Free Press exclusive: an interview with Spotsylvania School Board Chair Lorita Daniels

by | Feb 20, 2024 | ALLFFP, Lead Story, Schools & Education, Spotsylvania, Uncategorized

Editor’s note: Fredericksburg Free Press reporter Taft Coghill Jr. sat down with Spotsylvania County School Board Chair Lorita Daniels for a wide-ranging discussion in which she detailed her vision for the board after two tumultuous years. 

Daniels, a professional lecturer at American University who is in her fifth year on the board, discussed her diverse background and how it prepared her to take the reins of an embattled decision-making body that is looking to recover from intense local, state and national scrutiny. The interview has only been edited lightly and for clarity. 

You’re in your fifth year as a member of the school board. A lot of people know you, but could you explain to us more about your background? 

Spotsylvania County School Board Chair Lorita Daniels

I grew up in the Atlanta area. My mom was a single mother. I have two sisters and a brother. I’m the oldest of the girls and the first one that finished college. My mother didn’t finish high school because she had to take care of her children. So, for me, to even finish school is something I strived to do because I saw how hard she worked to keep a roof over our heads. 

That is why I do what I need to do in the community because it is important to make sure the kids that are growing up in situations like I did have representation. 

My mother raised all four of us and she did that all on her own, so I am appreciative of that. 

How did you decide to get into public service? 

One of the things my mother instilled in me is, ‘If you work hard, you can make it.’ For her, making it meant we had food to eat and a roof over our heads. 

So, seeing that, I knew I had to go back to school and get a degree [in speech communication from Valdosta State University]. Once I got my high school diploma I went straight to college, took a year off and got my masters. In between all that, I got married. My husband and I ended up living in Japan.  

When I got my master’s in public administration from Valdosta State University, that launched me into a career of public service. I knew I wanted to help communities and help people.  I later earned my doctorate in public administration policy from Virginia Tech.

Tell us about your experience in Japan and elsewhere before you arrived in Spotsylvania County.  

In Japan, I worked in the Department of Defense for several years as a management analyst. During that time, I was trying to support my husband while he was in the military but also support myself by giving me something to do when I was overseas and didn’t know anybody. 

After that, we moved to Texas, where I was a stay-at-home mom. I did some substitute teaching because I wanted more. I saw the need for being an involved parent because when you have African American children and knowing how I grew up, I wanted to make sure they had access to the same educational opportunities that I did. 

I first got into politics back then. I was appointed by a city council member to sit on a committee. After that, we moved to Germany. 

[In Germany] I worked in education as a testing specialist and an academic advisor to the military community. I made sure people that wanted to become officers had a career and educational path to accomplish their goals. I was helping them become officers in the military. To me, that was very rewarding, because getting across that stage and getting commissioned to become officers was their life goal and I played a part in that. Some of them are lieutenant colonels now. 

After that, we came back to the States. I knew I wanted to stay in education because that is where I can make the most impact at the very basic levels with children and parents. 

How does the desire to assist families at those very basic levels shape your vision for the school board? 

I believe that if the foundation is not laid at the bottom level, you’ve already lost the students. 

One of the things my predecessor in the Salem District, Bill Blaine, always said is if you have not started reading to your child by the time they leave the hospital, it is already too late. I read to my son when he was in my belly and it’s true. If you don’t do that at the very beginning, you’re already a grade behind.  

My mom didn’t have time to do that. We always say the parents are responsible, but many don’t have the means to do that. More than 50% of our students live in poverty. If their parents are not able to attend their activities or provide transportation for them to get there, who else is going to speak for them? That is where my role as a school board member and chair comes in, to help develop a vision for those students and for all students.  

Can you detail your vision for the public?  

No. 1, we must be fiscally responsible. If we don’t think about funding the programs and the activities that our students need, how are we going to get them to want to do the work that will enable them to become productive citizens in society? They may continue to come to school but they will get bored, they may act out because they have other issues going on that we as a community do not know about. But until we delve into what we’re doing as a school district to help those children want to come to school, we will not see things change. We must advocate for programs and activities that will benefit the children. 

Secondly, I want to have conversations with our teachers, our children, our principals and have this collaborative environment where we understand that we’re all in it together. We’re like a village and we all bring resources to the table to help our children. When you see a child act out, you shouldn’t ask what’s wrong with the child. You should ask: ‘What happened to that child?’ Talk with them. 

No. 3, parents and children should feel welcomed when they walk into our buildings. Teachers should want them there. It shouldn’t be a burden for them to teach children or to be in a classroom. I want to see an environment where we’re all happy to be in this space, not that it’s just another job. It only becomes burdensome when there’s chaos. 

