Meet the Candidates: City school board candidates in their own words

·23 min read

Oct. 10—VALDOSTA — The Valdosta Daily Times sent a list of questions to each candidate for the Valdosta Board of Education.

For the sake of transparency, the answers are being run verbatim. Editing for clarity did occur.

Tony Tong, who qualified for District 9 (at large), and Valerie Ford, who qualified for District 1, told The Valdosta Daily Times, they have withdrawn and are no longer candidates.

DISTRICT 7 (Superward East)

Debra Bell

(Incumbent)

Valdosta Family Medicine/insurance biller

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Bell: "I would like to continue to help make a difference in lives of every student in Valdosta City Schools."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Bell: "I have 12 years of experience serving on the Valdosta Board of Education, but most of all, I have grandchildren who attend Valdosta City Schools. Additionally, I am a product of this community, a member of several civic organizations, and the proud parent of a VCS teacher. I look forward to serving the community for many more years. I'm dedicated and committed to supporting the school system and student achievement."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Bell: "The first is parental involvement/engagement, the second is high student mobility rate and third is teacher turnover rate."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Bell: "First, to assist the district in finalizing plans for a districtwide Pre K Academy. Second, to make sure all students utilize and parents are aware of the system's existing resources that are available to guide our students in becoming productive citizens (example dual enrollment, AP and IB programs, student support services, arts program, etc.). Third, to increase teacher retention rate."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Bell: "I will continue to be available for the public via telephone, social media, face to face, etc., to discuss and hear their concerns. I will also be willing to hold forums in the districts that I represent so community members can come and discuss their concerns."

David Gilyard

Substitute teacher

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Gilyard: "I developed a passion for the success of children."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Gilyard: "As a substitute teacher and my experience as a union steward at my former employment at UPS."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Gilyard: "The school board and the school system needs to improve the communication and engagement with staff, administrators, students and the community, parental involvement in the schools. Create an environment of collaboration and transparency with all the schools and community as a whole."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Gilyard: "I want to establish a communication plan through regular newsletters, websites and social media. Support schools achievement assessment evaluations data that will measure the student performances. Implement that data to aid the staff to ensure that every student achieves the highest performance possible. Finally, encourage the community to get involved with the Valdosta city school system by attending regular monthly board meetings."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Gilyard: "I will maintain open and honest lines of communication with all constituents and keep them informed on the decisions that are made in the best interest of the students. Board meetings should be available live in whatever format accessible to the public to view. My email and phone number will be available for the public."

Paul Leavy

Valdosta State University photographer

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Leavy: "I was inspired to run for the Valdosta Board of Education after a conversation with my son, a junior at Valdosta High School who wears No. 33 on Friday nights at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. We were hanging out one day, and he shared several concerns about his and his fellow students' education during the COVID pandemic and how it is impacting his classes, and realized we need to do more to keep our students in front of the curve in class and out of class.

"Both of my children are products of Valdosta City Schools. I know firsthand that Valdosta City Schools does so many things well. Every other member of the Valdosta City Schools family has so much to offer this community, but our schools need more support, more people in their corner, to help them overcome the challenges that public education faces on a daily basis.

"We have some of the best educators in this area, who are committed to doing the hard work necessary to support our students' academic achievement and performance outcomes. We need to look to the future and what our students, our children, expect from the school in these challenging and changing times. We are not in a classroom in the 1980s with one outlet to power the clock."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Leavy: "With my 26 years working at The Valdosta Daily Times as a photographer, I have been blessed with countless opportunities to meet and get to know our community and the people who live, learn, and here.

"I arrived in Valdosta in early 1986 after graduating from the University of Florida. I am a graduate of the Leadership Lowndes Class of 2010. I have served on the Public Art Advisory Committee. At Valdosta State University, where I have worked since 2012, I have served as chairman of the Council on Staff Affairs, a group that works with the president and the university's shared governance model to recommend improvements that positively impact the general welfare of the university community. I am a member of the Touchdown Club, and my wife of almost 21 years and I are loyal citizens of this amazing community we call Winnersville."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Leavy: "The biggest challenges facing Valdosta City Schools are teacher retention, student graduation rates and renewing our stakeholder commitment in a shared legacy of Wildcat Pride."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Leavy: "One of my goals — and it is a big one — is to create a career academy for our students. Our graduates need a future to look forward to and they need to know that they have options. Not every student will go on to earn a four-year college degree or join the military.

