Western Wake school board candidates advocated Thursday for more early childhood education programs, strengthening the magnet school program and improving how special-education students are transported to school.
Four of the five candidates running for the District 8 and District 9 seats on the Wake County school board attended a Thursday forum at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary. There was general agreement on issues with the differences mainly coming from how each candidate stressed their individual backgrounds to say why they should be elected on Nov. 8.
A repeated theme was the need to help children before they even enter the school system.
“The critical need is to focus on the early years in primary school,” said school board member Bill Fletcher, running for the District 9 seat that includes most of Cary. “People look at Cary and say it’s Lake Wobegon, everybody is above average.
“Uh, uh. We’ve got 30 percent of our third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level and that varies by school.”
Fletcher cited “scary” statistics, such as how children in low-income neighborhoods average owning one book for every 300 children. He also said children in low-income households on average hear 30 million fewer words by the time they turn 4 years old than children in more affluent households.
Mike Tanbusch, Fletcher’s opponent in District 9, suggested making better use of the Wake County Public Library System to get children reading.
Gary Lewis, a candidate running for the open District 8 seat that includes Apex, Holly Springs and part of Cary, said he’d like to have more pre-kindergarten seats to make sure students are prepared for success.
Lindsay Mahaffey, a candidate in District 8, said investing in pre-kindergarten will help close the achievement gaps between children who enter the school system.
Wake County’s magnet program also was brought up multiple times at the forum.
Since 1982, Wake has used the magnet program to diversify school enrollments, fill under-enrolled schools and provide additional educational opportunities. Magnet schools offer programs typically not found at non-magnet schools.
The majority of Wake’s magnet schools are in Raleigh with western Wake families applying to attend.
Mahaffey said part of the reason her family moved to Wake County was to try to get into a magnet school. She said Wake needs to grow the magnet program, a point echoed by Tanbusch, whose daughter attended a magnet school.
Lewis said he’s a fan of magnet schools. But he said there’s a concern that the magnet program has lost its focus in recent years.
Lewis said that Wake needs to refocus its commitment to the magnet program. If there’s an expansion, he said the schools need to be centrally dispersed to make them more accessible.
Magnet schools have been one part of Wake’s long-running efforts to keep schools socioeconomically diverse. Another part has been to assign students to schools to balance their enrollments.
Fletcher said it’s a challenge to continue the commitment to socioeconomic diversity when families can choose other educational options, such as charter schools, to leave the district’s schools.
Fletcher said Wake is now pursuing a “natural method of integration” through the purchase of sites such as the former Bobby Murray Chevrolet car dealership in Raleigh for use as a new high school. He said the site’s location on Capital Boulevard means it will be accessible to families from neighborhoods with different income levels.
Lewis said he’s proud of the school board’s efforts to deal with student assignment.
“We went through a time where we struggled with student assignment and parents were very upset and very vocal about what was going on in our county,” Lewis said. “I was proud that this current board has embraced that policy to try to look at changing the way that we assign our students, to try to bring more stability to our students and to try to answer an issue that was very vocal with our parents.”
Another issue that elicited concern from multiple candidates is the transportation service provided by private companies to special-education students.
Mahaffey cited problems, including how the company that transports her 4-year-old nephew isn’t putting children into car seats so they can squeeze more students into each vehicle. She said that the transportation companies need to be held more accountable.
“This is a 4-year-old child,” Mahaffey said. “We need to do better.”
Fletcher said the district will review the transportation contracts this fall. He cited issues such as the drivers not wearing uniforms or name tags and questions about whether preventive maintenance is being done on those vehicles.
“There are significant issues with our transportation of special-needs children, but the services (in school) to our special-needs children, I think by and large, are very well provided in the least-restrictive environment possible,” Fletcher said.
The difference between the candidates became more apparent during the closing remarks.
Lewis said the clear difference between himself, Mahaffey and Gil Pagan, who didn’t attend the forum, is his “experience that’s needed and experience that matters to our district.” In 27 years in Wake, Lewis said he’s been a parent of magnet and base students, worked at all levels of the PTA, met with state lawmakers and worked on the district’s strategic plan.
Mahaffey pointed to her history as a teacher and said she’s worked on policy issues. She said the fact that she’s worked outside Wake County can be an asset.
“I know I don’t have the years in Wake County as these gentlemen do, but I do have a healthy respect for the history of this county and for its school system,” Mahaffey said. “The schools are the reason we moved here.”
Fletcher pointed to his record of constituent service, saying he regularly meets with and corresponds with parents. He inflated a balloon that looks like a multicolored beach ball to symbolize how he’s able to work with people with different points of view.
Tanbusch said he thinks Fletcher is doing a “terrific job.” But Tanbusch said he believes his construction experience will be important as Wake continues to need to build more new schools.
“We are experiencing tremendous growth in Wake County,” Tanbusch said. “It’s not something that we can just duck our head in the sand and ignore. If we don’t get ahead of it, it’s going to kick our butt, so that’s primarily why I’m running.”
The forum was sponsored by WakeUP Wake County, the League of Women Voters of Wake County and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.