Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member hopes to become next NC school superintendent

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education Chairman James Barrett
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education Chairman James Barrett Courtesy of James Barrett

A Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member who came under scrutiny last year after a controversial vote about a Mandarin magnet school says he will not run for re-election. Instead, James Barrett announced that he will run as a Democrat for state school superintendent in 2020.

“It is clear that we need better leadership in the state superintendent to benefit all students and teachers across the state,” Barrett said. He pointed to his management skills and willingness to advocate for public education as selling points for his campaign.

“The first thing we need to make sure we do is restore respect to our teachers,” Barrett said. He hopes to be able to provide teachers with the resources they need “and then get out of the way.”

Barrett said he thinks the current system of testing is overly burdensome, “stressing out everyone involved: students, administrators, and even the public.” Instead of shutting down schools for more than a week at a time for testing, Barrett advocates more regular check-ins throughout the year as a way to better understand the progress of students and teachers. He pointed to a plan originally proposed by A.L. “Buddy” Collins, former vice chairman of the State Board of Education, which would have ended end-of-year testing for several grades, as a starting point.

Schools are currently scored on academic performance and growth and given a grade of A through F. Barrett doesn’t believe that data tells us what we need to know.

“What we know from that data is that it’s measuring poverty levels, instead of the growth of every student and the amount of learning that’s being done,” Barrett said. He advocates a more individualized system of scoring, which would ensure that “we’re measuring the standards we want to achieve instead of just standardized testing.”

Barrett served on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board for eight years, including two years as chairman.

Barrett and another board member, Pat Heinrich, were accused last year of working too closely with parents who wanted Glenwood Elementary School, which already had a strong Mandarin dual-language program, to become a Mandarin magnet school. Barrett was cleared of a legal conflict of interest by the board’s legal counsel, and he told the N&O that he hadn’t crossed any lines. Administrators asked that implementation of the magnet program, which passed with a 4-3 vote, be delayed until the 2020-21 school year.

Republican Mark Johnson, the current state superintendent, has not declared his intentions for the 2020 race.

“Superintendent Johnson is focused on working with educators and lawmakers to continue positive transformations for our education system that strengthen all of North Carolina’s public schools. Students and educators are our top priority, not political campaigns,” said Graham Wilson, a spokesman for Johnson’s office.

Jen Mangrum, a professor of education at UNC-Greenboro, is exploring running for superintendent as a Democrat, but she has not definitively declared a campaign, according to the website Longleaf Politics.

Johnson was elected in 2016 at the age of 33, ousting long-term Democratic incumbent June Atkinson.

Of all his responsibilities as CHCCS school board member, Barrett said he will miss being with students on the stage at graduation the most.

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.