Candidates for the 58th District delegate seat faced off Monday at East Rockingham High School in forum sponsored by the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association.
Students in the government classes crafted the questions for the candidates—incumbent Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, and democratic challenger Dr. Elizabeth Alcorn—ranging from rural broadband access to gun rights and from school funding to mental health care. Elkton Mayor Josh Gooden, an East Rockingham graduate, moderated the event.
“I am not a person of privilege. Like many of you, I worked hard. I went to public schools,” Alcorn said. “And when I got out of school and went to get a job, I was saddled with student loan debt. I had a hard time finding a job as a woman in a profession that was very dominated by men at that time. I’m running for this office because I’m tired of the needs of our district being ignored and our counties and towns burdened by unfunded mandates forced on us by Richmond.”
Bell has held the position as delegate of the 58th District for 18 years and nine of them have included portions of Rockingham County in addition to Fluvanna, Albemarle and Greene counties and the city of Charlottesville.
“Since last time I was here we had some bills that were passed … dealing with mental health,” Bell said. “The first was actually brought to me by some high school students at Albemarle, Western Albemarle and Monticello, which are three high schools in Albemarle County for more mental health curriculum in the health curriculum in high school. That is an example of a bill that no one down or Richmond had thought of. But you guys immediately saw the need and brought it to us.”
The lack of high-speed internet in rural areas was the first question brought by the students, asking how to bring it to Rockingham and Greene counties that border Shenandoah National Park who prohibits cell phone towers and other technology on park lands.
“What we’ve seen happen in other parts of the state, and actually other parts of our district, is electric cooperatives taking the lead on bringing in highspeed internet and placing fiber and also getting our existing utility companies to extend existing high-speed internet into their area,” Alcorn said. “The problem is money and profitability. And so, we need to work as hard as we can to bring state money and federal money into our areas to help assist with the public-private partnership to bring the internet into our existing utilities.”
Bell said a big issue is the “last-mile” costs, or laying the fiber to the homes, for private companies.
“Last year, we did pass a bill with Dominion and other companies for making the smart grid to encourage them as part of the smart grid … as they are laying fiber they can then double up and use that as a way to make high-speed internet available to the closest switching station,” Bell said. “Now, the last mile, there is no cost-effective way to get there. For that, we have to have some kind of support because it just doesn’t make money otherwise; we put $19 million into the budget. And it’s being used in matching grants for counties. I think those are ways we can actually create more high-speed internet.”
Students asked the candidates about the mental health of youths, as one in five young adults have mental health problems.
Bell addressed the question, mentioning that morning he was in Richmond with the Deeds Commission, which focuses on mental health issues.
“The topic today was the delivery of mental health services to minors, particularly to the schools. And there are a number of bottlenecks we see. The first one would be counselors and counseling time,” Bell said.
He noted that previously counselors were intended to help identify students in need and provide services, however they are now being asked to do other things.
“As they have been asked to do more and more their time to do that work has decreased. So, they have asked, and we agree, be to provide more mental health counselors in the schools. We provided a modest amount of money last year; we hope to add more this year,” he said.
He said utilizing private community resources could also help.
“The General Assembly passed the law requiring school systems to provide counselors. And that’s a great idea, but that was another unfunded mandate by the Richmond,” Alcorn said. “We cannot continue to force these things on to our local districts without the funding and the resources to make it happen. The schools are the best place to deliver (mental health services). If you can find space, we need to bring in private counselors we need to make space available for private counselors to do treatment on school grounds. We just expanded Medicaid so there’s going to be more coverage for students. If we can get space in our communities in our schools for some of these counselors to come in and practice would be one thing to help.”
Alcorn added that Dr. Andrea Whitmarsh, superintendent of Greene County Public Schools, told her recently that there are strict regulations from Richmond on what constitutes a “school counselor.”
“You have to be a licensed school counselor. We need to change those designations so that we can have licensed clinical social workers and other types of mental health counselors,” she said. “We can also provide studentloan assistance and tuition assistance to people who want to become counselors. Because right now we have a shortage of these mental health professionals in Virginia and looking at the demographics, it’s only going to be getting worse.”
The second amendment was a topic for the candidates, as well.