"I want to develop and build a program with our local businesses that allows all students to get some hands-on experience working in a profession. I am not talking about giving them afternoon work release to sling burgers and fries; I want to see them out in the community and learning a skilled trade. This experiential learning initiative will be transformative for students as they learn critical skills that will change their life, both professionally and personally.

"I want to develop and support initiatives that increase student participation in extracurricular activities like sports, the arts, academic and service clubs, and more. Research suggests that participation in extracurricular activities can increase student engagement, academic achievement and connection to their school. This is linked to lower dropout rates.

"I also want to invest in our teachers and help find ways to make sure they know they are appreciated. That means I am going to stay in touch with what is happening in our classrooms, listen to teachers' concerns, trust that they know what their students need, help them find solutions to challenges they are facing and find ways to celebrate their wins."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Leavy: "After working in the media for over 26 years, I truly understand the importance of open and honest communication between an organization and the people. Transparent policies and processes enhance public trust, and as a member of the board of education, I certainly want to encourage a culture of trust because that impacts every other goal I have set for myself as a leader and our school system's reputation. Employees, parents and community stakeholders who are well informed are better able to help students graduate with the skills necessary for success."

District 8 (Superward West)

Greg L. Williams Jr.

Community action advocate

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Williams: "When I became aware of a vacated seat in my district on the board I decided to run. I believe in order to make effective and efficient decisions, our board must always have positions full at all times. This vacancy came early February this year, and I volunteered to be appointed to the seat immediately afterwards. During this pandemic, it is crucial that our board have complete representation to ensure all districts are represented, and our schools, students and staff have a complete representation as well."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Williams: "Attending Valdosta City Schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, I am a product and proud graduate of Valdosta High School Class of 2000. Possessing an associate, bachelor, master and doctorate degrees, I offer a wide range of unique skills that are unparalleled. Of all my academic achievements, graduating in the top 10% of my class at VHS is my favorite attribute. I absolutely love Valdosta City Schools, and our community needs board members as such who are committed to the Wildcat tradition of excellence and I am overly committed."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Williams: "First, ensuring an effective administration (including board of education). Second, ensuring retention and competitive pay for our entire faculty and staff. Third, ensuring our athletic departments and extra-curricular programs have the best, if not top coaches, directors, mentors and volunteers in the nation."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Williams: "Number one, promote the Wildcat tradition of excellence, with academics being first and athletics being second. Number two, increase enrollment of student body including bonafide moves for athletes and retention of middle schools students to enter VHS. Number three, ensure all schools have resources needed to be effective and efficient."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Williams: "Transparency is key to success and progression of any program. This is no different with Valdosta City Schools. I welcome all media outlets, and will be open to public for any questions, comments and concerns. Every decision I will make as a board member will be based solely off progression and success of Valdosta City Schools and this shall eliminate any issues the community may have with transparency and access to."

Angela Storrings

Stay at home mom

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Storrings: "I have been disappointed with the way the current board has been conducting business and some of the decisions they have made."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Storrings: "I went to VJHS and VHS and have always taken pride in being a Wildcat. As a mom, I am devoted to doing what is best for not only my children but all of the children going through the city school system."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Storrings: "Number one, bringing our children back up to a higher academic standing after not being able to attend school when the pandemic first hit. Number two, the reputation damage suffered from the (football coach) debacle. Number three, the damage done to the reputation and record of the Wildcat football program."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Storrings: "First, working to improve the academic foundation of our children. Second, making it so that the parents and city residents trust that the board has their best interests at heart when making decisions. Third, settling the (the football coach) case so that the city school system can move forward unhindered."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Storrings: "I am in the process of creating a Facebook page for my campaign which will be accessible by the public. They will be able to ask me questions and I will do my best to answer."

