By Jeff Poole
With the November election less than six weeks away, candidates for the District 3 Supervisor and District 4 School Board Representative had a chance to articulate their positions at the Orange Branch NAACP virtual candidate forum Monday evening.
Moderated by NAACP Legislative Chair Bruce Monroe, the forum offered the three supervisor candidates and the two school board candidates an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters while answering a slate of prepared questions developed by the NAACP.
In his opening statements, Monroe made it clear the NAACP was a non-partisan, neutral organization and that the questions he was asking had been sent to the candidates in advance.
Three candidates are running in a special election for the District 3 Supervisor seat, following the 2020 death of four-term supervisor Teel Goodwin. In January, the board solicited applications for an interim supervisor until the Nov. 2 election could be held. Five applications were submitted, with the board choosing Unionville dairy farmer Keith Marshall. Two other applicants, Orange County Planning Commission Chair Donald Brooks and Orange Elementary School teacher Ellen Pitera, later declared their candidacy to fill the balance of Goodwin’s term (expiring in 2023), as did Marshall.
In the District 4 School Board race, two-term incumbent Bette Winter faces a challenge from first-time candidate Chelsea Quintern.
Initially, candidates shared similar motivations for running and largely echoing common themes. But as the questions became more specific and direct, clear distinctions emerged.
The forum opened with the supervisor candidates introducing themselves and their reasons for running.
“As a candidate, I am a father, a husband, a grandfather and have spent over 25 years in law enforcement in Orange County and am currently the chairman of the planning commission. I believe I’m fit for this role in leading our District into the future. What I know about Orange County is it’s big into integrity, honesty, character and service and those things should lead us forward. We need a suitable, sustainable economic growth; we need a powerful school system, we need great technology, we need a lot of things. Orange County is on the move, we must stay on that move.”
“I’m a third-generation Orange County native. I grew up in Orange County, went to school, raised my family with my wife, Deanne. We have three kids who all went through the Orange County School system. My family has been in business here since the ‘50s and I personally have been in business—farming and retail—for the last 42 years. I feel my knowledge for the area, understanding of local people with my business experience gives me the best opportunity to serve Orange County in the position of the board of supervisors in District 3.”
“I am a public school teacher at Orange Elementary School and farm manager at Rounton Farm and I am a third-generation also Orange County resident and raising the fourth generation here to thrive, as I am thriving. I love Orange County; that’s the bottom line of why I’m running. I want Orange County to continue to thrive through the next generation through my sons, and grandkids and so-on. We need to continue the strong economic growth we see happening in our county. We need to continue with the excellent educational system we have in place in Orange County and we need to engage everyone in our community with what is going on in Orange County.”
Given a chance to elaborate on their motivations for running, Marshall said the county has been good to him and his family and he now has the opportunity to give back to the community.
Pitera, said the 4-H motto of “make the best better” has always been a compass in her life and is at the core of her motivation to run.
Brooks, citing his lifetime of service to the community—beginning as a student bus driver at the age of 16 to his planning commission tenure—said being supervisor is a service-based role.
With the introductions out of the way, the candidates began addressing more specific issues and elements of their campaigns.
Monroe asked each to outline how they would work with others to attract businesses to the county without a negative impact on citizens’ quality of life.
Broadband and career and vocational education were shared themes among the three candidates.
“The most important thing we have to do is push forward providing broadband access for the entire county. This is really important right now because there are a lot of people moving to the area who are working from home and continuing their businesses at home without broadband. If we can get that equity gap closed that would be amazing. The other thing we need to do is continue supporting the EDA. They are working to find businesses that want to be here. The more attention we can give them is crucial.”
She also talked about establishing more formal mentorship programs to attract and keep businesses in Orange County.
“I think we need to stick with broadband and fund broadband to completion so everyone who has access wants it. I believe we need to stick with the project we have, increased the funding. That will stimulate our economic growth. When folks look at Orange County, they want to know what is our technology status? We have to keep our technology paramount. The second thing is we have to keep the rural character of our county moving forward, not stagnant. We have to be mindful of our viewsheds and the things people love to come and see in Orange County—tourism. We also have to make sure we have a well-funded education system and putting out the right information to the students that will help them in the future and the technology for students who don’t go to college. We have to plan. Planning is the key to suitable, sustainable economic growth in Orange County with an emphasis on broadband, solar farm and technical education for our students.”
