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Roanoke County innovates foster care program to save on Children's Services Act costs

Erika Stinnett shuffled her stack of papers and looked up at the 17-year-old sitting across the table. She asked the girl about her plans for when she turns 18: where she will work, where she will live, and what support to expect from the social services department.

“You do very well communicating what you want and stating what you want, and you need to keep that in you,” Stinnett said. “Not even talking about you aging out of foster care, but no one’s going to have your back like you. And at the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for you.”

Stinnett is a mentor with Youth Advocate Programs, a national nonprofit focused on community based alternatives for at-risk children and support for foster care youth. Youth Advocate Programs teamed up with the Roanoke County and Roanoke City social services departments in 2010 to administer the STARS program — an extra layer of support for children and families involved in foster care.

Stinnett met with the foster child, whose name has been withheld to protect her identity and privacy, multiple times per week to support both her and her foster parents, Andy and Sandee Szabo.

At one of their meetings in April, Stinnett talked with her about her new job at Walmart and how she was balancing the new commitment with her last few weeks of high school. And they strategized how to budget her money so she could afford rent when her time with the Szabos came to an end.

The young woman came into the care of the Roanoke County Department of Social Services in the summer of 2020. And as a teenager in foster care, she was immediately placed in the STARS program, which focuses on families who are fostering teenagers or fostering children with severe disabilities or emotional needs.

The additional services, such as a therapist for the foster parents, a mentor for each foster child, and parent support groups, has helped retain and support foster families in the area. That retention, and being able to train its own specialized foster care homes, saved Roanoke County more than $1 million in potential Children’s Services Act costs over a two year period.

The Children’s Services Act was implemented in the early 1990s and pooled money from different child-serving agencies across the state, including juvenile justice, social services, behavioral health and education. Those funds are used to provide services for at-risk children, including all children in foster care.

The idea of the legislation was to eliminate duplication and use funds more efficiently to realize better outcomes for children, but the legislation has, at times, fallen short.

Recently, the state has been studying ways to reform the act after costs have continued to rise year after year without a proportional increase in the number of children being served. As costs have increased, localities have been forced to innovate with new programs like STARS to lower their CSA costs and fill needed service gaps across the state. But these programs can be difficult to replicate in smaller, rural or more resource-strapped areas.

“Why doesn’t everybody do this? Because it’s above and beyond what is required,” Roanoke County foster care supervisor Ben Jones said. “In child welfare, you often don’t have what you need to do what’s required.”

Help from STARS

The Szabos’ foster daughter came to their home after a transient period living with her uncle locally and then with her mom in eastern Virginia. She ran away from home, but was picked up by child protective services and spent a few nights in a group home. She arrived at the Szabo house with just the clothes on her back and a small bag.

“When you first come in, it’s kind of hard because you have, especially when you’ve been on your own, like so many rules that have to come along,” she said. “Before I knew them fully, I wanted to go back to the group home.”

Sandee said the timing of her foster daughter’s arrival coincided with the anniversary of Sandee’s father’s death and just a few months after Sandee’s mom’s funeral.

“I think in the beginning that really caused her and I to butt heads a lot, because I was in such an emotional state,” Sandee said. “And then all of a sudden, here we have this 17- year-old who thinks she knows everything and wants everything her way.”

Sandee and her foster daughter both describe themselves as stubborn and said they consistently fought for the first few months. But the STARS program set Sandee and her husband up with their own therapist to work through the transition and also provided respite care, when another family takes care of a foster child for a short period of time. Sandee said respite gave her and her husband needed breaks and kept their own relationship strong.

The STARS mentor, Stinnett, helped them establish house rules and enforce them because it was their first time fostering. And Stinnett offered suggestions on how to get the young woman ready for her adult life: they established one night per week where she would budget, grocery shop and prepare a meal for the entire family on her own.

“Without STARS we probably would have said please come get her,” Sandee said. “Because we really needed those STARS workers and the therapists to help us all. I think it really helped us get a handle on how to do it. Without STARS, we would have had a lot more difficulties.”

Sandee said the program provided her foster daughter with three different workers: a medication counselor, a private therapeutic counselor and her mentor. These are in addition to the workers she has access to through the social services department.

“Since I’ve been in counseling and been on medication, I’ve actually been better attitude-wise,” the young woman said. “Because when I got here, I was a raging dog. I’ve actually calmed down in counseling. I can really see a difference.”

