2018 Virginia Beach Elections: Questions for candidates for School Board, At Large

Voters citywide choose two candidates, who can live anywhere in the city, regardless of district. [City of Virginia Beach]

Ed. — The following are responses to questions posed by The Independent News to candidates for the two at large seats on the Virginia Beach School Board up for election on Tuesday, Nov. 6. An incumbent is noted. The answers to our questions in this series generally are not edited, aside from obvious punctuation issues, spacing and formatting or clarity. Our full 17-page voter guide is now on stands.

Dorothy M. “Dottie” Holtz


Residence: Bayside

Age: 79

Occupation: Retired educator

Education: B.S. in Education, Fordham University, NYC – M.S. in Education/with a concentration in Educational Technology, ODU 

Endorsements: I do not seek endorsements but I am on the VBEA ballot guide and am endorsed by past parents and students in this community

Phone: (757) 460-2440 // Email: dottieholtz@gmail.com // Social media: Facebook – Dottie Holtz

What are your specific qualifications for this office? I have lived in Virginia Beach for 52 years and have raised 3 children here who were all graduated from VBCPS. Currently, I have a grandchild who attends Hermitage Elementary. I am a retired educator with 38 years of teaching experience. I have knowledge and experience of how a huge district like our schools’ function both as a classroom teacher and now as part of the governance team. My original theme when I first campaigned was “Continue the Excellence” and today my goal remains the same. In education administrators must move forward; standing still is not an option in this fast-paced global world.

What, to you, is the most important issue facing the city schools and how will you address it in office? The school board in cooperation with the superintendent is mandated to draft a capital improvements program which will project school division needs for a six-year period. The CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) funding is allocated for new construction and/or modernization projects. It is critical that the CIP address the need to secure more funding to replace old buildings. The current rate of replacement is unacceptable. This year, fifteen schools have been identified as candidates for replacement based solely on the building’s physical condition/age and ability to accommodate school programming needs. It will take years before these schools are actually replaced.

Currently $42 million is placed in reserve each year for future construction of new schools. We have a total of 83 places of learning within our system. At this rate, it will take about 140 years for a full replacement. Obviously, we cannot wait that long. The State needs to step up and help lift this burden. Let’s start by giving a fair share of the lottery money. 

What are your other policy priorities as a potential member of the School Board? I intend to continue my support of technology. The issue that we face here in VBCPS, is ensuring that our schools and classrooms create a space for true transformational learning.  The role technology plays in creating a space where all students can accelerate their learning –based on where they are academically, socially, and emotionally—is something we need to be having purposeful conversations about as a Board and the community.

Technology needs to be regularly integrated into instruction as a tool that supports problem solving and faster critical thinking skills and collaboration.

It is important that we bring out stakeholders along with us on this everchanging journey into the 21st Century. Ten or even 5 years from now there will be advances in technology, that we can only dream of today; many will be life-changers.  Our students need to be in step with these changes.

I am also an advocate of teaching a 2nd language at the elementary level. Research demonstrates that learning a 2nd language has beneficial effects on a child’s developing brain. It helps problem-solving, critical thinking skills and improves memory. Currently, there are 4 schools who offer this benefit with Spanish being the first choice. This program needs to expand and be accessible to more students.  However, I am aware of the challenges this expansion presents: Parental acceptance and involvement, student participation, a teacher who speaks excellent English and Spanish and is skilled in the ‘art of teaching’. Despite this ambitious goal, I consider it a worthwhile endeavor.

Do you support the School Board’s decision to switch to a Latin honors system instead of class rankings and no longer honor a valedictorian or salutatorian? We will continue to honor the valedictorian and salutatorian in each of our 12 high schools but differently than has been done in the past. Each schools’ administration will make that decision.  And I trust their judgement in knowing what is best for their student body. The Latin Honor’s System will allow us to recognize all hard-working students and their accomplishments. However, each high school will be provided with a percentile rating of Grade Point Averages for estimating class rank for individual scholarships or military applications that require this information. Many universities no longer include class rank on the admission form.

Is the district doing enough to address school security concerns? Short of turning our schools into fortresses, I believe we have an excellent security plan with preventative measures in place. Last summer VBCPS formed a Blue-Ribbon Panel in partnership with civic leaders, the police department, and Naval Air Station Oceana. They met and evaluated our current safety plan. Community input was also sought. Despite the fact that we already had many security measures in place, several recommendations were made and followed through. As a teacher with 38 years of service, one recommendation that I thought critical is to increase behavior and mental health staff available to students to aid in early identification and support  students exhibiting mental health needs. To this end, staff and will need training in mental health awareness and how to determine whether a student is just going through a bad period or there exists a more serious problem where professional help is needed.