“I live in Greene County where hunting is a very popular sport; I totally support people owning firearms for both sporting, hunting and personal protection. With that said, I also don’t think people should have access to weapons of war, there’s no reason to own a bazooka, or an RPG or a high capacity magazine for personal protection or hunting,” she said. “I’m sorry, if you can’t hit your target in four to six bullets, that gun is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
She said all rights have responsibilities, acknowledging the second amendment allows for civilians to own guns. However, she said a discussion on gun safety—and whether some weapons or magazines need to be banned— should happen. She said she supports universal background checks.
“We need to have conversations and make decisions based on the interest of our communities. And that is not being done; we’re not given the right to even have this discussion and it’s way past due,” Alcorn said. “No child should be afraid to go to school; no child should be forced to do a lockdown drill. I think it’s really sad that our society it’s gotten to a point where someone’s perceived right to own a tool is more important than the lives of our children.”
Bell said he has a different approach to protecting people from gun violence.
“The first thing I think we should do is enforce existing laws,” he said.
He noted that in some cases of gun violence if a person had been punished when breaking a law previously, he or she would have been prohibited from owning a gun.
“The second thing is to hold the person who commits the crime accountable for what they do,” he said. “The third is the issue of mental health. So, we have a law in of Virginia, where if you find someone who is, because they’re mentally ill, a danger to themselves or someone else, you can go to the judge, you can actually go to the police and they will get that person picked up, they’ll be brought in for special magistrate for consideration before they get released. A special magistrate decides if they should be committed, which means, among other things, they cannot have firearms. I think that’s the right approach.”
The candidates were asked how funding could be found to increase teacher salaries and provide more to public education.
“Over the past 10 years, the state government has cut funding for public schools. In fact, right now in Rockingham County funding is still 13% lower than it was from the state in 2007,” Alcorn said. “So this is causing the big rise in property taxes. We need to find the funding for our local public schools and the state needs to pay its share.”
“How could this be done? One, we need to stop getting tax breaks to multinational corporations that are not helping local districts; we need someone who’s going to fight here for the district. We also need look at the look at creative ways of bringing in additional revenue,” Alcorn continued. “One thing that I think has to and needs to be considered is possibly decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana so that we quit wasting $65 million a year on prosecution and incarceration of people. And this is also a possibility of productive agricultural products, and bringing new businesses to Virginia and producing an excess of quality capital for the long term for Virginia.”
Alcorn said tax reform is also an option.
“This is a wonderful question because it begs the question, how do we pay for all this, and often it’s only I want this, I want that, I want this, I want that,” Bell said. “Now, government doesn’t make any money. We don’t produce money. The way the government gets the money is by taxing people. If you want to increase the amount of money available, we need a more prosperous and successful Virginia. The good news is Virginia now has now reattained the number one business rank in the country.”
“Why does that matter? The reason that matters is it brings businesses in and helps them grow and expand and as they expand the Virginia budget grows without increasing taxes on individual taxpayers,” Bell continued. “Now, the issue was raised about companies having to be recruited to come here. All of us wish that you could just say Virginia’s lovely, Rockingham is lovely we wish you would come. But with all the states now competing to try to bring in businesses, the model is the businesses go to the states and say, we are willing to come to a state that only we have road access tax breaks, things like that.”
Bell also noted that in his time in the General Assembly, the budget for Virginia has grown from $12.3 billion to $22.7 billion for fiscal year 2020.
“I’m happy we’re talking about where the money comes from not just how to spend it,” he said.
Additional topics included renewable energy, drug costs, student loan debt, climate change, smaller government, samesex marriage, homeschool student’s athletic participation at public schools, mapping districts and climate change.
Bell closed saying, “I’ve had the privilege to represent you. It would be a privilege to continue on in that role and I have some ideas about school safety, I’d like to continue. I like to think we’re doing some good work with mental health area.”
Alcorn closed saying she believes the state should pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and raise teacher salaries.
“As a working mom or working woman in the state of Virginia for the past 30 years, there are things that we need to do in Virginia that just aren’t getting done. To help our families, we can start by passing the ERA. Women who work deserve to be paid the same as men; its way past time that we take care of that,” she said. “We need to support our students more than with talk, but we need to walk the walk to find the funding and pay our teachers what they deserve. Right now teachers are paid $7,000 a year less than the national average in Virginia. We need to make the path and we need to make it a priority.”
At press time the next event both candidates have agreed to attend is a forum sponsored by the Fluvanna Chamber of Commerce from 6:30-9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 21 at the Fluvanna County School Board Office.