The STARS program provides many services to foster families, but is able to save the localities money by mimicking therapeutic foster care homes. Therapeutic foster homes are typically run by private agencies that recruit and train their own foster parents and contract their services to local social services departments, which pay a high rate to use them.

Therapeutic homes receive a larger stipend from the state because the children in these homes typically have needs that go above and beyond what a normal foster family would be expected to provide. And the private agencies often have more resources and a higher paid staff that can provide additional support to foster parents who may be struggling to adjust to their new role.

The Roanoke County and Roanoke City social services departments have been able to create their own therapeutic foster care program with STARS, where they train therapeutic foster parents themselves, and with the help of YAP, provide the extra support that retains families and helps them avoid burnout from the social services system.

Jones said his department is able to provide the same service for less than one tenth of the cost that a private agency would charge.

“It turns out that with these additional supports, our families are able to be more sustainable, more professional,” Jones said. “We look at what a family needs and utilize multiple funding sources to make it happen. Our outcomes are better and we’re able to train families to a higher level right off the bat.”

Jones said the two localities copied the idea from Portsmouth, which ran a similar program for a few years before it fizzled out. When Jones became the foster care supervisor in 2012, he inherited the program. At the time there were fewer than 10 families involved.

Jones and his counterpart in Roanoke began to grow the program slowly — looking for families who had fostered before and done well. Eventually, they expanded the program to new families who had never had a foster child. Now, there are 33 STARS families in the city and county combined.

The program requires the same 30 hours of training, background checks and approval process as a regular foster family. But the STARS program adds 12 more hours of training and additional assessments to make sure families can handle the added difficulty of a child with severe needs.

“All of this is about keeping placements stable so kids don’t bounce from one home to another, providing a better stewardship of county and state funds, and we want our foster homes to be safe and stable,” Jones said. “We don’t want the families to break under the pressure of the system.”

Filling a gap

The Children’s Services Act provides funding for more than 5,000 foster children in Virginia — about $117 million was spent in 2020, according to data from the Office of Children’s Services.

CSA has been experiencing cost increases overall since about 2015 and increases in foster care costs since at least 2017 without a proportional increase in the number of children served.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission released a report in November about these trends and attributed some of that cost increase to the need for more services in many areas of the state.

These service gaps, in which a locality may not have access to a particular service a child needs, mean kids are sometimes sent to a higher-than-necessary level of care, such as a residential facility. This leads to cost increases and worse outcomes for the children being served.

Therapeutic and regular foster care homes have been repeatedly identified as one of the largest areas of need across the state for years, according to surveys conducted by the state Office of Children’s Services.

Each year the office surveys localities about barriers that exist to overcoming these service gaps. In fiscal year 2021, a lack of service providers was identified by 50% of localities.

Part of the reason the STARS program is so successful is because the local governments have partnered with Youth Advocate Programs to help run it.

Jones, who coordinates the program as part of his regular duties, said high caseloads, turnover and a litany of responsibilities would make it difficult for his staff to run the program without a dedicated partner separate from the social services department.

But in counties where a partner organization or service provider doesn’t exist, replicating the STARS program would be difficult, if not impossible.

Smaller localities often serve fewer children in CSA programs and can have difficulty attracting a provider to the area if there isn’t a financial incentive to open there. The smallest local CSA programs serve fewer than 10 children per year while the largest serves more than 1,000. Some regions have been successful in attracting a provider to serve multiple localities at once, but the time-consuming collaboration and development process can be a barrier for areas without the staffing or resources.

Rebecca Morgan, director of the Middlesex County social services department, said her area faced a gap with special education services. Her agency is now working with multiple localities to create a new special education school. Currently, the closest private special education school is about 30 minutes away, and the closest one that served children with autism is anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes away.

Morgan said the group has been working to create the new school for a few years now and has partnered with a service provider that will run the program. They are currently in the process of selecting a location.

“You have to have somebody to step up and say they’re going to lead it,” she said. “That’s how everything got off the ground for us.”

The local community services board stepped up, applied for grant funding and took the lead on the project. Finding that leader can often be the barrier holding localities back from making progress, Morgan said.

“Where is your time going if you aren’t waking up every day, going to work and thinking of how you can improve the life of the latest child who’s come through child protective services?,” she said. “It has to be a community effort, stepping outside of the day to day and at least trying something new.”