“The first step for attracting businesses that have a quality of life impact with great career paying jobs is being able to offer them workers with the skillset these businesses desire. We need a workforce with the skillset that attracts these types of businesses. Career-tech vocational is a great opportunity to get our younger population and current students a head start in this direction to develop these skills. I feel the board of supervisors, working with the school board, can meet these challenges with the right person involved.”
Building on the previous question, Monroe asked the candidates to identify the greatest need of the county the board is empowered to resolve and, if elected, what each candidate’s top priority would be?
Here, the candidates began to differentiate themselves from their opponents, with Brooks maintaining a pro-broadband emphasis coupled with increased vocational education in county schools. “If we don’t have broadband and internet, we’re not going to be first; we’re going to be last.” He also stressed the importance of supporting the Town of Orange. “We speak a lot about the rural character of our county, but we can’t forget about the Town of Orange—that’s our nucleus.”
Marshall itemized four key priorities.
“I think first will always be public safety—law enforcement, fire and EMS. We’re doing a pretty good job but we must continue to maintain the public’s trust in this area. Second, we must maintain responsible government that runs as efficient as possible without placing undue burdens on its citizens. Third, we need to continue to work hard in our community to support those with the greatest need. Fourth, I’d like to expand the projects that bring us together as a community—public parks, youth sports, broadband, public events. Having accomplished these things should provide a low tax burden for our citizens, preserve our hometown values and foster a business environment for growth and career jobs.”
Pitera said the county’s greatest need goes back to its greatest asset—the children of Orange County.
“They need an excellent education system and included in that, is broadband. They need a really good career and technical education (CTE) program. The CTE program is already in place and offering amazing classes. What the program and school needs now is a cutting edge and modern facility to host the CTE. What they also need is the mentorship of current employers in the county, giving them the work experience right here in Orange County and push them into the workforce here in the community.”
Monroe then shifted the questions to more timely topics—notably COVID-19 and social justice.
“In light of persistence of COVID-19, what do you think is the best way to protect Orange County government staff, citizens and businesses?” Monroe asked.
“Having recovered from COVID in the spring, I can personally understand the issues and real concerns. First and foremost, personal health should be personal choice. We need to be careful when we’re deciding choices for others and mandating actions from others.”
“One of the beautiful things about Orange County is we’re a close-knit community and when crises arise, we come together and work out our problems together. Having this conversation in a public way is great. I’m a public school teacher. I wear my mask every single day for these students. I’m vaccinated. I have had COVID, but I still wear it because it’s my job to wear it and I want to be a good role model for these students. Do I like wearing a mask? No. Nobody does. But is it necessary? Yes.”
She cited August COVID case numbers being the second highest monthly total since last January when schools closed.
“If we want to keep the schools open, we have to keep the kids healthy. If wearing masks is what we do, then I’m all for it. I would love to see the leaders of our community following the suit of teachers and the kids and perhaps wearing their masks in a closed room situation where COVID could be spread, especially with this new Delta variant. It’s critical we take care of each other and work together for each other.”
“Nobody likes COVID. Nobody likes a mask. Nobody likes mandates. I recommend for us to keep doing what I saw being done when we started doing vaccinations in Orange. The public school was open. Public safety was there and citizens were coming in and getting shots. We need to keep public facilities available for vaccinations, testing and everything we need to fight off COVID. We could go down a political road with masks or no masks, but in Orange County we know how to come together; we know how to be neighbors with each other. I don’t like a mask. I don’t like quarantining. We keep our public facilities safe for everyone. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids, for your grandkids. I recommend we maintain the public-private partnership between health care providers and county government.”
Monroe asked the candidates the final question on the prepared slate: “How do you define social justice and how can the board of supervisors ensure fairness for all Orange County citizens.
“Social justice is equity for all and a great place to look in Orange County for social justice is Montpelier. Montpelier has done an excellent job of showing the real heritage of James Madison and also showing the real heritage of the enslaved people of Montpelier and what they did during the period they were working on that farm. I think that’s a great model we can take into all avenues in life.”
