Augusta County School Board has three candidates for the Grazing District seat
VERONA – In his 12 years as a member of the Augusta County School Board, Dr. John Ocheltree believes that one of the board’s greatest accomplishments has been a facility-centric one.
He was part of a council that closed elementary schools in Ladd, Beverley Manor and Verona, and replaced them with new buildings in Cassell and Riverheads. He believes these decisions, while not being favored by everyone, made sense and saved Augusta County money.
Now he’s on a council that oversees the construction of college wings in Buffalo Gap and Riverheads. The two high schools now share a middle school at Beverley Manor.
“I’m the type of person who if I start a job, I like to be the one who finishes it,” Ocheltree said. “And that’s probably a big reason I wanted to continue.”
Ocheltree is running for a new term as the pastures representative on the school board. He is currently in his 12th year as a board member, but is challenged this year by two opponents.
Nick Astarb and Timothy Simmons are both on the ballot in the Pasture District. Ocheltree and Astarb both sat down with The News Leader for in-person interviews. Simmons declined the offer to do the same.
Ocheltree is excited about the college’s new wings, which are part of a 10-year plan for the school district. Currently, students in Deerfield and Craigsville have more than 30 minutes of travel, not including bus stops, to Beverley Manor Middle School. This will be greatly reduced with a college wing at Buffalo Gap High School.
“They’re coming up to the city limits of Staunton,” Ocheltree said. “Away from Deerfield. Now they can go to college in Gap for three years. Their parents won’t have to drive to town for every little thing that happens… it’s a big step.”
Astarb isn’t convinced that college wings were the right way to go. While it’s too late to change that now, he believes that if he can sit on the school board, he could help influence important decisions like this in the future.
“I want to be the agent of change,” Astarb said. “I want to be the one to sit up there and look at this budget, and say, ‘No. No, no, no.’ And right now we’re talking about two new colleges, and I bet you there are a lot of parents there, because they are hard working people, I don’t even know we have two colleges planned or budgeted for. “
Astarb drives his son from Swoope to Beverley Manor Middle every day, so he understands what parents go through – one of the reasons he runs is to be the voice of parents.
“I want to be the person who says, ‘Why? Why are we doing this? What are our alternatives?’ Let’s bring in the parents, ”he said. “We have community meetings on everything else. Let’s bring in the parents and say, “What do you want? Not what Richmond wants, not what the school board suit and tie wants. What do you want for your children?
Ocheltree is a podiatrist with a practice based in Staunton. He said his grandmother suffered from medical problems with her feet. Looking back, he said she was most likely suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
“She was a great inspiration for me to want to become a podiatrist,” said Ocheltree. “When I discovered podiatry, I thought of my grandmother and one led the other.”
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He went to James Madison University for his undergraduate studies and then to the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine in Cleveland. He had the opportunity to work elsewhere, but said coming home to his family had made him back down. He has been practicing for 36 years.
Ocheltree had children graduating from Augusta County Public Schools and currently has grandchildren in the school system. His wife is a retired teacher.
“I just know a lot of teachers, I have a deep appreciation for teachers because I went through the public school system in Staunton,” Ocheltree said. “The teachers helped me through the process. They inspired me a lot. I do it for the kids. I love the kids. I love interacting with the kids, but I also do it for the teachers. “
Astarb grew up in Wheaton, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC When he was 19 he saw an ad for a firefighter in Rockingham County and decided he wanted to leave the big city and s ‘settle in the Shenandoah Valley. That was in 1979. He worked in the emergency services for 30 years, most notably as the Deputy Fire Chief in Augusta County.
“So I know the county, I know the people,” Astarb said. “I took care of the capital budgets, the personnel, all that.”
He was an amateur racer and now owns Augusta Motorsports which manufactures fire systems that are installed in race cars, combining two of his passions.
Astarb believes the school board did not listen enough to parents. One area where he has seen this is the district’s mandatory mask policy. Astarb said the parents he spoke to wanted an optional mask policy.
“I think so many things, whether it’s masks or other issues, are a parenting decision,” Astarb said. “Now my son, all summer – baseball, camping, fishing, sleepovers, barbecues – no masks, then on a magical date he had to wear a mask.”
It is important to mention that Astarb had COVID and said, for about three weeks, he was as sick as he ever was. In fact, he had to postpone the interview with The News Leader because he was too ill to attend.
Despite this, he’s still anti-mask, saying he respects those who want to wear them, but doesn’t think it should be mandatory for students or staff.
Ocheltree is still upholding the mitigation efforts, including a mask mandate, that the school board has put in place.
“There is a lot of controversy over how effective they are, what they are really doing to prevent COVID and back and forth,” he said. “I think it’s just another little thing we can do to keep COVID down.”
Astarb and Ocheltree participated in a candidate forum on October 18. The two discussed their take on critical race theory, the role parents should have in their children’s education, and policies to protect transgender students. You can read what they had to say on these topics here.
Keeping qualified teachers, or even just getting them in the first place, is an issue in Augusta County. The school division posted a Facebook post on Wednesday saying it is currently hiring for a variety of positions, including an elementary music teacher, high school math teachers, a Spanish teacher and substitute teachers.
Astarb said he used to see this when hiring firefighters. Some of those who left did so because of their salary, but others felt they were not getting the respect they deserved from those in charge.
“The teachers I’ve spoken to don’t feel like they have a voice,” Astarb said. “(If) elected, I want to go meet these teachers. I don’t want to meet the principals. I don’t want to meet the vice-principals. I don’t want to meet anyone other than the teachers. I want to go to the cafeteria and m sit down with the teachers without any supervisors, try to drink that nasty chocolate milk, and I want to hear from them. There is no one there. What would make you happy, productive, bring more change in? your pocket at the end of the day? “
Ocheltree said a competitive salary with surrounding school districts and good insurance are both key to keeping teachers.
“We have to monitor their morale at all times,” he said. “But I think that’s the best way to retain teachers, is to make them feel welcome and to make them feel well paid.”
Astarb presents himself as the person who can make changes to a board of directors whose members have been there for several terms.
“I’m just an ordinary guy,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing with advertising and billboards. I’m not the best speaker. I’m just going to tell you how I feel. If I don’t know, I don’t know, but I go find out. “
Ocheltree said his main motivation for running and continuing to get re-elected was community.
“I feel blessed in my life,” he said, “and I just wanted to pass that on and just be a part of the community and help the community.”
Election day is Tuesday, November 2. Voters in Augusta County can also vote in person at the Verona Governmental Center on Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 to 5 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
In addition to the Grazing District, the Augusta County School Board has open seats in the Middle River and Beverley Manor Districts.
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Patrick Hite is The News Leader education and sports reporter. Story ideas and advice are always welcome. Contact Patrick (he / his) at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Hite. Ssubscribe to newsleader.com.