 The Blue Panel did not disband but will continue to meet periodically and assess our readiness and offer assistance if future security threats are made.

Laura King Hughes

Residence: Ocean Park

Age:  54

Occupation:  Attorney/Special Education Advocate

Military Service/Education:  I graduated from Indian River High School in Chesapeake, attended TCC in Virginia Beach and Christopher Newport University in Newport News and completed my undergrad in Political Science/Legal Studies with Kaplan online, and received my J.D. from Regent University School of Law. I have served the military only in the capacity of being a military spouse.

Key Endorsements:  Virginia state Sen. Bill DeSteph and Virginia Beach School Board Members Vicky Manning and Carolyn Weems

Website: Hughesvbsb.com // Phone:  (757) 647-0795 // Email:  Hughesvbsb@gmail.com // Social media:  Laura Hughes for Virginia Beach School Board on Facebook

What are your specific qualifications for this office? I am the mother of daughters who attended VBCPS, I represent children both as a Special Education advocate and a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate), and I am a newly-licensed attorney working on my Guardian Ad Litem certification. I also spent a significant amount of time as a substitute teacher in VBCPS, working at all grade levels and all learning levels. Further, I have taken the time to ask questions of and listen to answers from current and past teachers, students, and parents of students. I am trained to listen and look for solutions to problems that offer the best possible outcome.

What, to you, is the most important issue facing the city schools and how will you address it in office? Discipline is our most challenging issue in the schools today. Children need boundaries and there should be consequences when those boundaries are not respected. In VBCPS, teachers are discouraged from taking disciplinary action where a student is behaving poorly. Upper administration penalizes school administration (principals, assistant principals) for referrals, suspensions, and other penalties which results in school administration discouraging from taking appropriate disciplinary steps. Teachers, therefore, are being forced to allow behavior in the classrooms which makes it difficult to teach. The teachers are spending too much time dealing with discipline and the other students are distracted. In addition to being distracted, other students sometimes follow suit as they learn quickly that poor behavior gets attention and has little or no consequences at all.  

What are your other policy priorities as a potential member of the School Board? Bring back Valedictorian and Salutatorian, as well as class rank. End the practice of site-based grading where one school gives a zero for work not turned in while another school gives a grade of 50 for work not turned in. Eliminate PBIS (our current disciplinary system) so that we can restore discipline and respect to our classrooms.  Spend less on buildings and reallocate that money to more pressing needs. We do not need “Taj Mahal” buildings, just teachers who are free to manage their classrooms with enough autonomy to effectively teach and the tools to do so (administrative support and supplies).  

Do you support the School Board’s decision to switch to a Latin honors system instead of class rankings and no longer honor a valedictorian or salutatorian? I do not support eliminating of Valedictorian, Salutatorian, and class rank. I do not have a problem with the Latin honors system and it could have been integrated into the Val.Sal system. Further, where honors are bestowed upon 66% of the graduating class, the distinction of being an honor graduate is less meaningful.

Is the district doing enough to address school security concerns? The district is not doing enough to address these concerns. The buzzers in the schools are a great start, however, I am hearing from parents that doors are frequently unlocked when they arrive at schools. Additionally, we have SROs (resource officers) at middle and high schools, however, we are not staffing our elementary schools with SROs, which I believe is a mistake. Our youngest are our most vulnerable. And, lastly, discipline is a huge factor. With unchecked disclinary issues, our children remain at-risk from bullies in the schools and frustrated, angry former students. 

Stephen A. Johnston

Residence: Lake Placid

Age: 54

Occupation: Electrical Designer; I design the lighting, power, fire alarm and security systems for buildings.

Military Service/Education: None

Phone: (757) 310-1338 // Email: VB6132@gmail.com // Social media: Face Book: Johnston for VB Schools.

What are your specific qualifications for this office? I am not a teacher. I am the only candidate running for School Board who has not been employed in the education industry. I am an Electrical Designer; I design lighting, power, fire alarm and security systems for buildings. We do not need only teachers on the School Board. Do you want only pharmaceutical companies on the FDA? I bring the experience of a parent and a professional in the construction industry. Virginia Beach is spending too much money on buildings and we need to stop building Cadillac Schools with too many unneeded and unnecessary extras costing too much.