She said one of the first things she’d like to do as a supervisor is establish a social justice committee with appointments from each supervisor to identify social justice gaps in the community and how they may be closed. “This is a hugely important topic for Orange County. I think the citizens need to look at for the community and in their own lives as well.”
“Social justice is equality, a fair playing field, everyone gets s fair shake. The injustices come when we arbitrarily decide we’re going to cut out one segment of society because of race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever.”
Citing his recent participation in a 9/11 remembrance program, he noted how the country came together following the tragedy of the terrorist attacks. “After that, we became a country united. We all flew the same flag. We were all stood together. That’s America, that’s Orange County and that’s where we need to do. In Orange County, we try to be fair and objective, but there’s always room to improve. Equality is how you feel. Let’s make sure everyone feels like they’re wanted. If we can stay humble and have humility in how we govern, we’ll be fine with our social justice,” he said, citing his earlier talking points of honesty, integrity and character. “If you elect someone who does not have that, don’t expect social justice to be in their pocket.”
“I too believe in a fair playing field for all and I’m all in for justice—whether it be legal, economic or social. I think this can best be accomplished by giving people the freedom to make choices in their best interests, not in giving radical groups the means to undermine our system of values.”
Each candidate then had the opportunity to offer a closing statement.
Brooks said he was pleased to be encouraged to run by people in all political parties. “I have the preparation, knowledge and advantage to be a successful supervisor. He cited Goodwin’s recruitment and appointment of him to the planning commission and added, “We should have a strategic leader who knows what’s best for Orange County and not be politically biased and not about generalities, but who has been groomed for the position. In Orange County, we’ve come a long way, but we can go a bit further if we work together.”
Marshall cited his business experience as an advantage over his competitors before declaring what he believed were fundamental differences between himself, Pitera and Brooks.
“In my business career, I’ve been very fortunate not only to create jobs for my business, but for other Orange County businesses that we work with. The perspective you get in business from signing the front side of a check is much different than the perspective you get from signing the back side of a check you receive. This perspective is what differentiates me from the other two and in how we would vote. There is a huge difference between their progressive, liberal views and my conservative, mainstream, rural values. Your vote for me is a vote to support what you know is best and great about Orange.”
Pitera countered by suggesting supervisors should be non-partisan and that being a supervisor, “takes a person who can listen to both sides of every issue and not just bring one side to the table when making decisions. This is what I feel I’m best at. I’m an incredible listener and leader. I know tons of people in the community through my job as a teacher, as a small business owner and as a community volunteer. Knowing the people and knowing what they want is what’s most important in a leader in Orange County.”
Shifting to the school board race, the forum offered the challenger Quintern and the incumbent Winter the opportunity to make their cases for votes in District 4.
In her introduction, Quintern, a Locust Grove mother of two, said she was excited to apply the skills she’s employed as head of her homeowners’ association and in the criminal justice field to stand up for and represent District 4 citizens on the Orange County School Board.
She cited her work to increase security in her community and efforts to ensure its completion, volunteer work donating backpacks to children in the community, researching Virginia Department of Education and school board policy, laws and legislation regarding schools and school boards as qualifications for the post.
“I plan to continue to use dedication to ensure freedoms are returned to parents, resources are provided to students and hold accountable those who serve in public office. Your voice matters and that’s why I’m running.”
Winter responded by noting her previous eight years of service and said she hopes to complete a number of current projects that are underway. With three children who have gone through Orange County Schools, she said she has volunteered in the schools since 2007, until she was elected in 2013. She cited the large learning curve for board members and her experience as reasons she should be reelected.
“What I have learned is that progress takes time,” she said, adding, “The school board sets priorities growth and improvements for Orange County students’ success. The school board decides the direction the school board will go.”
She cited a personal goal of seeing the county construct a new CTE center, “Where we can provide opportunities for students for life after high school and set up all students for success as adults.”
Over the years, minority representation has been decreased relative to administration and teaching staff. What would be your proposal to help bridge the gap?
