Calling for stronger community involvement in Lancaster County schools and a more open and active school board, veteran Irvington dentist and councilman Dr. Robert Westbrook will challenge incumbent Alex Fleet for the 5th district seat on the school board.
A University of Richmond graduate, Westbrook said he taught eighth grade science and earth science at Hopewell for one year before he was drafted into the United States Army, for whom he volunteered to fly helicopters in Vietnam.
Westbrook added that he graduated from dental school in 1977 and practiced dentistry in Petersburg and then Ashland before settling in Irvington in 1998.
“I work hard. I do my homework,” said Westbrook. “I try to form my opinion based on the truth and the facts. I’m not afraid to share that, and to make a decision based on that.”
Unlike his opponents, Fleet and fellow 5th district candidate Bill C. Smith, Westbrook said he has never been on the school board before.
“I have no alliances,” said Westbrook, adding that he will bring fresh ideas to the table.
“I’m not afraid to stand up and say what I think needs to happen,” he said. “I would rather do that than stay quiet in fear of hurting someone’s feelings.”
Westbrook said current school officials are not effectively looking out for either Lancaster County students or the community.
“The majority of the board has been pretty complacent in my opinion and doesn’t even answer when [other school board] members bring something up, especially about the budget,” said Westbrook.
He also expressed concern over the school board not terminating the contract of Superintendent Dr. Daniel Lukich sooner due to alleged poor performance, as well as Lancaster County schools’ recent loss of full accreditation.
“The school board itself doesn’t do anything when the schools started to fail,” said Westbrook. “They didn’t even acknowledge [it] and they continue to tell the public that our schools are doing fine, [that they] have not lost accreditation when in fact they knew they had!”
Westbrook said Lancaster County had been ranked 18 out of 96 Virginia counties in cost per pupil, but claimed that Lancaster students’ performance remains low.
“There are two members of the present school board who have fought for responsible budgets and true accountability, but their efforts are consistently overruled by [the majority],” said Westbrook. “I will join with these two and we will make a new, and more responsible, majority.”
Westbrook did, however, credit Lukich and the school board for establishing what he hopes is a strong team of administrators this year.
“They’ve got a dean of students at the middle school who seems to be the real deal. The kids like him and they respect him,” said Westbrook, adding he became a candidate partly because of behavioral issues he said were in the schools last year.
“I’m hopeful that the disciplinarian problems are going to be much reduced and hopefully a thing of the past,” said Westbrook.
If elected to the school board, Westbrook aims to hold open meetings where the public can work with the school board to put in place a reasonable comprehensive plan as well as goals for the school board and superintendent.
Westbrook also wants to bring back the alternative school.
“We’re taking two hours out of a students’ school day transporting them to another county and bringing them back,” said Westbrook.
He also wants to see the school board play a more active role in the budget process.
“To me, if you’ve identified the class sizes that you need for different groups of kids, you know how many teachers you need to [instruct] those kids and you bring the alternative school back, which is expensive…that’s going to be more money than we’ve asked for in the last several years,” said Westbrook.
He said he believed county supervisors have complained about school moneys over the last two years because the school budget hadn’t been reasonable or thoughtful.
“But if we can stand up and say this is money well-spent…I don’t think you’re going to get much opposition to that, even if it’s more money,” said Westbrook.
In addition, Westbrook said he would work to establish an advisory committee of teachers to directly inform the school board of school happenings.
Moreover, Westbrook wants to promote meetings between the public and the school board, particularly on whether or not the county should build new schools or refurbish current structures.
“Let the public decide,” said Westbrook. “The board of supervisors isn’t going to tax the population to build new schools unless the public says…these are good ideas.”
Westbrook also wants to develop a program through which schools can call on mentors to assist or tutor students who want additional help.
“There’s a big group of people in this community who would be willing to help any way they can,” said Westbrook. “It’s a little complicated, you have to have parental permission and there’s security issues, but it can be done and I bet it’s already being done. Why would we not let everybody come in and help as best we can?”
Westbrook wants to start an early search for a new superintendent. Once the school board narrows it down to four candidates, they should invite the community to ask questions of each of the four candidates in a public meeting and play a role in the selection process.
Westbrook said he hopes there will be a public forum in Lancaster County to which the three candidates would be invited to speak and answer questions from the public.
Westbrook invites the public to email all questions and comments to Elect.Dr.Bob@gmail.com. Elections will take place Tuesday, Nov. 5.