According to JLARC, some smaller localities lack the financial leverage, resources and expertise to negotiate terms and rates with providers. The report recommended the state step in and help negotiate these agreements.

Funding is also among the largest factors in maintaining service gaps. According to a survey from the Office of Children’s Services, close to one-third of localities said a lack of funding has greatly inhibited their ability to develop services.

Jones said the STARS program did not take a large investment to start, but replicating it would require buy-in from the local CSA office and a small amount of funding to hire a coordinator who could track the training, appointments and other requirements of the program and its families.

“Most of the infrastructure to run a successful program already exists within your local DSS because the state has already provided for it,” Jones said. “The enhancements are what you need to fund and they are surprisingly affordable compared to what we’re spending in private agency reimbursement.”

Even so, extra funding can be hard to come by in social services departments that operate on strict budgets and are already struggling with increased costs.

Brian Carter, director of finance and human services in Franklin County, said the locality has had discussions about replicating the STARS program, but hasn’t been able to because of staffing and budgeting issues.

Years ago, legislators created a grant program of $750,000 to help address the funding issue experienced in localities wanting to start new programs. A 2006 JLARC report on CSA recommended the program be expanded, but the recommendation was never implemented and the grant eventually expired.

Taking on teens

The Szabos lived in Northern Virginia for decades before deciding to retire in Salem. They never had children of their own due to medical issues and considered adopting and fostering, but didn’t pursue it until they moved to the Roanoke area.

Sandee said she had always thought about fostering children because her aunt and uncle in Maryland fostered children for more than 30 years and adopted some of her cousins from foster care.

“I’ve always been exposed to it,” she said. “It was always open.”

The Szabos took foster parent training classes in the fall of 2019 and were approved the following spring after the required home visits and background checks were complete.

The same day the department certified them as foster parents, they received a call for emergency respite placement for a 15-year-old boy. The Szabos took care of him for about two weeks while his foster parents took a break.

A few months after that, their 17-year-old foster daughter arrived.

The Szabos said they specifically volunteered for teenagers because it’s a foster care population that is often overlooked.

Jones said the county has a significant need for foster parents willing to take teenagers, who are often sent to group homes or residential care because there is no family who can, or is willing to, take them.

“They need to grow up in a family environment to see people interact and argue and work things out together and be in a relationship because that’s what you take into your adult life,” Jones said. “If they lose that and they go to a group home or a residential situation, then we are preparing them for jail or the army. Because that’s where those relationships are transitory and you are in a bunk and you don’t get those family dynamics you’re supposed to have.”

Many families sign up to foster with the expectation they will care for an infant or a toddler. Convincing them to take on an older child, with more life experiences and potential trauma, can be difficult.

“I think if more people knew how much support is actually out there through the STARS program, I think a lot more would probably consider doing teens,” Sandee said.

Under the radar

Currently, innovative programs like STARS can go unnoticed by state officials and other localities that are not aware of the success.

Morgan, social services director in Middlesex County, said it would be helpful if localities had a chance to share ideas and successful programs with one another. She said the Office of Children’s Services could take on the role to facilitate best practices, feature new programs and help localities replicate them.

“If everyone was committed to moving the system forward and trying something different, trying a new approach, talking to someone who’s developed a new program and taking the time to build it up, you could really do something transformative,” Morgan said. “Many communities are doing this, many programs are partnering together, but I don’t know that there’s a spotlight on that.”

Each year, the service gap surveys are sent out to each locality and respondents simply check boxes on a form with categories that can include close to 10 different services. The needs over the years have remained consistent and such broad categories prevent the ability to drill down into actual service gaps experienced by children and families.

A more thorough look at exactly what each locality needs would be a more effective way to evaluate and fill service gaps.

Del. Kenneth Plum introduced a bill, which was passed last regular session, that requires the Office of Children’s Services to monitor performance measures, use data to identify localities that are underperforming and develop corrective action plans.

The legislation required the office to hire an additional staff member who would develop an approach to the data analysis and review of local CSA programs.

Sen. Barbara Favola, who serves as a member of the Commission on Youth, said she hopes these reports and data points will help the state see where gaps exist across the Commonwealth and what can be done to address them.

“My overall goal would be to make the state a really strong partner in funding creative solutions that would work for their families and their children,” Favola said. “You have to look at this as an investment, not a cost. You have to ensure that localities have the support they need to make these programs work.”

