WJCC School Board candidates face off in Monday night debate

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Left to right: Dot Matthews and Lisa Ownby (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Left to right: Dot Matthews and Lisa Ownby (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

An excited crowd listened to two candidates for the Williamsburg-James City County School Board face off Monday night in the race to represent the Powhatan District of James City County.

The public forum, held at the Stryker Center and attended by roughly 50 guests, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Williamsburg area, the Williamsburg James City County Parent-Teacher Association, and the Citizens for Education Monday night.

Candidates Lisa Ownby and Dot Matthews are both vying for a seat vacated following the resignation of Powhatan district representative Joe Fuentes on Jan.15, 2016. The winning candidate will be selected in a special election on Nov. 8. 

Lisa Ownby (I) is the director of operations at Landtech Resources, Inc. She is a mother of four children, three of whom are currently students in the WJCC district. She has professional experience in advocacy, policy, disability, and project management, according to the Ownby for WJCC School Board Facebook page. The Ownby for James City County School Board campaign has raised $50 since Jan. 1, 2016, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Dot Matthews (I) is an attorney with professional experience as a utility and legal analyst, reviewing corporation’s’ finances, and providing advice on the health of the company, according to the Dot Matthews for WJCC School Board Facebook page. The Matthews for Williamsburg-James City County School Board campaign has not filed any financial reports for any dollar amount with the Commonwealth of Virginia as of Oct. 24, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. 

Throughout Monday’s debate, candidates were asked questions about the search for a superintendent, educating for the future, block-style scheduling, and the concept of creating inclusive classrooms for special needs students in schools.

When asked about the search for a superintendent for the Williamsburg-James City County School District, Matthews suggested that the district’s search committee would only bring qualified candidates before the School Board.

“All things being equal, and believe me I don’t want to prejudge anything,” she said. “I would not dismiss any candidate, if we got, you know, some rock star from Wyoming or something. I wouldn’t discount that, but I would like to see a person who I think is going to stay here and provide some continuity.”

Ownby appeared to agree with Matthews, but stressed the importance of having an ever-present superintendent.

“I would really like to see someone who is committed to serving in a full-time capacity in our community,” she said. “In the last five years we had a superintendent who did some wonderful things, but he also spent a lot of time on the road, and wrote his books, and promoted his own self-interest. I want a superintendent who’s going to work for us full-time.”

Candidates gave contrasting opinions about the future of educating youth.

“I define 21st century learning as being able to use all of the tools that are now available that weren’t available when I was in high school,” Matthews said. “We didn’t have computers in high school.”

“I think 21st century learning is about preparing our students for the workforce and work in jobs we can’t even envision today,” Ownby said, before adding “21st century learning is about identifying different pathways and different options.”

Block-style scheduling, high school class schedules that focus on lengthening class periods and reducing the frequency of classes, was a frequent subject of debate

“From what I hear of it,” Matthews said of block-style scheduling. “I’m not crazy about it, but I could be convinced by people who know more than I do. I think it limits the amount of time that the students are actually learning.”

“I think what we have at WJCC, we have the hybrid-block and as a parent having graduated a student and having a tenth-grader right now, I think that it works, because it allows you some flexibility,” Ownby said. “I think that going to a 100 percent block schedule might be detrimental to some students.”

Matthews rebutted, “I still think that block tends to shorten the time they’re actually learning, but I could be convinced.”

Candidates were also asked about inclusive classrooms in the school system.

“I think a inclusion classroom that’s following best practice should have a general educator and a special educator and should be collaborative,” Ownby said. “I think in the best world those teachers are working with all children. So the special educator isn’t just working with children with special needs likewise the general educator is not just working with the typically developing peers. It’s a partnership. But in order to make an inclusive classroom work we need to have the expertise and support in the process.”

Matthews shared an anecdote about how the district was fulfilling its legal requirements for special needs students, and then she added “things can always go better. We can always do more, but we are doing what we are supposed to do.”

WYDaily political reporter Steve Roberts, Jr. live-streamed the first 51 minutes of the forum, which can be viewed here.