“I acknowledge the discrepancy of racial representation in our community. According to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), there is a 94.5% representation of white, non-Hispanic teachers and a 5.4% representation of people of color. In contrast, according to Data USA, Orange County’s population represents 82.9% white, non-Hispanic people and 17.13% people of color. This contrast represents about a 12% discrepancy. My hopes would be to encourage teacher retention through financial assistance as we lose many teachers to Northern Virginia because of salary and other reasons. A goal of mine is to review teacher exit interviews and determine the cause of teachers leaving. Additionally, I would like to budget a retention bonus to encourage our staff to remain in Orange County… Another issue our schools face, even across Virginia, is a lack of bus drivers. I have several personal friends, some of whom are persons of color, went to Stafford Schools to work because of the sign-on bonus. I would like to address that. If we review teacher satisfaction and financial compensation, I firmly believe we will be able to encourage our existing teacher population and encourage local residents to remain in the county for employment, therefore a closer representation would ensue.”
“I personally never would hire an employee based on their race, color, national orgin, ancestry, political affiliation, sex, gender, age, marital status, genetic information, disability or medical history. And neither does Orange County Public Schools. We hire based on their competency, motivation and enthusiasm. We all know there is a teacher shortage. The Orange County School Board has taken steps to increase recruitment and employment of highly qualified teachers.”
She cited two examples, including the Orange County Public Schools’ teacher incentive program, that encourages Orange County students pursuing a career in education to return to teach in Orange, as well as the Hornet Helper program where seniors could participate with teachers in the classroom and earn a certificate for assisting teachers during the school the year in classrooms throughout the county. Those who complete those programs would be eligible for bonuses upon returning to Orange County schools to teach, she noted.
She also noted that teacher salaries have and remain a school board priority, but acknowledged neighboring counties have revenue advantages that allow them to offer higher teacher salaries.
“Our goal is to be competitive with those counties because when teachers look for a job, how well it pays matters,” she said, noting that the board approved step increases for teachers last fall and a one-time bonus of $1,000 for full-time staff and $500 for part-time staff in late 2020.
What do you consider the greatest needs for OCPS that the school board can resolve and what would be your top priority?
“I cannot stress enough we need staff to run this system. Our greatest need at this very moment is transportation staff. The great need for the future is the opportunity to expose students to all types of experiences. This allows them to discover what interests them and supports them on the path after high school to follow their interests and hopefully find themselves in a career that genuinely stimulates, challenges and excites them. I believe this is an important building block for each child’s foundation. My top priority will be to work with the administration and board of supervisors to build a new CTE center in Orange County. We have the programs, we’re constantly adding more, now we need the space. We’re out of space,” she said noting that 60% of jobs in Virginia will not require a college degree. “It’s one of the best ways we can set graduating Orange County students up for success in their adult lives.”
“Orange County students deserve to learn in a personalized environment. That means taught by a teacher, not online, and being recognized for their strengths. Not one student learns the same as another and we need to work toward fixing that. One way this can be accomplished is by providing toward trade certification prior to graduation. There are ways to make this happen without a huge increase in budget. With the influx of monetary assistance through coronavirus relief, we could offset that cost greatly, while using the funds for its intended purpose.
Bringing it back to my profession, providing access trades decreases the risk of criminal behavior, and that’s proven by statistics, while increasing community safety. This is a beneficial program for all of Orange County. Our county is in need of more first-responders. If we could collaborate with fire stations, we could bring more resources to the community while providing education and future employment to our students. We could save money by using an existing structure to immediately implement career and technical education programs and disperse funds toward additional supplemental programs.
What advice would you give a young person at this time in history?
“One quote I run my campaign on is, ‘If not now, when? If not me, who?’ I think that could apply to everyone. Our students’ voices should be heard and they should feel confident to express themselves in a manner in which change can be made. Parents lay the foundation, educators facilitate building upon it, and students have the ability to present new ideas and information to create a brighter future for all of us. If we encourage that and allow them to use their strengths, without fear of retribution, there will be opportunities to explore the world in new ways. In contrast, ensure we remain respectful, even in disagreements, because just because you have a great idea doesn’t mean it can’t be made greater.”
