Come November, it looks like residents in James City County’s Powhatan District will be choosing between a new and a historical perspective to represent them on the Williamsburg-James City County School Board for the next year.
Around 70 people attended the forum at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg where Dot Matthews and Lisa Ownby faced off Monday evening, responding to questions from both the moderator and the audience. The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Citizens for Education and WJCC PTA Council.
Two-year James City County resident, Matthews, is running against Ownby, who’s lived in the area for 25 years — facts that were repeatedly highlighted in both candidates' responses.
Matthews, who spoke first given a coin toss, opened by telling the audience she would be a fresh perspective on the board. Ownby detailed her extensive experience in the school and surrounding community.
Questions ranged from special education to block scheduling in the high schools, teacher compensation and 21st Century Learning.
Regarding the new superintendent, Matthews said continuity is key and wants to hire someone who will stay long-term. Ownby noted that the superintendent should be more focused on the school division rather than their personal pursuits.
“I really would like to see someone who is interested in serving our community in a full-time capacity,” Ownby said.
The moderator, editor of the Virginia Gazette Peggy Bellows, asked both about the drop-out rate, redistricting and whether each candidate is in favor of universal preschool (Matthews — no, Ownby — yes).
When asked what specific issue about the Powhatan district needed serious attention, both pointed to inequities when comparing Lafayette High School to the other two in the district.
Ownby pointed to Warhill’s pathways program and said she thinks all students should have access to innovation in that way. Matthews agreed and said that opportunities for students shouldn't be limited by the school they're slated to go to.
“Lafayette is sort of the step child of the school system, it looks like to me, and I don’t like that,” Matthews said. “As much as we can I’d like to move toward making sure that when we assign a kid into a school, that that doesn’t change his educational perspective.”
Questions posed by the community were in many ways more specific to issues or the candidates themselves.
One asked if there is too much money in athletics. Another questioned how each candidate thinks the division can attract and retain talented teachers and support staff, to which both pointed to compensation.
One audience comment caught the room off guard. Directed at Matthews specifically, the person said there were accusations that she had been saying Ownby was "trashing the constitution.”
"I have never said that," she quickly replied. "I try to talk about myself, I don't talk about my opponent. I learned some things tonight, I really don't know much about Ms. Ownby."
Whoever voters choose Nov. 8 will take on the remainder of Joe Fuentes' term, who had just under two years left when he resigned in January.
Read more in Saturday's Virginia Gazette.
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-298-5172.