CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The election for two seats on the Kanawha County school board is less than one month away, and a handful of candidates reiterated Wednesday that they had divergent views for the future of education in the county.
In a conversation with Gazette editors on Wednesday, three candidates running for the seats stressed the need for community involvement in education issues and discussed major hurdles like school maintenance and low-test scores still facing Kanawha County schools.
"Being on the school board is like being in a rock garden," said Jim Crawford, who has been on the board since 2000. "Every time you turn around a rock, something else jumps out at you."
Crawford and Robin Rector, who is running for her second term after being elected in 2008, are both up for reelection in May and will face several challengers who say the current school board bungled community relations and is out of touch with the needs of students and community members.
Curtis Robinson Jr. of Charleston has filed to run for Crawford's seat, while Rector, Linda Moon Ealy, Ronald Walls Jr. and Adam Henry Knauff are competing for the seat Rector holds in the May 8 election.
Ealy, the wife of Rev. James D. Ealy, is a first-time school board candidate who said increasing communication with the community is the cornerstone of her campaign.
She threw her hat into the ring after being on the frontlines of an unsuccessful battle to rename West Side Elementary School after Mary C. Snow, the first black principal to serve in Kanawha County after integration.
"There is a big disconnect between this board and the constituents they serve," Ealy said. "The West Side renaming issue was just one instance in a larger problem of communication with the community. I want to be a bridge builder."
If elected, Ealy said she would solicit community support, aim to close the socio-economic achievement gap, and improve teacher morale.
Crawford said he sees his next term as an opportunity to complete the second new elementary school on Charleston's West Side, to improve math and reading scores countywide, and to repair the dilapidated heating and cooling systems in schools.
Rector said she has lobbied for bringing more technology in classrooms and will continue the push for increased education technologies if elected to a second term.
"I also brought an evidence-based approach to the board," said Rector. "I have a given need to research whatever our topics are, explore the benchmarks, and to look at that when it comes to decisions and will bring those pieces to this board."
The point of most contention between the three candidates on Wednesday was on the subject of whether the school board should continue to fund the Kanawha County Library.
In June, a Kanawha Chief Circuit judge voided a special act of the state Legislature that required the school board to provide about one third of the library's annual budget. The school board first sued over the issue in 2003, arguing that the state mandate to fund the library was unfair because the state counted money dedicated to the library as part of the county's funding share, qualifying Kanawha County for fewer dollars under the state school aid funding formula.
"I did not vote to go to the Supreme Court. I support the library," said Crawford.
But Rector said the funding dispute fundamentally broke down to an equality issue.
"I think it's clear that Kanawha County is being treated differently for how the library is funded and we're having to shoulder an unfair burden," said Rector. "If we're talking about equality for all students, by taking that library fee out of our dollars that are supposed to go equally to all of our students in the state, Kanawha County is at a different share and our students are getting less. That's not fair."
Ealy said if given the option, she would slash the funding the school system pays to the library by one third.
"I do want to support the library, but not at the expense of the students," said Ealy.
Increasing school funding was one area on which the candidates all agreed. Rector and Crawford said maintenance and repairs were top priorities for the board and said it was essential that Kanawha County voters pass a five-year extension of the $44 million-a-year excess levy on the May 2012 primary ballot.
The proposed excess levy -- a property tax to fund schools beyond the state's school-aid funding formula -- would run from 2014 to 2019 and pay for textbooks, school construction, HVAC maintenance and the salaries for custodians, counselors, and art teachers.
Kanawha County has grappled for months with how to fix schools with major heating, cooling, and maintenance problems caused by outdated ventilation units that were shoddily installed.
At a meeting in October, Terry Hollandsworth, maintenance director of Kanawha County schools, said tackling the heating and cooling problems throughout the school system would cost $4 million just to replace the old heating units and a million-dollar investment each year down the road for maintenance.
Knauff, Walls and Robinson did not attend Wednesday's candidate meeting.
Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.har...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.