Roanoke County School Board candidates take on politics, issues


Jerry Canada

Jason Moretz

Tim Greenway

Seven school board candidates are off to the races in Roanoke County, where voters this year are deciding contested elections for three of the board’s five seats, as impassioned campaigning continues closer to Election Day.

School board incumbents face one opponent each in Hollins and Windsor Hills, and one of three newcomers will be elected in Catawba come Nov. 2. Meanwhile, the incumbent in Vinton runs unopposed.

Simplified, candidates in all districts mostly agree that issues facing the current and future county School Board include upping teacher pay, replacing outdated school buildings and addressing a continued decline in enrollment, on top of navigating ongoing coronavirus-related concerns.

While candidates agreeably identify those primary issues, they offer varied solutions and come from all different backgrounds. Some who are running for the nonpartisan board worry that political talking points have breached an election better focused on the kids and their educations.

Early voting started Sept. 17, and the voter registration deadline is Oct. 12. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Three-way race in Catawba

About two dozen Masons Cove Civic Club members filled the dining room of the Bradshaw Road fire station last Monday evening, where Catawba District’s three school board candidates worked to win over voters.

Deneen Evans, Brent Hudson and Greg Irby seek election. Up for grabs are the final two years of an unfinished term, replacing appointed board member David Wymer, who in June relieved former chairman Don Butzer.

At the civic club meeting, Irby, then Hudson and finally Evans had 15 minutes each to speak. All three spoke on some of the county schools’ core issues, and Irby said one of his reasons for running is parent choice.

“I do not believe the board of education, nor any government agency at any level, should override the parents’ role of making choices for their children,” Irby said. “Whether it be a particular curriculum that you're not comfortable with your child being taught, having to share a bathroom with someone born of the opposite sex, or the choice of a mask.”

Irby is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Glenvar, and a Catawba resident since 2002. He referees high school baseball, football, volleyball and basketball.

“We're also being forced to comply to transgender demands,” Irby said, adding that less than 1% of students nationwide identify as transgender. “I believe God created man and woman.”

Hudson, who is endorsed by the Roanoke County Republican Party, said politics have no place in schools. Motivating his run is previous work as a school resource officer in Glenvar, prior to becoming chief deputy at the county Sheriff’s Office, where he’s served 20 years.

“Kids do not need politics pushed upon them. Mr. Irby hit on some points there,” Hudson said. “We need to be at the forefront of what's going on, and not be kind of sidetracked by menial issues and political issues and those types of things. We're talking about our children.”

Evans, who is endorsed by the Roanoke County Education Association, said she is running as a children's advocate. She is a doctor of social work and owns Mosaic Mental Wellness and Health in Roanoke, specializing in therapy for kids and families, with more than 30 years of experience.

“The American Medical Association and the American Pediatric Association all give specific guidelines for how we are to help children who are gender diverse, and it is not by bullying them, it is not by letting them see that no one cares about them,” Evans said. “The research and the science has allowed us to understand these children differently, and to allow us to give special care and accommodations.”

Evans, a faculty member at Radford University, addressed critical race theory, which Irby had earlier said he is against teaching in public schools.

Irby said critical race theory places blame on Americans today for historical wrongs.

Evans said she is against teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools. She clarified that  it originates from Germany, is not taught in K-12 education, and has nothing to do with teaching history, but with looking at impacts of various inequalities.

“Critical race theory is not being taught," anywhere in the schools,” Evans said, referencing a school division statement on the matter. “I teach critical race theory for the graduate school level, as do law schools. That's where it’s being taught.”

Hudson clarified later in a phone call that he is against teaching critical race theory, but also said he could not find any instances of it being taught presently in county schools.

All three candidates agree that school resource officers play a vital role and need to remain in schools, and there is no doubt between them about the need for modernized school buildings.

Hudson and Evans both emphasized their experiences raising a child with special needs, and both candidates have two children. Evans’ kids are grown and graduated from Roanoke County schools, while Hudson’s are still elementary aged.

On teacher pay, Irby suggests tweaking budgets to make salaries more appealing and competitive with surrounding school divisions, while Hudson said the schools should institute a stepped pay scale similar to the one recently approved for county employees, and Evans said she still seeks solutions.

“I'm going to look, I'm going to learn, I'm going to come back and I'm going to educate you,” Evans said. “As a social worker, I am trained to talk, to research, to look, and most of all to advocate.”

Hudson said he is PTA president at his kids’ school, and he believes the nation’s future deserves education as a societal priority.