You mentioned ‘chaos’ and we all know that has been the image of the school division the past couple of years locally, statewide and even nationally. How do you plan to help repair the image of Spotsylvania County Public Schools? 

This is my fifth year on the board. The first two years, the chaos was contained. Let’s just be clear about that. It was still there, but it was contained. The next two years, the top came off the jar. Everything just blew up. It overflowed. That’s what it felt like. 

I think the image needs to change because we have good people in our school division that are doing the job that needs to be done. But across the country, people watched and said, ‘What the heck is going on in Spotsylvania County?’ 

We need to change our image because Spotsylvania is really a great community. We are still in the building stage, but one thing we’ve done is we hired a communications director last week. We’re hoping she comes in and makes some changes and gives us some positive news because we do good things that were overshadowed by chaos and confusion. 

The election last November uprooted the conservative school board majority. How do you allow the remaining conservative members to feel included and that their thoughts and representation are still important? 

You must reach across the aisle and ask them for their input. There were a couple of times [Berkeley District representative] April Gillespie walked out, and I turned around and said ‘Mrs. Gillespie, why are you leaving? We need you here. Your voice is important.’ I think things like that will help them realize, ‘Wait a minute. My voice is important.’ Not everybody agrees with that. Let’s just be clear about that. But we live in America and if we’re at each other’s throats every single day, it’s not going to be America. I don’t know what it’s going to turn into. 

My philosophy is that compromising doesn’t mean I’m going to give up what I want so you can do your thing or vice versa. A compromise is when we each have our own ideas, we mesh those together and come up with something new. It’s like a beautiful flower. 

How does the board regain the trust of the teachers and staff who felt the instability of the last couple of years? 

It will be about building relationships from top to bottom. If you don’t have the relationships, it will lead to more chaos. But they must believe in what you’re doing, and they must believe you have integrity. That’s how you build relationships with people. When people see you’re really working earnestly to be good, to be better and to benefit the community, I think that’s where it starts. 

Much of the discussion about the proposed fiscal year 2025 budget is about special education and children with disabilities. How do you continue to meet those challenges as a board when you may not receive the funding you requested? 

We must continue to move forward. It is challenging when you don’t have all of the resources to meet the needs of the children. But we still have to do what we do which may mean robbing Peter to pay Paul, whatever that looks like. 

Right now, we have a shortfall and we moved money from here to provide services there. We must meet the educational needs of our children, especially the special education students. The federal government did not give us what they promised when they implemented these laws. They had the intent, but they realized it costs a lot of money to educate the special education population and provide additional services. 

How do you ensure that the public knows how to properly advocate for more school funding?  

We must continue to educate the public so that they know how to advocate at all levels – local, state, and federal.  

One of the things I will talk about is that people come to our board meetings and that is only one part of the circle. They also need to go to the board of supervisors because that is where our funds come from. We cannot raise taxes and we cannot raise our own funding. So, to continue to come to us is productive, but also unproductive. 

A program I want to see is free lunch for all children, and there is a $138 million state bill in appropriations now for that. I would also like to see free admission to athletic events for our economically-disadvantaged children. But if we are only getting level funding every year from the board of supervisors, we cannot do anything new. We have to keep the status quo. 

When the previous board majority was in place, there was concern that an attack on public education was taking place. Do you feel like the vote in November was a statement in favor of public education and if so, how do you keep the momentum going and assure residents that Spotsylvania is a county that does support public education? 

The message was sent very clearly that people still support public education. I also believe that sometimes we may not see the whole picture. Some states may have private schools or vouchers for private schools, but when you send your child to a private school you may not get all the services you think you could get, including transportation and support for your child with special needs. Public education is a compulsory duty of the state and of the country. 

What prepared you to make the adjustment from a board member to the Chair?  

I have been in these roles, so I rely on my own skillset. I sat on the Virginia Commission for the Arts, appointed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. I sat on several boards, and I am very well-versed in Roberts Rules of Order as I am a member of the Virginia State Association of Parliamentarians. You cannot become a member of that association unless you studied, tested and passed the test.  

I am very capable of doing the job. But I also welcome the support from other members because it is not just me that runs the entire board. All the board members are there to help guide the superintendent’s vision. 

Is there anything else you would like to say to the public?  

I just want to remind the community to continue to reach out to your elected officials, voice your concerns and if there is anything that can be better, come with solutions, because that is what we are here for – to recognize problems and produce solutions. We cannot do it alone.  

Also, I think the community should give the current board some grace, and we will get through this together. There is no need to throw darts, especially in a community that is coming out of turmoil. Working together as a team is how Spotsylvania County can move forward. 

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