ABINGDON, Va. — Three open seats are up for election this year on the Washington County Board of Supervisors and on the School Board.
On Oct. 19, candidates for both races attended a forum sponsored by the Washington County Education Association [WCEA], hosted at the Washington County Career and Technical Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia — where the county’s budget was the most frequently discussed topic.
“I feel like you can find waste anywhere if you look hard enough, but what it comes down to is based on opinion,” said Dwayne Ball, a Board of Supervisors candidate. “The people in this county and in the county offices are pretty frugal people — I don’t think we have any waste.”
Johnny Blevins, former WCEA president, moderated the forum. He first asked questions to the School Board candidates, followed by the Board of Supervisors candidates.
“You may sense some frustration in the questions — they are tough, but they are fair,” Blevins said to the candidates.
Board of Supervisors
Three political newcomers have entered the race, Joel Harte for the Jefferson District, Mike Rush for the Taylor District and Dwayne Ball for the Wilson District.
Harte, who is running against incumbent Randy Pennington, decided to run because there was only one candidate.
“I didn’t see any value in not having a second candidate in the running,” he said.
Harte said that he has some ideas about education and economic development for the county.
“In the last three years, the education budget has been cut, and I don’t see the advantage,” he said.
Harte comes from an educational background, holding a master’s in education from Long Island University. He attended the University of Rochester for his undergrad years, earned a history degree and taught for five years.
He moved to Abingdon, Virginia, in 1981. He has been married to his wife Nancy for 37 years. They have three children.
The couple are both small business owners; Harte has owned the Harte Cabinet Shop on Rich Valley Road for over 40 years, and his wife owns Shady Business, which sells one-of-a-kind lamps and more on Main Street in Abingdon.
At the open forum, candidates were asked how they would allocate the budget fairly, dividing funds between the county and the school system.
Harte said that the idea is for the county to earn more money.
“To earn more money, you have to develop the economy, and sometimes developing the county takes money,” Harte said. “When people look at this county, they see everything in it, and that’s how they respond.”
Harte’s opponent, Randy Pennington, said that every person who comes before the board concerning the budget is passionate about why they need the financial assistance.
“I don’t want to cut anyone’s budget,” he said. “It’s not easy, [and] that’s not why I’m there.”
Pennington was first appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 2011 to fill a vacant seat. He ran in 2012 and was elected. He served as vice chairman for two years and as chairman for the past two years.
As chairman, Pennington strives to develop a better relationship with the business industry — including increasing jobs for the county — keeping the budget balanced and taxes low, and helping fire and rescue teams get better at serving the communities.
“I’ve always supported agriculture and farming in our community and land use,” he said.
Pennington was born and raised in Washington County. He coached football and baseball at Patrick Henry High School in Glade Spring for 20 years. He is the co-owner of Building Accents — a construction company that offers a wide variety of products, including doors, molding, windows and stair parts — located in Bristol, Virginia.
He has been married to his wife Susan for 46 years, and they have four children.
Pennington attended both Virginia Highlands Community College and Emory & Henry.
He is running again because he is committed “to see through” issues on the board that have come up since his election.
“One of the things I’ve kept is that I have no special agendas, nor am I working on behalf of any special interest group. I’ve always kept that promise to voters,” he said.
In the Taylor District, James Baker is looking to be re-elected and hold his seat from Mike Rush.
Baker was first elected in 2013.
“I got tired of politicians acting like my money was theirs to do with as they pleased,” Baker said. “The more I thought about the impact that they can have on our lives — and that many of them seemed to completely lack any understanding of how tough it is out there just to survive — the more I was convinced that I needed to run.”
Baker is running for re-election for “very similar reasons.”
“I really do believe that I’m making a difference,” he said. “[Being a supervisor] is a tremendous responsibility and honor.”
Baker is passionate about fostering living wages and career jobs in the area. While Baker believes having good schools is important, he also sees a need to invest in the young adult population.
“One of my greatest heartbreaks is that so many of our young adults must leave here to find a job,” he said.
Baker has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Connie, for over 37 years. They have one child.
He attended King College, where he majored in physics, mathematics and chemistry. He re-ceived a master’s in computer science and a Ph.D. in computer science [artificial intelligence] with a minor in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University.
Baker serves on the Board of Supervisors, is an assistant professor at Virginia Highlands Community College, owns and operates the Millsap-Baker bed and breakfast in Damascus, runs miniature-GIANT.com and manages rental property.
Mike Rush decided to run because he thinks “there is a better way to represent the constituency in the Taylor District.”
“People should vote for me because I have a special interest in the farmers who provide the majority of [the] economic base in Washington County and influence the quality of life for those who don’t farm,” he said.
He said that the schools and children matter to the county in part because of prospective employers.
At the forum, when the candidates were asked to define their vision for the future of Washington County, Rush put an emphasis on creating a plan but said that it can’t happen “without an element of cooperation” between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board.
He has been married to his wife Lisa for nine years. He has three children from his first marriage, which ended after his wife passed away from breast cancer. His wife Lisa has two children.
He received an undergraduate degree in biology from Emory & Henry College and holds graduate degrees from Virginia Tech and Appalachian University.
Rush is the former vice president of student development at Southwest Virginia Community College and director of housing at People Incorporated of Virginia. He currently serves as the executive director of Highlands Fellowship, a multicampus church.