What, to you, is the most important issue facing the city schools and how will you address it in office? There are many areas in the school system that require improvement, most require immediate attention and cannot wait; such as classroom safety, teacher assistant and support personnel pay, school discipline, class room size, and building security. These things require immediate attention. To limit short term improvements to just one is short sighted and does a great injustice to the current students and employees of the school system. To me it is unacceptable to wait to improve learning conditions and school safety for the current students and say it will be improved sometime in the future. How many times will a student be in the fourth grade? If only once then why wait to improve the learning conditions and safety for the current students? Is it acceptable to tell one parent their child will receive a substandard education and risk their childs safety but it will be improved in the future?

What are your other policy priorities as a potential member of the School Board? My goals are to bring Public School Choice to Virginia Beach and to address school construction and renovations issues.

Currently each school is allowed to set their own: grading policies, whether or not homework should be assigned, should test retakes be allowed, how long will late work be accepted and if zeros will be allowed or a minimum grade of 50 be given. These policies work well for some students, while they do NOT work well for all students. Students learn completely different from each other. If they are in the same school, taught the same way, some would flourish and be encouraged by good grades, while others would suffer and be discouraged by low grades. 

PUBLIC SCHOOL CHOICE solves these problems and makes it possible for all students to be encouraged with good grades and get the best education possible. PUBLIC SCHOOL CHOICE allows parents move their child from one school; they feel is not serving the needs of their child, to another school that best suits their childs needs and learning style.

Most people say Virginia Beach builds Taj Mahal Schools. I refer to them as Cadillac Schools. The school board builds schools with lots of unnecessary bells, whistles and extra options driving the cost up. We can build schools that are energy efficient and environmentally sustainable while at a reasonable cost to the tax payers. The school replacement and renovation schedule needs to be updated to reflect the changes in the population of today’s Virginia Beach.

Do you support the School Board’s decision to switch to a Latin honors system instead of class rankings and no longer honor a valedictorian or salutatorian? I don’t support the decision to switch to the Latin Honors System. The worst part of this decision is to stop reporting class rankings to colleges. Most top colleges will only accept students who are in the top 10% of their class, and when VBCPS stops reporting class rankings, acceptance levels to the top, elite colleges will drop. Without class rank, the GPA is useless. Having a 4.2 GPA and being ranked in the top 10% is not equal to a 4.2 GPA being ranked near the 50% level. Without class rank colleges would rely on standardized test for admissions.

Is the district doing enough to address school security concerns? VBCPS isn’t doing enough for school or classroom security. We need to give all employees a panic button, so if there is trouble or they feel threatened they can signal the school resource officers that they need help and where they are at. We need better training for our teachers and staff in the areas of conflict de-escalation and recognizing the subtle changes in people that would indicate a possible treat to the school.

Our school buildings are not safe. Existing safety and security procedures are not being followed creating gaps in security. There are many systems that need upgrading or completely replacing. A threat analysis needs to be done on each individual school building. 

Every school is unique and their security needs are different.  Plans need to be put in place on what to do with special needs students and other school employees on campus during an incident.

Robert N. “Bobby” Melatti

Residence: Indian River Plantation

Age: 70

Occupation: Vice President of IMGoing Events (Beachevents)

Education: Associates Degree from TCC, Bachelor’s History from ODU, Master’s History from ODU

Key Endorsements:  VA Beach Hotel Association Pac, Virginia Beach Education Association-Pace and Mayor Louis Jones

Web: www.VoteBobbyMelatti.com // Phone: (757) 615-0830 // Email: BMelatti@cox.net // Social media: @BobbyMelattiforSchoolBoard, Facebook: Bobby Melatti for School Board

What are your specific qualifications for this office? I previously served on the School Board from 2012-2014 and thus I have a grasp on the responsibilities and limitations of a School Board member. Education has always been a key component of my personal as well as my professional life as evidenced by earning my Master’s Degree at the age of 68. I have run the Beachevents program as the City’s event contractor for the past 24 years where all my work has been audited several times and found to be in order. I have proven to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars. I have a long history of service to my community; in particular serving for 13 years on the Arts and Humanities Commission and on the Resort Advisory Committee for the past 7 years where I remain committed to a better city overall.

