West Point School Board seats challenged

Voters will need to choose among three candidates vying for two seats on the West Point School Board when they head to the polls Tuesday.

This year, two incumbents and a retired school administrator are running for a spot on the board that creates policies and oversees spending on one of the state's top school divisions.

Voters will find incumbents John Ragsdale II and Dudley Olsson on the ballot for School Board Nov. 8, as well as Phyllis Dorsey, a retired school administrator and teacher.

While the candidates have very different backgrounds, ranging from business, to school administration, to public health and journalism, the high-quality school division was one of the reasons all three candidates orginally moved to West Point.

All three have or had children in West Point Public Schools and said they hope to maintain the division's level of excellence and help improve curriculum.

John Ragsdale II

Ragsdale, the owner and operator of a dry cleaning business in Sandston, has been on the School Board for almost nine years.

Ragsdale, 53, moved to West Point in 2003 with his wife, Denise, and three children. The family moved to the town from Barhamsville so the children, who are now ages 23, 20 and 15, could attend the high quality school division, Ragsdale said.

"We had three children and wanted them to attend West Point schools," he said. "I like that when I say I live in West Point, people immediately talk about the schools. I've had people in my shop talking about West Point schools."

Although Ragsdale doesn't have a background in education, he believes his business experience lends itself well to making School Board decisions.

"I've been in business my whole life, and I've worked with the public," he said. "There's a lot to be said for that. I add worth to the board because of the diversity. The School Board members are not all like-thinkers, our only agenda is to see the schools excel and continue to do well."

If elected, Ragsdale said he is most excited to be a part of changes in education. Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state education officials are pushing for more experience-based learning, rather than Standards of Learning tests. Although students will continue to take SOLs, schools will be expected to teach workplace skills, community engagement, civic responsibility and career exploration.

"I think I'm most excited about this year because the state seems to recognize that college is not for all students," Ragsdale said. "West Point has really sought out to work with other businesses for apprenticeships, so students can receive credit hours toward their diploma. It offers something for every child."

Ragsdale said he hopes to see the schools continue to do well and accommodate all children.

"To be able to be a part of something that does as well as West Point is something I find to be very invigorating," he said.

Dudley Olsson

Olsson is originally from Mississippi, although she has strong ties to the West Point community. She has served on the School Board for 12 years, including six as board chairwoman.

Olsson moved to West Point in 1999 with her husband, Elis, a West Point native. The Olssons had lived in various places in the United States, but they wanted their two children, the oldest of whom was going into first grade at the time, to attend West Point Public Schools.

"It was a great decision," she said. "We've loved living here ... (My daughters) received a strong education in West Point that shaped them and prepared them for the future. I want every child in West Point to have the same opportunity."

Olsson previously worked in the VCU Department of Psychiatry as a research associate in the area of children's mental health. She now devotes her attention to School Board matters and other civic duties. She serves on the Board of Control of the Middle Peninsula Regional Special Education Program, the Quin Rivers Board of Directors and the Menokin Foundation Board of Trustees. She also volunteers with Arts Alive and is a member of St. John's Episcopal Church.

"I feel fortunate to have the flexibility and time to devote to school board matters," she said. "It's been a big part of my life for the past 12 years. It's probably the most meaningful thing I've ever done."

While on the School Board, Olsson has pushed for a positive relationship with Town Council, fiscal responsibility while making facility upgrades and salary raises, staff retention, opportunities for high school students to earn college credits and investments in athletics and arts.

Like Ragsdale, Olsson is excited for the upcoming state-driven changes in education.    

"Things are changing in education," Olsson said. "We want to be on the leading edge of these changes. The governor is pushing schools to be bold and take risks because the world around us is changing. We're moving away from the single focus on SOL scores."

School Board members are responsible for deciding how to fund changes and add or modify positions to meet the goals, Olsson said. There's a strong sense of pride in the small school division, and students should have every opportunity that students in larger divisions have.

The upcoming changes in curriculum "just make sense to us," she said.

"Our job is to make kids aware of potential careers and teach them how to support the lifestyle they want to live," she said.

Phyllis Dorsey

Dorsey, 58, is a seasoned educator and school administrator who retired in 2016 after 37 years in education.

In almost four decades in schools, Dorsey taught second grade, kindergarten and Title I reading and was the assistant principal at West Point Elementary School. She also has been a reading coach, assistant principal and principal in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools.

After her retirement, she started working at the West Point United Methodist Church Preschool Academy.

Dorsey and her husband, West Point High School Principal Mark Dorsey, moved to West Point in 1988 in search of career opportunities and excellent schools for their two daughters, she said.

Both of Dorsey's children work and study in the medical field: one is a resident at The Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City, and the other has a master's degree in nursing and is currently working on her PHD from Vanderbilt University.

"West Point prepared our daughters for successful futures," she said.

Although Dorsey does not have any specific agenda if she is elected, she said her strong background in education makes her a good candidate for the School Board.

Between her experience as an educator, her bachelor's degree in early childhood and elementary education, her master's degree as a reading specialist and her endorsement in administration and supervision from Virginia Commonwealth University, Dorsey believes her experiences would be a valuable resource to the board.

"It is my goal to use my experiences in education to ensure that the children of West Point continue to get the high quality of education West Point is known for," she said.

Her retirement earlier this year was one of the factors in choosing to run for School Board, Dorsey said.

"Now that I have retired, I thought running for School Board would be a great way to use my experience to benefit the town and children of West Point," Dorsey said. "We have successful schools and we meet the needs of all children. It's a community effort, everyone is invested in seeing our children succeed. It's the 'it takes a village' mentality."

Fearing can be reached by phone at 757-298-5838.

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