During his life, Rush has served on the Washington County School Board and on the committee that helped establish the Virginia Creeper Trail in Damascus.
Dwayne Ball is running against incumbent Vernon Smith, who is campaigning for a second term.
“The main reason why I’m running is for the kids,” Ball said. “To make the county a better place for our children within the schools and [to bring in] better jobs.”
Ball said that he doesn’t want the school budget to be cut anymore, noting that it has been reduced for the last three years. Besides being a supporter for education, Ball said he supports local fire, EMS and police personnel.
Ball owns Boulder Look Stone Co., a natural stone and landscape supply business.
Ball wants to “give the local business an opportunity to increase their footprint in the county.”
Born in Abingdon, Virginia, and a graduate of John S. Battle High School, Ball went on to attend Virginia Tech, where he received a degree in forest products.
He has been married to his wife Whitney for 30 years, and they have three children. Ball and his wife coach the John S. Battle cross-country team.
For his campaign, it comes down to the children. Ball said that his tagline is: “I’m running for the kids.”
Vernon Smith is running for a second term after first being elected in the 2013 race.
As a supervisor, Smith continues to support local farmers and land use. Smith would like to continue to keep water rates down and provide more for county school teachers, including providing them with better medical insurance.
During his first term, Smith “never voted for any tax increase.”
“I take this job very seriously because we are tasked with a lot of money from the taxpayers,” he said. “I treat it like it’s my money.”
In 1969, Smith joined the U.S. Air Force, serving for 20 years, including in Vietnam and two tours in Korea. He retired from the military in 1989 as a senior non-commissioned officer with the rank of master sergeant. Smith is a lifetime member of VFW Post 1994 in Abingdon.
Smith has been married to his wife Doris for 37 years, and they have four children.
He holds a computer science degree from Virginia Highlands Community College and is a graduate of the Community College of the Air Force. After serving in the military, Smith worked for McClinton & Co. in Montgomery, Alabama.
Smith serves on several boards, including the board of directors of Veterans Memorial Park (as treasurer), the board of the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Development and more.
At the forum, the majority of the questions for the School Board candidates focused on the school’s budget.
All of the candidates agreed that they don’t want to ever make cuts to the budget, but if cuts are needed, those votes would be difficult. Additionally, all candidates agreed there is no waste in the schools’ budget spending.
Of the three School Board races, only one is opposed, in District B, the Jefferson District.
Sanders Henderson is looking to be voted back into his former seat from incumbent Daniel Ruble. In the 2013 election, Ruble beat Henderson, who was the incumbent, by three votes.
Henderson was an educator for 31 years, wearing many hats, including Chilhowie Elementary School principal, assistant principal at several schools, athletic director and physical education teacher for 16 years at both the secondary and intermediate school levels.
“I’m passionate about what I bring to the table,” he said. “I want to see Washington County thrive.”
Henderson said he’s in the race for the children and school employees.
“I feel like my slogan, ‘Working Together to Make Washington County Better,’ not only works with the School Board but all county offices, to make schools better,” Henderson said.
A Washington County native, Henderson has been married to his wife Jill for 13 years and has two children from a previous marriage.
Henderson attended Emory & Henry, receiving an undergraduate degree in education. He earned a master’s in educational leadership from Radford University.
Now retired, Henderson has been an assistant football coach at Emory & Henry for the past four years and has been officiating high school basketball for 35 years.
Daniel Ruble is running to hold his seat for a second term on the School Board.
“I have a business background, and so I bring that diversity of experience,” he said. Ruble has been a CPA for the last 14 years.
He is the current treasurer and former president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
Ruble has been married to his wife Erin for the last 17 years. They have two children.
He is a graduate of Emory & Henry, where he received a degree in management accounting.
“It’s been a privilege to serve [on the School Board], and it’s one I hope to continue,” Ruble said.
Thomas Musick is running for his fifth term for the Taylor District.
Musick first ran for the School Board because he had friends who were concerned, felt that a change needed to be made and approached him about running.
He wants to run because the more he serves, the more he learns and feels like he has something to contribute to the board still, he said.
Musick is a strong advocate for the vocational programs.
He attended Virginia Highlands Community College and received a machine tool operator certificate. Musick also received an associate’s degree in agriculture technology from Virginia Tech.
Musick has been married to his wife Donna for 27 years, and together they raise their two nieces.
He worked for Columbus McKinnon, a hoist manufacturing company, for 16 years and now is a full-time beef cattle farmer.
For his closing statement at the forum, Musick focused on the students.
“I’m going to fight tooth and nail to see that we provide a good public education to our students,” he said. “It’s the backbone of our economy.”
Terry Fleenor is running for his second term unopposed.
He was appointed to take the Wilson seat after the previous member passed away. Fleenor was officially elected for his first term with a special election. ‘Before retiring, Fleenor taught mathematics for 34 years at the high school and middle school levels in Washington County.
Being on the School Board for Fleenor means to serve and “to be a voice, to continue to strive to make our county school system the best … of the entire state of Virginia.”
Fleenor is a graduate of King University, where he earned a degree in mathematics and minored in secondary education and chemistry.
Fleenor will be married to his wife Suzi for 36 years in November. They have one child.
At the forum, Fleenor said that there is a need to constantly strive to improve.
“We are never going to be satisfied with maintaining of that level or be satisfied with the successes. … We are never going to be happy,” he said.
Election Day is Nov. 7. Polls will open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.