Justin Crenshaw

Youth pastor at the Porch Community Church

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Crenshaw: "The main reason I decided to run was that I saw a need for wise decision-making, with an emphasis on our children /educators in mind as decisions are made. We need more board members who are more connected to the kids of our community and their needs."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Crenshaw: "I have been in full-time vocational ministry as a youth pastor for 11 years and I have served as the chaplain for the Valdosta Wildcat varsity football team for seven years and I've been a sixth-grade Valdosta Middle School football coach for six years. I believe my expertise and experience working with children and my connectedness to the schools, athletic teams and our overall community makes me the most qualified for the position."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Crenshaw: "Number one, the current perception of our school board is very negative. We need to change that. Number two, it's also very difficult to balance finances and personnel issues and I look forward to helping our school system be the best it can be in this area as well. Number three, we need to be a system that attracts good people, from teachers to children and their families. When VCS is thriving, our whole county thrives."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Crenshaw: "First, to see our children get the best possible education and help develop and implement programs that will help us achieve this. Second, I want to help bring more wise/ godly decision making to our school system. We have some great people already, we just need more of them. Third, my desire is to do good with what God has given me. I know that's not a specific goal but that is truly why I'm running."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Crenshaw: "I plan to make myself available on all social media platforms for questions/ concerns people may have."

District 9 (At Large)

Brittney Coons-Long

Chief assistant public defender for the Southern Judicial Circuit

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Coons-Long: "Having two children in the Valdosta City School system, I have been following very closely the decisions of the school board and how they have affected our school system. I was encouraged by friends that know me and my desire to serve to run. They know I have a stake in our schools and they felt I could make a positive impact. They know that I am concerned for our children's education and want the best for our schools."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Coons-Long: "Throughout my professional career, I have had to make thoughtful and wise decisions that impact people's lives. I have always advocated for those who sometimes do not have the resources or abilities to advocate for themselves. I am very proud of that fact. I feel the same way about serving the children of this community. I want to empower the staff, the employees and the children to make our schools the best environment it can be."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Coons-Long: "I believe primarily we have to restore the public's trust and respect in the school board and its members. We owe a fiduciary duty to this community and the public needs to know that we understand that duty and that they are justified in placing us in this position.

"Secondly, we need to show our support to our teachers, administration and staff from the top down. From the superintendent's office to the classroom, to the lunchroom and to the buses, the employees and staff of the Valdosta City school board need to feel that the board is making decisions in their best interest.

"Third, parents need to know that we are making sure that every decision is made for the students. There can be no outside influences. There can be no political decisions. The only thing that matters is what is in the best interests of the students of this system."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Coons-Long: "Again, rebuilding community trust is so important. We need to promote the positive and educate our community about the great things the system is doing, for instance the increase in graduation rates over the last five years.

"We need to support new initiatives that benefit our community. One example of such is the proposed citywide pre-K center. I would also like to develop and promote innovative ideas for teacher and staff retention. Our children deserve the best educators and we need to work hard to keep them.

"Third, I want to promote an environment that is attractive to the community. One that creates a positive school climate. I want Valdosta City Schools to be the schools parents want their children attending and the schools teachers and staff want to be a part of."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in the office and access to the public?

Coons-Long: "I think the board is already attempting to make the process more transparent by live streaming not only the board meetings themselves but also the work committee meetings.

"However, we need to go further. We need to encourage more public participation, even if it is to simply make an announcement or request. The public needs to feel that they have a say, an impact, in board matters. I also believe holding smaller, less formal public forums with small groups of board members is a great way for board members and community stakeholders to interact and share ideas and opinions.

"I do have additional information I would like shared with the public. I am a recently widowed mother of two beautiful daughters. My oldest daughter is a 2021 graduate of Valdosta High School and my youngest is a fifth grader at Sallas Mahone. I moved to Valdosta in 2001 when I married my husband, who was from Valdosta. Since then Valdosta has become my home. I love the people, the community and environment. Valdosta truly is a small town with big city vibes.

"I have been practicing law for over 25 years, with the last 16 at the Public Defender's Office. Protecting the rights of others is something that I am fierce about. You can know that I will always put our children first."

Nicholas "Big Nick" Harden

Owner of Big Nick's

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Harden: "My response is simple — the kids. I believe that students are the number one priority. I am running on the simple premise, "What about the kids?" because that is where my focus lies. The role of the board of education is not to run the day-to-day activities of the schools, but to serve as strong advisors and representatives of our constituents, which include the students, teachers, school staff and parents, and to make sure they have visibility into what is going on in the school system.