“My motivation is simple,” Hudson said. “I want to ensure that my children, your children, your grandchildren are getting the best educational opportunities possible.”

Part of Irby’s motivation is religious, and his decision to run came with years of contemplation, he said.

“I prayed about it and I spoke about it with several other individuals who also prayed with me about this decision,” Irby said. "I feel that’s what the Lord would have me do.”

Historic head-to-head in Hollins  

For the first time since Roanoke County started public school board elections in the early 1990s, there is a contested race in the Hollins district.

One-term incumbent David Linden faces the return of Jerry Canada, who is attempting to reclaim the seat he held from 1992 to 2017.

“I never intended to come back. I thought I was done,” Canada said during a phone call. “It's just been difficult for me to sit back and watch, and see some of the things that have taken place go unchallenged.”

What fired up Canada enough to run again, he said, was in July 2020, when three current board members were invited to a meeting in a private home for discussion of the school division’s coronavirus reopening plans. Two board members, Linden and Tim Greenway, attended that closed-doors meeting.

“Two other members didn't even know anything about it,” Canada said. “That fired me up right there, because that is not the way a school board or any elected body needs to be operating.”

That meeting caused Butzer to allege Republicans were maneuvering on the division’s reopening plans and rescind his role as school board chairman, though he remained a board member, and was later again elected chairman.

“Everybody needs to be in the room,” Canada said. “Everybody's voice needs to be heard.”

Regarding that gathering in private, Linden said he was invited by Greenway to a meeting among parents who were concerned about the school reopening plans.

“That was mischaracterized as a Republican-led meeting, which it was not,” Linden said during a phone call. “That was certainly not how it was portrayed to me before I went.”

Linden said he does tend to lean Republican, and he has considered joining the party, but he would not seek its endorsement if he did.

“I was accused of being a member of the Republican Party, which I’ve not been,” Linden said. “The insinuations that were made by the chairman at the time were not exactly accurate.”

Linden said he was simply gathering all the input he could.

“I'm going to listen to constituents,” Linden said. “Whether they're in the Hollins district, or whether they're in somebody else's.”

And the Hollins candidates’ viewpoints differ elsewhere.

Canada, who is endorsed by the Roanoke County Education Association, said the school board’s recent split votes on student mask mandates show disregard for student safety and lack of support for the school officials who spoke in favor of those policies. Linden, along with Greenway, twice voted against student mask mandates, before the governor decreed a statewide policy.

“My voting record on masks will give you an indication of where I am with those,” Linden said. “I'm not convinced that masks are making a significant difference in delaying the spread of COVID.”

Despite outcry from parents, school and public health organizations from the national, state and local level are overwhelmingly in support of student mask use to protect against the coronavirus’ classroom spread.

For funding replacement of the aged Burton Center for Arts & Technology, Linden stands with other current school board members in favor of county officials temporarily raising sales tax by 1%. Canada said he is not yet convinced of that option, but added he needs to educate himself on what other funding streams have already been explored by the board.

“What I want to do is just try to get back in, and provide some stability for the superintendent,” Canada said. “And pass the love around.”

Canada said he emphasizes retaining and recruiting staff, from the central office to the teachers.

Linden said the current board is responsible for prioritizing the replacement of BCAT, and for recent teacher raises.

“We've started some really good things,” Linden said. “I want another term to see what kind of improvements we can continue to make.”

Voters will determine which candidate serves another four-year term. 

Campaign signs victimized in Windsor Hills 

Campaign signs are casualties of the Windsor Hills race.

Challenger Cheryl Facciani said on her campaign’s Facebook page that she has "missing/vandalized" campaign signs.

"Both parties had signs vandalized or stolen," Facciani said during a phone call. "But signs don't win campaigns."

Incumbent school board chairman Jason Moretz on his campaign's Facebook page shared photos of a roadside campaign sign slashed and disparagingly spray-painted on top of. During a phone call, Moretz said the incident was unfortunate.

“I’m used to my yard signs getting taken, that seems to happen every election,” Moretz said. “There's a difference between someone pulling up a [small] yard sign and someone taking the time to spray paint and slash a large banner.”

Facciani is a retired speech-language pathologist, having worked on the East and West coasts, who has four children, one in college and three still in the county school system. She started paying closer attention to the school board during the coronavirus shutdown, she said, and disagreed with many of her opponent’s votes.

