(Delmarva Now) -- A judge-appointed panel made two appointments to the Accomack County School Board Tuesday, after an atypically contentious public hearing last week.
Appointed Tuesday were Jesse Speidel of Chincoteague to represent Electoral District 1 and Margaret Miles, a retired longtime educator, to represent Electoral District 4 on the school board.
Miles was the incumbent for the District 4 seat.
School board members are appointed to four-year terms.
The Accomack County School Board Selection Commission voted unanimously on both appointments.
A referendum on whether Accomack should change how school board members are selected will be on the ballot in the county in November, after a citizens' group gathered 4,676 signatures on a petition to get the question on the ballot.
The county is one of a handful in Virginia where school board members are appointed rather than elected.
In some localities where school board members have been appointed, an elected body, such as the Board of Supervisors, makes the appointments; in Accomack, however, the Virginia General Assembly appoints the Circuit Court judge, who appoints a school board selection commission, which then picks the school board members.
Speidel was the only nominee to fulfill the unexpired term of Travis Thornton, who is retiring from the school board after 18 years.
Thornton was among those who spoke in favor of appointing Speidel, a Navy veteran and supervisor at NOAA in Wallops who also serves on the Chincoteague Board of Zoning Appeals.
Thornton called Speidel, with whom he works, "a very big family man" and noted he also serves on the board of directors of the Chincoteague YMCA and as president of the Youth Soccer Association in the town.
"He is no-nonsense; he's not afraid to take on a tough issue," Thornton said.
Tom Wilson also spoke for Speidel, saying, "He brings people together."
The commission also received a half dozen letters of support for Speidel.
Still, it was Electoral District 4 that was the focus of most of the discussion at the May 23 public hearing, after a woman who favors an elected school board challenged Miles for the appointment.
Connie Burford of Bloxom, a parent whose child is a special needs student in the school system, told the selection commission the school board needs "someone to represent the special education students and parents."
"I've been at this for 16 years," she said.
Burford has served since 2014 on the School Health Advisory Board.
Burford said the school board should be more transparent.
Questioned by a commission member about how she would be able to work with current school board members, given her past interactions with the board as a parent, Burford said she gets along "very well" with most board members.
Accomack County Supervisor Paul Muhly spoke in favor of appointing Burford, saying, "You have a choice."
But school board member George Waldenmaier spoke against it, saying, "Connie Burford is the wrong person to appoint to this board. She is temperamentally absolutely unsuited for this position."
Miles served as a school board member through the hiring process of the last three school superintendents, is a past chairwoman, and has a half-century of experience in education as a teacher and administrator.
Speaking in favor of appointing Miles to another term were school board chairman Ronnie Holden, vice chairman Paul Bull and Thornton, along with veteran teacher Ida Nedab, who called Miles "one of the greatest educators that this county can be proud to say is part of our system."
Holden said Miles has been "a great asset" for the school district.
"We all agree that she has a heart for the kids of Accomack County," he said.
Bull also spoke for Miles, saying, "We need good people on the board; it's a tough job."
Bull said it upsets him when people "talk poorly of what we do, of what our intentions are" on the school board.
"My mother taught in the school system for almost 40 years — to think that I don't care about teachers is crazy," he said.
Onancock resident Margaret Hampton spoke against appointing Miles to another term, saying change is needed.
"Accomack schools rank among the lowest performing schools in the state" — 107 out of 130 divisions, she said, citing information from the Virginia Department of Education website.
"For the last three years, we have trended downwards. How low will we go before changes are made?" Hampton said, alleging the school board in the past year has had "numerous scandals."
She cited millions in carryover funds discovered during an audit and questions about the process followed for hiring the current school superintendent, including an allegation three school board members held a private meeting with the candidate who was later hired.
"I suggest that the chairperson, Mrs. Miles, did not perform due diligence to rule out improprieties," she said of the latter.
Hampton also spoke about a sewage problem at Metompkin Elementary School, which has since been remedied, and about Nandua High School students lacking textbooks for the first several weeks of classes.
"No apologies were offered; no one was held accountable," she said.
Hampton also spoke of "the international embarrassment" last fall when the school district pulled two classic works of literature, "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," off bookshelves after a parent complained.
It was later discovered the school board in having the books removed had not followed its current policy, but one from an outdated manual.
"Despite all this, you will no doubt reappoint Mrs. Miles. No one holds you accountable, and no one holds the school board members accountable, either," Hampton said, adding, "This is why we need an elected school board."
Wilson, a former selection commission member, spoke again after Hampton finished, in favor of the current way of selecting school board members.
"The selection commission along with the school board is, in my opinion, one of the finest examples of how smaller, rural communities operate better than our urban counterparts," he said.
"It's a very good school board," he said.
"I'm just leery to see who would actually come and run for office," Wilson said, adding, "I'm very, very much in favor of the school board selection committee, unlike the last speaker. I wish our Board of Supervisors were selected the same way."
"I applaud what you all do and I applaud Mrs. Miles," he said.
Thornton said Miles "did well" as school board chairwoman despite the illness and death of her husband during that period.
"She did a good job," he said.
He said school board members by law can not discuss in public certain things, including disciplinary and personnel issues.
"We get quite a few folks who come to the meetings and constantly put us down all the time" related to personnel matters, Thornton said, adding, "...There's always two sides to every story — you never get to hear ours, and you never will."
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