"I knew that there was a vacancy on the school board in District 9, which gives me an opportunity to make a direct impact in this area, so I decided to qualify."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Harden: "I believe that I bring the right type of balance, leadership, transparency and partnership to this position. One of the things that I have prided myself on is bringing people together, whether it be through community events or important meetings. This is something that I plan to continue while in office. I believe I can bring the right type of balance to the board and work to mitigate any issues that may cause division. And at the end of the day, when we focus on the kids and make their success our No. 1 priority, we can successfully overcome the things that divide us."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Harden: "I don't see them as challenges per se, but opportunities: 1. We have an opportunity to strengthen our students' performance academically throughout the system. 2. We also have an opportunity to provide more resources for our educators to lead successful classrooms. 3. Finally, we have an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the city school system and city council. These are three areas that I would like to focus on in office."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Harden: "First, as mentioned in the previous question, my first goal is student success in all aspects. That includes academic success, health and well-being, and social development. The second goal is bridging gaps where needed throughout the board and among city constituents and partners. Last, but certainly not least, is making sure that the educators' voices are heard in important decisions that are made for student enrichment and development."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Harden: "I will continue to make myself accessible to the community as I have in the past in person and virtually via social media and other channels of communication. I believe that visibility is extremely important as a leader. In these uncertain times, I understand that it may be difficult to do that safely. However, we can always find creative ways to engage with community groups — whether it be through virtual events or outside gatherings that allow us to social distance."

District 1 (Special Election)

Tia T. Heard

Retired educator

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Heard: "My husband, Danny, and I are proud to call Valdosta our home. I have served and have advocated for the educational needs of our community's children in excess of 30 years. Many of those years were spent in the classroom. During that time, I obtained a master's degree in adult education and educational specialist degree in leadership and administration.

"I am passionate about children and the field of education and have always sought to make a positive difference in the lives of children. I believe I have the unique experience and skill set to serve the people of District 1. I value service, communication, integrity, accountability and authenticity.

"Also, I strongly believe, when working collaboratively with others, all children in the district can succeed. Encouraging an open exchange of ideas, it is my belief that a school board must be responsive and receptive to parents, staff, students and the community at large. It is also important a school board member must build public understanding, support and involvement."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Heard: "I have a well-rounded perspective of education because of the roles I've served. Along with my educational background and professional training, my experiences have afforded me the opportunity to function as a team player and network with collaboratives to produce the best results."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Heard: "The three biggest challenges facing the city school board are as follows: Health and safety of students and staff, improved engagement with stakeholders and increased mental health resources."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Heard: "The goals I have for the city school system are as follows: health and safety of students and staff, improved engagement with our stakeholders, increased mental health resources, and equitable and quality learning opportunities for all students."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Heard: "If elected, all stakeholders will have access to my personal phone number and e-mail address. In addition, utilizing social media platforms, hosting virtual meetings, meet and greet activities and community meetings are strategies I would use for the public to have access and ensure transparency."

Jerome Everrett

Owner of JJ&L Mobile Detail Services & Pressure Washing Company

Why did you decide to run for school board?

Everett: "I chose to run for the board to continue to be a positive role model for the kids in my neighborhood and surrounding communities. The kids will have someone on their side to look up to and have a voice for them. I am very involved in the community. I am a community coach, a referee and a parent of a former Valdosta City Schools student. I see the impact as a coach, that I already have made in these kids' lives and running for the school board will allow me to do even more for our kids."

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Everett: " I'm already out in the community as a coach and a referee and that allows me to mentor kids, love kids and build great relationships with them. It also allows me to meet the parents, listen to their concerns , meet staff members at the schools the kids attend, within the Valdosta City Schools system."

What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the city school board and city school system?

Everett: "The three biggest challenges within the Valdosta City Schools currently are dealing with the current COVID-19 pandemic, budgeting within the school system and maintaining a curriculum that will help our children learn, grow and have everything they will need to succeed in the next chapters of their lives."

What are three specific goals you have for the city school system?

Everett: "The three goals I have for VCS if elected are to continue to uphold the proud Wildcats tradition, listening to the community so we can better address their concerns and help our teachers/staff be better equipped with everything they need to help our kids."

If elected, what would you do to ensure transparency in office and access to the public?

Everett: "I will always remain professional, speak honestly from the heart and remain open minded about each issue that I'm presented. I'm always listening and understanding before reacting."

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