Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton defended himself and the school district Thursday against opponents who are trying to unseat him by questioning how well children in eastern and northern Wake are being educated.
Benton’s three challengers for the District 1 seat raised concerns at a forum Thursday at Knightdale Town Hall on issues such as magnet schools, high-poverty schools, student discipline and services for special-education students.
The diverse district ranges from the high-poverty schools in Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon to more affluent schools in Wake Forest and Rolesville. The election is on Nov. 8.
“The status quo and what’s been done year after year has not gotten us any further and it’s time to find a new approach,” said Mary Beth Ainsworth, a District 1 candidate and business development representative. “It’s time to look at problems from a different perspective.”
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Benton, a former Wake teacher and principal who was elected to the school board in 2013, acknowledged that schools in District 1 face challenges. But he said things are improving, such as new programs starting in eastern Wake schools and a new high school opening in Wake Forest in 2017 that will teach students job skills.
“That’s why I’m on this Wake County Board of Education,” Benton said. “To make sure every single child – whether they live in eastern Wake, Wake Forest, Rolesville, Southeast Raleigh, Cary, wherever – has the opportunity to attend a school that will provide them a quality education.”
Eastern Wake has a handful of magnet schools with the majority in or near Southeast Raleigh to help fill and integrate those urban schools.
Benton called magnet schools a “vital part” of the school system but said they can have unintended consequences by siphoning off some of the best students from local schools.
Sheila Ellis, a District 1 candidate who is a former teacher, said she believes in magnet schools but feels more can be done to get students to attend the ones in eastern Wake.
Ainsworth and Donald Agee, a District 1 candidate who is a former Wake schools facility department employee, were more critical of magnet schools.
Ainsworth said the “unintended consequences” Benton cited are leaving behind the students in local schools who don’t have access to magnet offerings.
Agee faulted the magnet schools for not doing as well academically for the neighborhood children who attend them.
“You can’t have a magnet school program that some people enjoy very well while students within those schools are still falling behind,” Agee said.
Benton said the extremely high poverty rate in eastern Wake means the district has to get more resources to help children at earlier ages. Benton also said that having high-quality teachers in every classroom is a challenge considering the state provides the majority of the funding.
Ainsworth charges that Wake is so busy busing kids around the district for diversity that it’s not focusing on educating them in the classroom. She said there are many advanced techniques to turn schools around that aren’t being used by Wake.
Agee said busing students to promote income equality is missing the point that those students are not learning to read. He called the $3.1 million Wake spends on summer reading camps a demonstration of the district’s failure to help students to learn to read during the school year.
“It shouldn’t make a difference what school a child is at, they should be able to learn to read,” said Agee, who cited the low scores at eastern Wake schools.
Ellis said the problem is a lack of funding statewide for schools. She suggested changing schools that need help to charter schools.
Ellis charged that area superintendents are telling schools with high suspension numbers to not suspend students. She cited her time as a teacher in Wake and what she hears now from current teachers.
“They want a lower suspension rate at a school because they want people to come to a school,” Ellis said.
Benton countered that he’s never in 30 years in Wake heard of or seen a school board member or superintendent tell a school to not suspend students. But he said that schools with high suspension rates may get additional resources.
Agee said discipline issues can be traced to students not learning to read or acting out because they’ve been bused around and can’t be with their friends. He said there would be a great decline in discipline problems if more children were reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
Ainsworth said discipline measures need to be equal across the board. She also said discipline issues can be due to problems that occur outside schools so more people such as school counselors need to be hired.
Benton said it’s challenging providing special-education services since the state doesn’t provide enough funding. He said it’s hard finding special-education teachers, which can leave some students without a qualified educator for months at a time.
Benton added that Wake has been a leader in inclusion, in which special-education students are placed in classes with regular education students.
Ellis said Wake is making some strides in special education and should try to be as inclusive as possible.
Agee said special-education students are being hurt by not being in small enough classes. He said funding is the root problem and that Wake can redirect money from other parts of its budget to lower class sizes.
But Ainsworth said the problem is with the way Wake treats special-education services, which she contends discourages teachers from wanting to work in the district. Ainsworth said she was motivated to run because of the fight she’s had with Wake over special-education services for her son.
“It isn’t an issue about funding,” Ainsworth said. “It’s about the value of life, that our students with disabilities matter just as much as our students without disabilities.”
Candidate forums, such as the one sponsored by WakeUP Wake County, the League of Women Voters of Wake County and Delta Sigma Theta, are usually genteel affairs. But several times on Thursday the candidates directly interacted with each other.
When Ainsworth said that Wake had spent $1.3 million in legal fees, Benton said that was only the budgeted amount. Ainsworth replied back that it was money that was actually paid out.
After Benton cited the energy efficiency of Durant Road Middle School in North Raleigh, Agee called the design a miserable failure. Benton responded he never saw Agee during his 12 years as Durant’s principal.
Agee criticized Benton, who lives in Zebulon, for being principal of Durant Middle “while his hometown middle school was in great need.” Benton was principal of Zebulon Middle before moving to Durant.
Benton faulted Agee for his criticism of Wake’s state-mandated summer reading program.
“Cutting summer reading programs does not help poor kids learn to read,” Benton said.