BEDFORD — More than 40 people spoke during a three-hour public hearing Monday night at Liberty High School as the Bedford County School Board heard from three finalists for the District 7 School Board seat plus members of the community.
The board will meet again Thursday to appoint either Christopher Daniels, Raymond Smith or Cherie Whitehurst to fill the seat left open by Martin Leamy after he announced his resignation in January.
In a public statement posted on his Facebook page, Leamy said he has steadily been taking on more roles with several volunteer organizations during the past year, and has found himself “overcommitted.”
Before public comments, each finalist was allotted six minutes to tell the board why they would be a good fit.
Chris Daniels, who spoke via web call while on a business trip, said he has two twin sons and is the owner of several Jersey Mike’s Subs franchises.
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“I feel that I’m uniquely qualified to sit on the school board,” he said. “I’m a single father, and I understand what comes with those challenges. I’m also the father of a child with special needs and understand the challenges that accompany this circumstance. My son has cerebral palsy and overall developmental delay. I understand the needs of both the children and the parents with special needs, as well as the extra emphasis teachers and aides perform to ensure that we get the most out of our school experience.”
Daniels said there are many elements to building the next generation of leaders but a foundation grounded on a community working together will yield better results.
“While these past two years sure have been challenging and there definitely are issues that divide us, it’s important for us to focus on what unites us because there’s much more that unites us than divides us,” he told the board.
Raymond Smith, a 2019 graduate of Jefferson Forest High School, is a current student of the University of Lynchburg, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s in history and social studies in secondary education with the goal of becoming a teacher in Bedford County Public Schools.
Smith was involved in JF’s theater program, which he said taught him not only the importance of public speaking and the importance of individuals, but also the importance of community.
Since graduating from JF, he has chaperoned school trips, served on the Superintendent’s Advisory Council, is a substitute teacher for BCPS and has been the assistant debate coach.
If elected, he said he plans to put more emphasis on the fine arts programs, early college and CTE programs, and the special needs curriculum. He also wants teachers to feel they are heard and supported by the board.
“It is paramount to our success that we increase dialogue and communication to ensure that all stakeholders in education feel heard, represented and loved,” he said.
Whitehurst, a self-described Christian conservative with a strong community heritage, including family roots going back six generations in Bedford, holds a doctorate from Virginia Tech in educational leadership and policy studies. She formerly was the principal of Liberty and Staunton River high schools and deputy superintendent for BCPS.
She said Bedford County receives more than $10,000 for each enrolled student and the school system is losing millions of dollars in revenue because parents are saying they do not want to send their children to BCPS.
“I know how many of these parents feel. For a short time, I was one of them. We want our community to have confidence that our schools can provide quality education in safe environments,” she said.
Whitehurst said Bedford needs a board member who has the background and experience to help guide this district successfully into the future.
“Bedford County needs a board member who says our community cannot be left behind,” she said.
During public comments, community members came out to support the three candidates.
Aaron Reid, an English teacher at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg and a resident of Bedford County, said he felt Smith was the best candidate because of his community involvement and professionalism.
“Raymond is someone that you and I can count on to listen, truly listen, to the concerns of the community and proceed accordingly,” he said. “He thinks critically, he speaks thoughtfully and he acts in all things professionally. I hope you will see Raymond for the man of good character that he is and select him as board member.”
Tim Black, mayor of the town of Bedford, said he thinks there are four criteria that should make up a school board member — their character, education, experience, and their reason for serving.
He said he respects the other applicants and their willingness to serve but there was no one more qualified to serve than Whitehurst because of her educational and work experience, as well as the knowledge she possesses.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to about this appointment knows Cherie Whitehurst is the right person for this job. The District 7 seat encompasses half the town of Bedford with the other half represented by Mrs. Kirby,” he said. “This appointment is important to our community so that we can ensure a fair representation for students and parents in the Liberty zone.”
Mary Katherine Bennett, a mother of six living in Forest, endorsed Daniels, saying the school board already has educators represented on it.
“What we need is to get away from what we had in the past and move on to what’s going to happen in the future. There’s a lot of great things that could be done with Chris Daniels on the board. We need new ideas, fresh ideas and more parental involvement,” she said.
School board chair Susan Kirby thanked everyone for coming at the end of the meeting and investing their time.
“This can be time-consuming and we are taking everything into consideration,” she said. “We are receiving voluminous emails and we are not taking this decision lightly.”