Story and photo by Stefanie Jackson – Audrey Furness is retiring after 36 years serving on the Accomack County School Board, and very little of that experience has been negative, she says.
“Our children, we have to do everything we can for them,” she said in an interview with the Eastern Shore Post June 25, and she has tried to do her best as a school board member.
Furness spoke not one ill word against any of the eight superintendents or the many principals and teachers she has worked with through the years. The few unpleasant experiences she had were due to difficult circumstances.
The most unpleasant task was expelling students. It was challenging to be “strict” and “stand firm” on school policy, especially when students broke the rules unintentionally, she said.
But in her opinion, a good program resulted from a bad situation – the Reconnect program that has operated out of two trailers at the former Accomac Primary School.
Reconnect allows students who have been kicked out of school to complete their coursework online, under adult supervision, so they don’t fail but advance to the next grade.
Another of Furness’ least favorite times was budget season because there’s “never enough money to go around” and the school board has to decide which items to fund on each principal’s “wish list,” as she calls it.
She remembered when she was president of the PTA at North Accomack Elementary School, now Kegotank Elementary School, and the organization had raised $3,000 or $4,000.
The principal wanted to spend the money on filing cabinets, and Furness was perplexed about how that purchase would benefit the children.
But when Furness became a school board member she finally understood the challenges principals face.
In 1983, she was sworn in by her father, J. Fulton Ayres, who was the Accomack clerk of circuit court. It was his last year in the position after serving three eight-year terms.
Furness saw many of Accomack’s public schools being built. She remembers visiting the construction site of Nandua High School in 1984 and being told by the crew to put on a hard hat.
In 1998, four new schools opened: Chincoteague, Accawmacke, and Metompkin elementary schools and Tangier Combined School.
In 2004, Arcadia and Nandua middle schools opened next to the high schools of the same names.
Those two schools replaced Parksley, Central, and Mary N. Smith middle schools. Parksley was the school Furness attended for grades 1 to 12, before it became a middle school. It was called Parksley High School when she graduated in 1967.
Parksley High School never had a gym when Furness was a student who enjoyed playing basketball. When it became Parksley Middle School, it still had no gym, and neither did Central Middle School, although Mary N. Smith did.
It was during her time on the PTA, when she was advocating for a gym at Parksley Middle School, that the principal suggested Furness join the Accomack school board because she could help the whole county, not just one school. The rest is history.
Furness will miss serving on the school board, but she had a few words of advice that are not very professional, in her opinion, but served her well: “I learned I had to stand on my two feet … and go with my gut.”