What, to you, is the most important issue facing the city schools and how will you address it in office? I believe the single most important challenge is the recruitment and retention of great teachers. When potential educators, especially women, survey the career landscape, they are faced with very real choices. No longer relegated to just a few careers such as secretarial work, nursing, or teaching, the selection oftentimes comes down to the classroom or the boardroom. Teachers earn approximately, on the average, 18% less than careers requiring comparable levels of education in other work arenas. It is strategically important to incentivize them to choose teaching over the other alternatives. This can only be accomplished by recognizing that first and foremost, teachers are professionals and must be treated accordingly. They do need to be offered a regionally competitive wage so that they choose Virginia Beach as opposed to other options. The division must continue the path to smaller class sizes which in turn allows teachers the chance to personalize their instruction as opposed to cramming in as many students as possible. We need to be on guard that we are not asking our educators to take on any responsibility that should be delegated to others such as carrying weapons while in the classroom. Not having to become a de facto first line of defense will certainly go a long way to making them feel good about their career selection. So much of any job appreciation is steeped in dignity and respect for the hurdles that our teachers are asked to navigate. I would work toward consistent disciplinary consequences for unacceptable behavior and overall, try to improve the workplace experience.

What are your other policy priorities as a potential member of the School Board? I would like to focus my response on the need to more fully fund the Capital Improvement Projects (CIP). Many of our schools were built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The division has made best efforts to refurbish and replace our aging inventory of schools. The Great Recession really knocked the “wind out of our sails” and slowed our progress. In 2008 our State funding dropped and even though the economy has greatly improved, we still have not recaptured, completely, all the funding that was lost. To that end, my priority is to identify and advocate for a comprehensive plan to meet the needs of the program. There are not nearly enough funds available each year to cover all the maintenance needs plus leave money for replacement buildings. Currently the budget supports 40 million dollars of which 20 million is required for the maintenance and upkeep of the current inventory. In discussions with Tony Arnold who heads up the construction division of VBCPS, in order to make a decent dent in the backlog of work we would need to budget at least 80 million dollars per year adjusted 5% a year for inflation and rising prices. It stands to reason that delaying this segment of the budget will only exacerbate the maintenance issue and push us further and further behind. It becomes a game of diminishing returns and is quite unsustainable. So where do we look for the needed dollars? We certainly can ask that the State restore both the funding it cut during the 2008 recession as well as giving us a greater percentage of the available lottery dollars. Currently the schools get 40% of the lottery money.  A bond referendum is yet another option but it is difficult to get passed. The last effort in the 90s failed. Finally, we can go to the taxpayer and ask that real estate taxes be raised to meet the need. This would be a last resort if all else fails and after we have exhausted every possible avenue to save construction dollars through sensible planning and compromise. Certainly, there are other priorities but I wanted to focus on the underfunded CIP. I think this statement might put the situation in perspective; “At our current rate of refurbishing and replacement, it will take approximately 140 years to complete the cycle.”

Do you support the School Board’s decision to switch to a Latin honors system instead of class rankings and no longer honor a valedictorian or salutatorian? Sadly, this has proven to be an extremely divisive issue. I am a strong proponent for the recognition of excellence; teacher of the year, employee recognition, and of course the recognition of student achievement all of which need to be “shouted from the rooftops!” When parents were surveyed about Val and Sal versus Latin Honors, there was overwhelming support for change. However, and I wholeheartedly agree, the superintendent made accommodation for the continued recognition of the top student grade in each school once the Latin Honors method takes effect after 2022 school year. The best example that I can give as to why we should make the switch is to imagine that you or your child is student #3 or perhaps student #4 in the graduating class. Under the current plan, they might receive a gold lanyard and nothing else to distinguish their high achievement. However, when the change takes place, they would receive a Magnum Cum Laude on their diploma indicating top tier achievement. Seems like a better plan to me with, of course, the accommodation the superintendent made to recognize #1.

Is the district doing enough to address school security concerns? Yes, the division has, in light of recent tragedies, redoubled its efforts to identify where we need to improve our security programs. A Blue-Ribbon Committee was put together to in a multi-lateral effort to examine every facet of school security. The panel included members of VBCPS Security department, Virginia Beach Police Department, Security officers from the nearby bases including Oceana, and other experts in the field of security. Many of the findings were able to be identified and rectified using a common sense approach; making sure that back and side doors were closed after using preventing access from the exterior. In the past it has been a common practice in some schools to prop them open to accommodate students from the athletic fields and portables. Camera systems need to be checked, expanded in some cases and monitored. A buzzer system will be employed in every school. I will advocate for retired police officers to be placed in every elementary school and as current security personnel retire or leave, retired police could take their positions in all schools. Our students and employees safety is of paramount importance.