“He failed to show leadership and demonstrated time and time again that he's unreliable, and easily influenced by bad actors,” Facciani said. “So I decided to run for his position, because I knew I could do better.”

Facciani declined to further comment on who the bad actors are, and was brief regarding previous leadership failures.

“It's not too hard to go back and look up,” Facciani said. “He failed to get our kids back in school sooner.”

Moretz is a wealth advisor and has two children who attend Hidden Valley High School, and his wife is a career educator. He was appointed to the school board in 2015 to fill a vacancy, then was elected in 2016 and most recently ran unopposed for re-election in 2017.

“Some of the political discourse, it's trickled down to the local elections, and I think it's wonderful that people are passionate about a local election but, I mean, come on,” Moretz said. “There’s no room for that. I think we could still run a respectful campaign.”

Facciani, who is endorsed by the Roanoke County Republican Party, said she helped organized the private July 2020 meeting attended by Linden and Greenway, as discussed by the Hollins candidates.

She said it was a roundtable discussion among stakeholders, and added that only two school board members were invited, not three, because three members present would have made it an official meeting.

“I'm proud to have helped organize local parents to get our kids back in the classroom,” Facciani said. “Unfortunately, my opponent and his liberal allies oppose those efforts.”

Moretz, who is endorsed by the Roanoke County Education Association, said he is troubled by some of the school board campaigning he has seen this year. He hopes people will vote on the issues and in a nonpartisan way, rather than based on politics.

“I see a lot of buzz words, I see a lot of wedge issues,” Moretz said. “I have a 6-year voting record, and I know there are some people out there that may not agree with everything I've done, but I do have a record to run on.”

Both Windsor Hills candidates called for further increases in teacher pay, and both specified that BCAT impacts economic development in the Roanoke Valley. They both related those issues to declining student enrollment since 2008.

“We have come a long way with BCAT, insofar as the push to get a new one built, our partnership with the board of supervisors, putting together a BCAT citizens committee,” Moretz said. “These are specific steps that myself and the board have taken.”

On raising sales tax by 1% to fund a new BCAT, Facciani said it’s premature to know if that will happen, but it could be a great option to secure funding.

“I believe we need to be creative by looking into partnerships with local businesses who have a vested interest in growing our economy and our labor force,” Facciani said. “We need to think big.”

On the school board’s role in supporting student mental health needs, Moretz said county schools have a good partnership with the local Prevention Council, which offers support services, seminars and assemblies.

“Since I've been on the board, we have hired a number of life counselors in our school system,” Moretz said. “We’re increasing the number of guidance counselors that we have in our school system, well above the state minimum, and nurses as well.”

Facciani said she organized a fundraiser for a public speaker, Nathan Harmon, who will visit Roanoke County schools in spring of 2022 to talk on issues of student mental health. She said another of her primary concerns is learning loss caused by coronavirus disruptions.

“We have federal money that's pouring into our schools,” Facciani said. “We must use it for remediation programs to help the students who fell through the cracks.”

Whoever wins the Windsor Hills district election will serve a four-year term.

“I’m a critical thinker, I’m creative, I’m solutions-driven, I’m active in my community,” Facciani said. “I’m going to win.”

“I always consider myself to be a reasonable person. I want to run on the facts, and I want to run on my voting record,” Moretz said. “I want to run a positive campaign.”

Concerns from the unopposed

All is quiet in Vinton, where incumbent Tim Greenway runs unopposed for the school board seat he has held since November of 2015.

“I wish we had three or four people running, exchanging ideas and views,” Greenway said. “Honestly, I would have been happy to step down and let somebody else take over, if somebody had stepped up.”

Greenway said not much good comes from focusing on buzz words like critical race theory, or who should use which bathroom, or any other recent causes of public outrage. It distracts from the kids, he said.

“I try to stay away from these buzz words,” Greenway said. "Those are issues that I don’t think have a lot of meat in the conversation.”

Moretz, Linden, Canada, Hudson and Evans similarly said they are uneasy about some of the politicking they've seen during this school board race, and they each mentioned so individually, without being specifically asked about it.

Greenway said the main goal in public education is to teach kids the three R's: reading, 'riting and ‘rithmetic.

“I'm doing it to give back,” Greenway said on his motivation to serve. “It is not something I need to do. It's something I want to do.”

Most candidates maintain Facebook pages where they post about their campaigns. A number of disputes and pointed comments have appeared on those social media pages since the school board races began, spread by passionate candidates and concerned constituents alike.

