Interviews with Bedford County's newly elected school board members

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BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ7)-- The Bedford County School Board will look different come January. Voters made their voices heard this Election Day by unseating the current chair-person and voting in two former principals to the board.

Georgia Hairston (L) and Susan Mele (R) are both former principals from Bedford County Public Schools.

Georgia Hairston is the school board member-elect for the fifth district and Susan Mele will represent district one. The two newly elected board members say they will bring a valuable voice to the table: a teacher's voice.

"I am bringing a teacher's perspective, a teacher's understanding," said Hairston, who has not yet been retired from BCPS for two full years.

Hairston spent 12 years as a classroom teacher and 25 years as an administrator. She has worked in each of Bedford County's school zones.

"It is important and valuable that the teachers feel like they have a voice on the board," said Hairston.

Susan Mele is replacing Richard Downey on the school board. Downey announced that he would be retiring from the board at the end of 2019.

Mele retired from Bedford County Public Schools in March after working more than 40 years in education. Mele was the principal of Stewartsville Elementary School before spending two years working in Bedford County's central administration office.

"We know how the school division is run. We know how to educate children," said Mele of herself and Hairston. "I think we bring a lot to the table in terms of how to educate children in the best manner."

While Mele and Hairston are both retired from Bedford County Public Schools, they each said they have been keeping a finger on the pulse of the challenges facing the school division.

"We have a great community. We have great parents and kids. I think we really need to work on being responsive to what their concerns may be as they bring them forward," said Mele.

The Bedford County Education Association surveys teachers every year about their top concerns. According to the president of the BCEA, Crystal DeLong, one third of teachers responded to the survey. Of the people who responded, 53 percent said that employee morale was a top concern. DeLong said that many noted that they had a fear of speaking out or getting moved to another school/position.

"I want to change that. I think it is not a healthy environment right now when responses like that occur," said Mele.

"We cannot dismiss the BCEA teacher survey," added Hairston. "It is our duty and our obligation to certainly check in to those areas."

Along with having to help determine how to handle the county's aging buildings and consider possible consolidation or renovation of schools, the women will be joining the board during a time of public scrutiny.

The school board is currently battling a federal lawsuit alleging sex-based discrimination.

Bedford County Public Schools also just entered into an agreement with the Office for Civil Rights after an allegation of a racially hostile environment at Jefferson Forest High School.

"No one should feel or have a sense of fear or intimidation," said Hairston. "So that is something, as a school board, that we must take a look at."

As a part of the agreement with the OCR, Bedford County Public Schools has conduct “refresher training” for Jefferson Forest High School administrators on the issue of handling racial and national origin harassment complaints. Mele suggested that the training should be implemented division-wide instead of just at one school.

"None of these things are good for our division so we need to really look at and address them as we can," said Mele.

Mele said she is excited to focus on furthering student achievement during her time on the board.

"That is going to be one of my passions, to seek and to make sure that we are achieving at a level that is commensurate with their ability," said Mele.

Hairston said that she is passionate about maintaining small, personal, community based-schools. She said she strives to have a collaborative approach.

"To have collaboration means that everyone is going to come to the table with their opinions, their voice and it should count," said Hairston.