A businessman or a diplomat? One born here or one who’s chosen to make a home here? Paul Brown and Jon Purnell presented the Rappahannock School Board with two distinct — and distinctly Rappahannock — options to represent the Stonewall-Hawthorne district until December.
Board members interviewed the candidates during their regularly meeting Tuesday (April 12), as they consider an interim appointee to fill the seat left vacant by Beth Hilscher, who resigned last month to move out of the county for business and family reasons.
The board will decide April 26 on the appointee — who must run for the post in November’s election to continue serving on the board.
Brown presented himself as a resident born and raised in Rappahannock County — a 1995 graduate of Rappahannock County High School (RCHS) who remarked that his Rappahannock lineage goes back several generations.
Brown and his wife, who also graduated from RCHS, moved back to the county from Warrenton so that their three children could study at Rappahannock schools, he said. Brown said he and his wife value the low teacher-to-student ratio.
Brown earned a degree at the Virginia Military Institute, and is president of Manassas-based B&B Signal Company.
Purnell, on the other hand, is a Massachusetts native who studied at Brown and Harvard universities. He moved to Rappahannock in 1984, because, he said, he appreciated the beauty of the land.
“I know by local standards that is like yesterday,” said Purnell. He added that, as a career diplomat, he had lived half of this time in Europe and Central Asia. Purnell retired as the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan.
As Purnell noted, Brown and he both have children in Rappahannock schools, and share a direct interest in the welfare of local education.
“It’s something I felt that as a parent I’m able to do and can do,” Brown said. And both candidates cited their experience in working with people.
“I was constantly involved with negotiating tough issues,” said Purnell.
Purnell offered his diplomatic skills, honed by decades of practice in the State Department.
“I’m used to finding compromise solutions where everyone comes out feeling like a winner,” Purnell said. Also, he is accustomed to dealing with people from different walks of life. Purnell said he relishes the opportunity to work with qualified people who share a common goal.
Brown emphasized his expertise in dealing with budgets and financial matters.
Both candidates expect a learning curve in mastering the responsibilities of a school board member.
“I’ll learn from the ground up and go that route with it,” Brown said.
In response to a board inquiry about goals, Brown focused on athletic programs.
“Athletics help to build character and confidence,” Brown said.
Brown is concerned that some Rappahannock teams forfeit games due to an insufficient number of players. From his conversations with students, he has concluded that they feel a lack of adult interest in supporting sports programs, particularly evident in what those he interviewed thought was a a high turnover in coaching positions.
Like Brown, Purnell has a child who is active in sports. He agreed that participating in sports shapes valuable personal qualities and told the board he wants to maintain what he views as already strong athletic programs.
Purnell aims to support teachers. He sees the instructional staff as key to continuing the level of academic excellence in Rappahannock schools. He said he wants to find better ways to communicate to the outside world what is happening inside school walls.
Both men look forward to becoming acquainted with the overall school system. Purnell hopes to learn about the functioning of county government as well.
School Board Chairman Wes Mills thanked Purnell and Brown several times for their willingness to serve.
“It’s great to have citizens standing up to take their turn,” Mills said.
If appointed, Purnell may not have to wait long for the opportunity to financially reward Rappahannock’s teaching staff. School Superintendent Dr. Aldridge Boone expressed concern that, although salaries are “mid-range” among Virginia school systems, starting teacher salaries have fallen due to a salary freeze in place since fiscal year 2008-09.
Boone acknowledged that nothing can be done about the matter until the next budget is compiled.
In other money matters, the school division’s director of special services and grants, Carol Johnson, explained proposed grant budgets benefiting special education overall and early childhood special education in particular. The amounts maintain the current status of educating 142 students in special education, she said. Johnson described the allocations for supplies and staff development as “bare bones.”
Jones also described the results of a federal audit. The auditor from the U.S. Department of Education commended Rappahannock County on the “IEP [Individual Education Program] at a glance,” citing it as a model for other school systems. Other areas where Rappahannock special education shines, she said, is in its inclusionary practices, parental involvement and the quality of its teachers.
Johnson named objectives for improvement. Two center upon communication: giving prior notice of meetings to parents, and coordinating IPEs with private day schools also attended by the student. And, she said, Rappahannock wants to enhance partnerships with professionals offering expertise lacked by staff.
Boone proposed to the board that a town hall meeting be held in May. The objective will be to hear from the public what has worked well, and what hasn’t, in this academic year. Board members agreed to confer and choose a date. Boone said he would like to advertise the meeting three weeks in advance.
Also in planning for the near future, Boone announced that RCHS will close June 15, so that the asbestos removal project, and other school improvements to follow, can commence.
The school board anticipates a vote on the school budget from the board of supervisors April 25 in a public hearing at RCHS.
The next regular School Board meeting will be May 10 at RCHS.