“I just hope everybody keeps it positive… we want to move forward, not back,” Greenway said. “Anybody who thinks that politics don’t play a part in whatever thought process you have is being naïve.”

US ramps up plan to expel Haitian migrants

DEL RIO, Texas — Haitian migrants seeking to escape poverty, hunger and a feeling of hopelessness in their home country said they will not be deterred by U.S. plans to speedily send them back, as thousands of people remained encamped on the Texas border Saturday after crossing from Mexico.

Scores of people waded back and forth across the Rio Grande on Saturday afternoon, re-entering Mexico to purchase water, food and diapers in Ciudad Acuña before returning to the Texas encampment under and near a bridge in the border city of Del Rio.

Junior Jean, a 32-year-old man from Haiti, watched as people cautiously carried cases of water or bags of food through the knee-high river water. Jean said he lived on the streets in Chile the past four years, resigned to searching for food in garbage cans.

"We are all looking for a better life," he said.

The Department of Homeland Security said Saturday that it moved about 2,000 of the migrants from the camp to other locations Friday for processing and possible removal from the U.S. Its statement also said it would have 400 agents and officers in the area by Monday morning and would send more if necessary.

The announcement marked a swift response to the sudden arrival of Haitians in Del Rio, a Texas city of about 35,000 people roughly 145 miles west of San Antonio. It sits on a relatively remote stretch of border that lacks capacity to hold and process such large numbers of people.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press on Friday that the U.S would likely fly the migrants out of the country on five to eight flights a day, starting Sunday, while another official expected no more than two a day and said everyone would be tested for COVID-19. The first official said operational capacity and Haiti's willingness to accept flights would determine how many flights there would be. Both officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Told of the U.S. plans Saturday, several migrants said they still intended to remain in the encampment and seek asylum. Some spoke of the most recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, saying they were afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.

"In Haiti, there is no security," said Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived with his wife and two daughters. "The country is in a political crisis."

Haitians have been migrating to the U.S. in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean nation after a devastating 2010 earthquake. After jobs dried up from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car to the U.S. border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed off vehicle and pedestrian traffic in both directions Friday at the only border crossing between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña "to respond to urgent safety and security needs" and it remained closed Saturday. Travelers were being directed indefinitely to a crossing in Eagle Pass, roughly 55 miles away.

Crowd estimates varied, but Val Verde County Sheriff Frank Joe Martinez had said there were about 13,700 new arrivals in Del Rio as of Friday. Migrants pitched tents and built makeshift shelters from giant reeds known as carrizo cane. Many bathed and washed clothing in the river.

It is unclear how such a large number amassed so quickly, though many Haitians have been assembling in camps on the Mexican side of the border to wait while deciding whether to attempt entry into the U.S.

The number of Haitian arrivals began to reach unsustainable levels for the Border Patrol in Del Rio about 2 ½ weeks ago, prompting the agency's acting sector chief, Robert Garcia, to ask headquarters for help, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Since then, the agency has transferred Haitians in buses and vans to other Border Patrol facilities in Texas, specifically El Paso, Laredo and Rio Grande Valley. They are mostly processed outside of the pandemic-related authority, meaning they can claim asylum and remain in the U.S. while their claims are considered. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes custody decisions, but families can generally not be held more than 20 days under court order.

Homeland Security's plan announced Saturday signals a shift to use of pandemic-related authority for immediate expulsion to Haiti without an opportunity to claim asylum, the official said.

The flight plan, while potentially massive in scale, hinges on how Haitians respond. They might have to decide whether to stay put at the risk of being sent back to an impoverished homeland wracked by poverty and political instability or return to Mexico. Unaccompanied children are exempt from fast-track expulsions.

DHS said, "our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey."

"Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion," the agency wrote. "Irregular migration poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and to the lives of migrants themselves, and should not be attempted."

U.S. authorities are being severely tested after Democratic President Joe Biden quickly dismantled Trump administration policies that Biden considered cruel or inhumane, most notably one requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for U.S. immigration court hearings.

A pandemic-related order to immediately expel migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum that was introduced in March 2020 remains in effect, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempt. 

Nicole Phillips, legal director for advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, said Saturday that the U.S. government should process migrants and allow them to apply for asylum, not rush to expel them.

"It really is a humanitarian crisis," Phillips said.