty Ford, whose position is not up for election this year, said doing more with less has been the challenge faced by the supervisors in recent years.  The supervisors have cut positions, and reassigned employees to openings elsewhere in county government.

“We are cutting jobs, not people,” said Ford.  “We are scrambling to keep level funding for things like the library and education, while the state keeps cutting its share.”

The board of supervisors is in the process of securing up to $24 million to finance the consolidation of the middle schools. Rockbridge Middle has 200 students; Maury River has 350.  School Superintendent John Reynolds said between the two schools, there is a lot of duplication of services that could be done with fewer people.

Consolidation and renovations, said Reynolds, would create “savings overall, but additionally, state-of-the-art education facilities.”

Last year, the county consolidated two elementary schools, with Effinger moving to Central Elementary, hoping to improve the quality of educational resources and save money.

Laura Hoofnagle, the school board incumbent for Buffalo district, said the decisions to close schools have been difficult but necessary to save money and reinforce the future vitality of the county’s school system.

“Personally, I hate to see community schools close, but [the question is] what do we do to make a situation better,” said Hoofnagle.  “It really is giving our children the steps they need to compete with students from other counties.”

Candidates who opposed the proposed middle school consolidation plan said they thought it was developed for the wrong reasons, and that the process excluded the community.

“I’m very disappointed in the process that was used to make this decision,” said Eric Sheffield, one of three county supervisor candidates for South River district.  “I think it was made from the top down – it was about money.”

Ronnie Campbell, a county supervisor candidate for South River district, said consolidation and renovation will only exacerbate the county’s money problems.

“With so many foreclosures, where are you going to get the money for renovations?” he said.  “I can’t find anyone in South River district who wants the [Rockbridge] middle school closed.”

The only school board candidate for the Natural Bridge district, David McDaniel, disagreed. He said that consolidation of Rockbridge County High School in the 1990s, just when he graduated, made more resources available to his daughter, who is a student there now.

“We are making decisions for students 20, 30, 40 years from now,” said McDaniel.  But, he said, it will be a difficult decision for the board. “It’s an emotional issue,” he said.

David Hinty, the county supervisor candidate for Natural Bridge district, expressed a readiness to embrace these kinds of changes.  He believes the past school consolidations have been efficient, particularly because they did not lead to tax increases for county residents.

On another topic, in response to a question posed by a resident, the candidates addressed issues surrounding the county landfill.  The landfill is scheduled to close Dec. 31, 2012, but the board of supervisors still has to resolve funding for trash transfer within the county.

Janet Mogensen, a local businesswoman and candidate for Buffalo District county supervisor, said trash transfer should be paid for by the county.  She said cooperation between the county and the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista is the key to resolving these issues and essential to the political strength of the county.

“We need to market ourselves as a package,” she said, “to compete with other counties.”