Seko B. Varner

Residence: Windsor Oaks West

Age: 49

Occupation: One-Stop Operator, Tidewater Community College, and Owner/Operator – Positive Vibes Inc.

Education: Bachelors of Science in Psychology– Hampton University, Masters of Education – Regent University and Endorsement in Educational Leadership – George Washington University

Website: www.ChooseSekoVarner.com // Phone: (757) 932-0177 // Email: Info@ChooseSekoVarner.com // Social media: @sekoBEvarner on Twitter, @sekoBEvarner and ChooseSekoVarner on Facebook

What are your specific qualifications for this office? I believe that I am uniquely qualified for the School board having a background in education and a background in business. I have three years of classroom teaching experience, 12 years as a school-based counselor, five years as a college and career advisor, 28 years in business, a masters degree and an educational leadership endorsement. I’ve directed youth mentoring in the beach since 2011, and I also have the most important qualification – I care. I care about the city of Virginia Beach, our teachers, our parents, and our youngest citizens.

What, to you, is the most important issue facing the city schools and how will you address it in office? Improving school safety through staffing, training, and technology is the most pertinent issue facing our nation’s schools. Virginia Beach’s schools have been rated as being safe, and I plan to assist in the continuous improvement of our safety measures. I believe that smarter outcomes are the most important target for our schools. Our graduates should be the top choice for jobs, military opportunities, and colleges. Currently, a limited amount of our students earn valuable credentials and certifications, and the time for entry into these opportunities normally closes during a students’ sophomore year. We can increase the number of graduates with valuable credentials and certifications by adding credentialing opportunities during and after-school and by providing more of these opportunities for our High school Juniors and Seniors. Achieving smarter outcomes will attract families to Virginia Beach, which will provide greater tax revenue for the city and more resources for our school system.

 What are your other policy priorities as a potential member of the School Board? I decided to run for this office to support improvement. I want to support the continued success of our schools. I’ve worked in the schools; now I want to work on the schools. My platform is safer schools, smarter outcomes, and stronger community programs. When elected, my top priorities are to increase school safety, to increase the ability for our students to graduate with valuable credentials and experience and to continually find ways to partner with businesses and organizations in our region to provide greater benefit for our students and staff.

Additionally, it is important that our system has activities and initiatives to reduce achievement gaps, improve school climates by improving student behavior and increasing the number of female students who are involved in STEM opportunities. I have a “students first” approach. My interest is to prepare every student for their optimal success. My other priorities are focused on improving the experience of our teachers and other school staff, and being the best stewards of our school system’s financial resources. I strongly support exploring and implementing fiscally responsible ways of improving the salaries of our teachers and the salaries and benefits of lower wage school system employees. Ideally, our system will become safer, smarter, and stronger without increasing the taxes of Virginia Beach residents.

Do you support the School Board’s decision to switch to a Latin honors the system instead of class rankings and no longer honor a valedictorian or salutatorian? Life has taught me that sound decisions will withstand scrutiny. When I first learned about the school board’s decision, I was immediately in opposition. During that time I worked with the ACCESS College Foundation and was based in Green Run High School. I assisted students with navigating the processes for college. Noting that many of the college applications asked if the student’s school had class rank and honored valedictorians, I began to understand the possible benefits of the decision. I plan to revisit and scrutinize the decision to ensure that this decision is best for our students.

Is the district doing enough to address school security concerns? Beach schools are generally safe and have recently enhanced the security measures. However, we can never do enough to protect our future citizens and leaders of our country. Recently President Trump advanced the idea of arming teachers to increase security. I have a different approach. Enhanced staffing, technology, and training will improve school security. Our schools should have the ability to quickly locate and secure potential threats, reduce opportunities for violence, and remove potential targets during school shooter incidents. To this end, I suggest the SDS Guardian Indoor Active Shooter Detection System. If needed, we can improve security staffing with Virginia Peace-Officers. In regards to training, system-wide professional development should include training staff to be able to identify those who are experiencing a mental health crisis and connect them to support. Further, professional development should include training school staff to lead students to safety in case of an intrusion.

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