By Callie Hietala
The Henry County School Board selected Thomas Auker and Teddy Martin as its chairman and vice-chairman for 2022. This is Auker’s third time serving as board chairman and Martin’s first term as vice-chairman.
“I count it a privilege,” Auker said of being elected chairman once again by his fellow board members. “When your colleagues feel you’re doing a good job, to be able to continue to lead them” is an honor.
Martin, who has served as regional school board chairman and is current president of the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA), is a newcomer to holding a top post at the local level.
“I did it backwards,” he said, laughing.
Auker said he hopes the board can continue working on its list of capital improvement projects, including completing construction of the new bus garage and renovations of the G.W. Carver Elementary cafeteria.
Board members also will work to address various items on its 2022 legislative agenda, Auker said.
Martin added that will largely be achieved through advocacy at scheduled events during the year.
He said there also will be several questions the board and the school division must grapple with in the coming year, including how the issue with the county’s use of its 1 percent sales tax increase is resolved. As previously reported, the Henry County Board of Supervisors voted to use some of the proceeds from the voter-approved tax hike to pay down previously incurred school debt from past construction rather than putting the full amount toward new capital improvement projects, as Virginia’s attorney general recently advised it was intended.
Martin said he hopes that issue will be resolved in the schools’ favor “so we could take care of some of these big capital improvement projects that our schools need,” such as a new roof at Laurel Park and field houses for athletics.
The ongoing issue of reversion presents a whole host of questions, namely if it will still occur and, if so, to what extent the school systems might the school systems be included in the process, Martin said.
He noted the school system is still addressing the “explosion” of COVID-19 cases and all the uncertainties that presents.
“How do you manage safe operation of schools and the pandemic learning loss? Social-emotional learning,” Martin asked, and added that the number one priority is to make sure the board and the schools are caring for students’ physical and emotional wellbeing.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger, more important time for what the schools do. We are the home away from home for many of our students, so we have to try to address those issues,” Martin said.
One of the issues concerning parents during the pandemic is the current school mask mandate. Parents have spoken both for and against masking in schools and previous meetings of the school board. This new year brings with it a new governor, Glenn Youngkin.
Part of his campaign was a promise that on the first day of his administration, he would lift the mask mandate for Virginia’s schools.
If Youngkin “comes in with a mandate to take the masks off, then I would think the board would do that without a bit of a problem,” Auker said.
However, “we have to remember that it’s not just those that are coming to school, but it’s also the parents and other people that may come into contact with COVID” so, given the uncertainties, “it may have to be that it is by choice as to whether or not to wear the mask,” he said.
The VSBA believes the issue should be a matter of local control, Martin said.
Explaining why a statewide mandate may not be the right solution for every school district, Martin said, “Virginia’s such a diverse, huge state.”
Particularly now, when vaccines are readily available, Martin said he believes masks should be a matter of choice, as should vaccination itself. He said that while he strongly encourages people to get vaccinated and boosted, and to wear masks, the notion of telling someone that must take any of those actions gives him pause.
“If you want to take these protective measures, you have the absolute right to do so and we will support you,” Martin said. “Conversely, if you don’t want to, and as long as you’re not harming someone else directly, I’m okay with that.”
While he believes in giving parents and others the freedom to make personal choices for themselves and their children while navigating the pandemic, Martin added that “freedom also comes with responsibility.”