“I decided to answer this as if I were talking to my own children. The first thing I would say is, ‘Get off social media. It is not a healthy place to seek personal validation. It is a one-dimensional existence at best. All it does is feed your immediate gratification and supply dopamine hits. Find a hobby. Talk to people. Look people in the eye when you talk to them. Let them know they have your full attention. Read a book! The smartest people I know read books. The smartest people I know read. It doesn’t matter what you read—within reason—even comic books can be a gateway to imagination and deep philosophical discussions. Be selective in what you allow in your brain. There’s only so much room in there and you should choose what you expose your brain to wisely. Keep a positive attitude. Most people are good people and are willing to lend a hand. All you have to do is ask. Most people don’t know what they want to do after high school. That’s ok. But do something in the world. Get a job. Be reliable at your job. If you don’t want to do that job forever, that’s ok. Knowing what you don’t want is just as important as knowing what you do. Learn, respect and manage your money. Save your money. Eat fruits and vegetables every day. Take care of your body; it’s the only one you have to carry you through this life.”
In light of COVID-19, how do you feel about safety protocols for faculty and students.
Winter’s answer was split between her thoughts as a mother and her position on the school board.
“As a parent, if I had children who were in school, I’d want the choice as to what precautions my children would or would not take. I’ve made that very clear. I’ve done my best pro-choice for your health.
As a school board member, the protocol is everyone 2 and up, must mask up at all times, no matter vaccine status or covid-recovered, as mandated upon us by the governor of Virginia. I encourage you all to vote, Nov. 2. I wish we could offer in-person and virtual learning for all families so they could choose what is best for them. The fact is we don’t have the faculty or the space to run both programs successfully, as discussed with the teacher shortage. I appreciate, understand and support our superintendent’s perspective. It’s better to have students in school and following mandates than risk having to close all schools again. He feels having to shut down schools is worst-case scenario and I fully support him in that decision.”
I fully support Senate Bill 1303 [a bi-partisan bill requiring Virginia school districts provide five-day-per-week, in-person instruction]. Our students lost so much last year, we need to find a way to get that back. Our students deserve to have the same ability to be educated as all prior and future students do. That means to the extent practicable, students should be able to obtain in-person learning and their parents and pediatricians should decide to what extent. … Another serious implication from last year is what our special needs students lost. We need to find a way to support them greater. Many lost a whole year of progress because they lacked the support from mental health providers to special education professionals. They thrive in a structured environment and we need to ensure we maintain that. Providing options for students and parents is necessary—not only at the beginning of the school year, but throughout. Some parents may feel it’s necessary to pull their children to go virtual later in the year and I think we should allow that. Additionally, if parents choose to homeschool, we should assist in that transition. Providing the resources those parents need is vital and I will work to providing that in office. Ensuring OCPS is proactive rather than reactive, we can ensure we explore all needs before they arise. This has not been the case this school year. Where there is a will, there is a way.”
How do you think history should be taught in schools to be more accurate and inclusive of the entire population?
“I think American history deserves to be taught in truth. In fact all history needs to. It’s been proven history repeats itself and with proper education, we can prevent atrocities from reoccurring. In many ways, we still fight that today. In light of today’s climate, you can see segregation, blaming and outright hatred. This is unacceptable. If you fall on one side of the political spectrum, you’ll be hated by the other and there’s no need for this. I encourage us all to work together and support one another because most of us have the same goal, even if the math to get there may look a little different. Different isn’t necessarily wrong, but if you have respect, listening and an authentic voice, you’ll see how effective a different mindset can be. Focusing on absolute facts in our classrooms, taking away political pressures, exploring the foundation of our great country, understanding our weaknesses and celebrating our successes will prove to have a profound impact on our students’ school experience. I think this is the only way history should be taught.”
“I believe history should be taught with the emphasis on truth. Keep in mind, most history is written by the victors. If history is written with an emphasis on truth, it would be more accurate. As for being more inclusive, we need to have an understanding of the time being discussed—meaning the big picture of history included. What was the technology or lack of technology at the time? What was the dominant industry? How was trade and currency exchanged? What are the socioeconomic influences steering the historical outcome. It’s also important to explain the culture of that time and the language that is used. Language is very important. What was the language being used? Language matters. In order to paint a truthful picture of history, all of these things should be considered.”