Recap of GVACC forum: District 1 candidates

Published 9:00 am Saturday, March 2, 2024

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On March 5, voters in District 1 will have to choose whether they will be voting for Jeffery Finch or Frederick Newton on the democratic ballot. During Thursday night’s Greater Valley Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum at Valley City Hall, the candidates answered questions about safety, accountability and high school consolidation. 

Finch, who has served on the board for 18 years, is a longtime resident of Valley. He was elected president by the school board. He worked for over 40 years at Michelin Tire Company before retiring. 

Newton, also a Valley native, has worked in education for 22 years. He worked at Valley and Lanett High Schools before moving to Loachapoka High School. He now serves as the head football coach and athletic director there.

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The school system is currently facing discord between the Valley and LaFayette communities over the location of the new school. The first question the candidates were asked was how they would build trust and bring Valley and LaFayette together after the consolidation. 

“Everybody’s way of thinking is important. Everybody wants to be heard. So the main thing I think what we need to do is come in there and listen to everyone’s thoughts and move forward,” Newton said. “… When our kids cross that stage and graduate, we want to make sure those kids get the three E’s — enrolled, enlisted or employed.”

“First of all, bringing together the kids is very important — all kids of Chambers County. And it’s not a problem with kids. If we want to be clear about this, the problem is the parents,” Finch said. “… What I’m focused on is not getting the community together. The community is already together.”

Because the school board and superintendent positions are all elected, the board cannot hire or fire the superintendent. 

When asked how he would hold the superintendent accountable, Finch said, “The same way I’ve done for the last 18 years and three superintendents. I believe that that’s what I do every day.” 

Finch added, “I don’t get paid to run day-to-day operations. The money that I get is for holding [the superintendent, chief financial officer and board attorney] accountable for their actions and their management of the other staff.”

Newton’s response to the question was, “The first thing is I want you to hold me accountable … and in holding me accountable for that, I will hold the superintendent accountable. Because I will take those questions that you have or concerns that you have to the superintendent.”

The candidates were also asked what the biggest challenge the school district faces outside of the consolidation process. Newton touched on several topics, including graduation rates, ACT scores, college and career readiness and attendance. 

“That was one of the main things that hurt our report card. In our attendance policy, our main focus is accountability,” Newton said. “And this comes from students, teachers and parents working together to make sure that our students are in school. If they’re not in school, the learning process cannot be started.”

Finch said the school district has seen a lot of growth in recent years but with it comes growing pains. 

“There’s a lot of things that have went on the last three years,” Finch said. “We closed schools. We tried to make things safer in order to make things safer. We do have some issues, but we don’t have the issues that were in the past. We keep wanting to harp on the past when the vision is to look on the future.” 

The candidates were also asked about funding security and how the school district should balance safety with efficiency. 

Finch said safety is the number one priority.

“And when I say safety, we’re doing the things that we’re capable of doing today. And you’re exactly right but when it comes to efficiency we’re about 90% of efficiency. People don’t give us credit. And that’s the fault of negativity in Chambers County.”

Newton said in the Lee County School System, teachers have alert cards they carry around their necks to press a button in case of an emergency. 

“The first thing we need to do about safety is going to do a walk-through of all our schools to make sure they are safe,” Newton said. “And what you would do with is go through with police officers and other officers of the law to make sure that your school is well equipped to keep your kids safe.”

The candidates were also asked how they plan to address state test scores, which show five CCSD schools with a D-grade. 

“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘How can we educate kids if they’re not in the building?’” Newton asked in response. “First, we’ve got to get the kids in the building. Now, to get the kids in the building, we’ve got to make sure that we got a truancy officer who can go around and make sure that the kids are in the building.”

Finch said, “When you don’t report, it doesn’t get counted. You can’t go back and report it. Then, that’s an issue to take up with the state.” 

Finch was referring to whether scores were certified properly, a topic that has become a point of contention between superintendent candidates. 

VTN Publisher Daniel Evans, who served as moderator, said the unreported data in the certification process would’ve only increased the state scores from a D to a C. He asked if they would still believe the scores need to improve from there. 

Finch responded that, “I’m not going to get into particulars, because, again the board does not handle those particulars, and you asked the question, ‘What is it that I would do as a board member?’ We would still hold the superintendent and his staff to accountability, and that’s all a board member can do.”