By Alexandra Cline
As the Rockbridge County School Board election draws near, candidates have been sniping at each other over their qualifications and experience.
On Nov. 7, incumbents Laurie Strong of the Kerrs Creek district and Kevin Brooks of the South River district will each be challenged in their reelection campaigns. Heather Hostetter, an office manager at her husband’s excavating company, is hoping to unseat Strong. Corey Berkstresser, general manager of Lee Hi Travel Plaza, is challenging Brooks.
For Brooks, this year’s election is about more than budget issues or educational programs – it’s also about the new candidates and their lack of involvement in the school system.
“Folks need to realize that they have to make a choice between candidates who have a passion for making sure our schools are the best they can be versus folks who apparently woke up one day and said, ‘I want to run for the school board,’ and who we’ve never seen involved in school affairs,” Brooks said.
Brooks said that he’s never seen Berkstresser or Hostetter attend school board meetings or show direct interest in school issues.
Berkstresser countered, saying that his candidacy wasn’t random and that there was encouragement from around the county for a candidate to oppose Brooks. Berkstresser also said that parents who have children in the school system have expressed dissatisfaction with the school board representation.
“I actually heard complaints around the county and our district, specifically, about how we were represented. There was a fair amount of interest in someone, anyone, to challenge [Brooks],” Berkstresser said.
While Berkstresser noted that the school board would be a new endeavor for him, he considers himself a leader and a quick learner. As the son of Bobby Berkstresser, owner of Lee Hi Travel Plaza and White’s Travel Center, the younger Berkstresser has no shortage of connections in the county.
Hostetter also refuted Brooks’ comment, noting that neither she nor Brooks know each other’s personal views or background, aside from information that is publically available. Further, Hostetter said that she simply wants what is best for students and for the future of the school system.
“Simply attending meetings is not the only way to be knowledgeable about the needs for the school system,” she said.
Berkstresser and Brooks – On the Issues
If elected to the school board, Berkstresser said he would want to expand vocational-technical programs to better prepare students for the workforce. Though he believes that testing and traditional academic work are important, he said that students must also be ready to tackle careers in the real world.
“People at the high school have already started changing programs,” Berkstresser said. “Sure we need testing, but at the end of the day we need to prepare these people for the real world.”
On the opposing side, Brooks has been primarily concerned with funding shortfalls for K-12 education, which has caused contention between the school board and local government bodies.
Rockbridge County schools receive about half their budget from state and federal funding and half from local funding. Several years ago, before the economic recession, 43.1 percent of county spending went towards schools. In the last four years, the proportion has dropped to 40.8 percent, a little over $1 million in lost funding.
To stop the infighting and “budget battle” between the school board and the board of supervisors, Brooks also said that he wants to implement a funding formula. That formula would give the school board a better idea as to the level of funding that schools will actually be receiving.
“My overarching umbrella objective is to reach an agreement with the board of supervisors to develop a funding formula so, every year, we generally know what likely funding from the locality will be,” he said.
“Our current process is coming up with an ask and then arguing with them and having to settle for what they’re willing to give us.”
During his tenure on the school board, Brooks also worked to resolve issues related to how Lexington taxpayers were assessed “tuition” for the students it sends to Rockbridge County High School.
Previously, a contract had been negotiated between the two separate school systems, in which Lexington City paid a tuition rate based on the total cost of operating the county high school in proportion to Lexington students in attendance. After about 2003, a decision was made to stop computing tuition costs and to just use a round number for payments – which didn’t increase as the number of Lexington students increased at the high school.
According to Brooks, that caused a divergence in payments versus expenses, meaning that the county was ultimately subsidizing the cost for Lexington students to attend the high school.
“I dug into it and found that it wasn’t right,” Brooks said. He said he was able to fix the problem, inceasing tuition payments from Lexington taxpayers by over $300,000. This is a little over one percent of the county school system’s operating budget, he said. “My involvement and experience led to something good not only for schools, but for county taxpayers.”
Hostetter and Strong – On the Issues
In preparation for the Kerrs Creek district race, Hostetter and Strong both participated in a candidate forum at Palmer Community Center on Oct. 19, summarizing their platforms and answering questions.
At the forum, Strong – who has had three children attend Rockbridge schools – stressed the importance of early childhood education and reducing class sizes. She also pointed to Mountain View Elementary School, a recent Blue Ribbon honoree, as a model for other Rockbridge schools in those categories – especially because of its small kindergarten classes.
“Most studies on early childhood education say kindergarten is the most important year,” Strong said. “It sets the tone for the rest of their educational career. Mountain View starts off with 10 kids in the classroom. We can’t implement that right away, but I would like to implement that in the future.”
Strong has also been an advocate for increases in teacher pay in order to stay competitive with other school districts and keep teachers in the county. The difficulty, she said, is that the county’s board of supervisors has expressed disagreement with the school board on teacher pay – namely saying that the cost of living is lower in Rockbridge than in surrounding counties.
For Hostetter, transparency in school spending and the allocation of funds have been key campaign issues. She believes that her background as an accountant and her experience in finance would serve her well in providing a more balanced approach on the board.
As a parent who has had experiences with the Alleghany County and Rockbridge County school systems, Hostetter said she also brings a different perspective on what works in schools and what doesn’t.
“I’ve been able to see a different school system,” Hostetter said. “I truly believe you can collaborate and build upon the best ideas from other people. You can always learn something from someone else. I’ve had nothing but good experiences as far as the school system here, but there are some things that could be improved upon.”