Chapel Hill News

6 vying to make tough Orange County Schools decisions

The six candidates seeking four seats on the Orange County Board of Education see tough choices about budgets, teachers, classroom instruction and building needs in the next four years.

Teacher morale is down, students’ needs are up, and the school system faces millions of dollars in campus security and building needs. State and federal funding cuts and policy changes are making the job harder, they said.

The May 6 primary will decide the nonpartisan school board race. Two incumbents – board Chairwoman Donna Coffey and board member Brenda Stephens – are running alongside four challengers: Greg Andrews, Tom Carr, Michael Hood and Rosa Williams.

The candidates agree successful students are a top priority, but they differ about what to tackle first, from career and technical education to literacy and the minority achievement gap.

Teacher morale and related issues of pay and tenure are addiitonal priorities for most candidates.

“It bothers me that we continue to add things to these teachers’ plates, and we’re not adding to their checks at the end of the month,” Stephens said.

She and other candidates noted the Orange County Board of Commissioners has been a strong supporter of county schools, stepping in to pay for teacher’s assistants and other needs.

The county dedicates about 48 percent of its annual budget to the county’s two school systems. Commissioners are talking this year about how to increase that amount.

Successful students

All students deserve to meet their potential, whether that means a four-year college, a two-year technical program or a job, the candidates said.

Andrews, Coffey and Carr pointed to career and technical programs, such as welding, construction and plumbing. Some jobs pay very well, Carr said.

“The current administration has it in their minds that everyone needs and can go to college,” Carr said.

Students also would benefit from continued funding for extracurricular programs, including music, band and sports, he said. Staying busy can keep young people out of trouble and make it more likely they will graduate, he said.

Andrews, a building contractor, said he might hire someone on the spot who took teacher Mat Hamlett’s construction class at Orange High School.

Athletic funding should continue, too, because sports teach life lessons and values, Andrews said. It’s also an avenue for good players who lack other means to attend college, said the softball and baseball travel team founder and coach.

Hood said reading skills are paramount, but laptops, especially for young students, are a luxury, costly to maintain and replace, he said.

“We’re busy rolling out laptops to third-graders, but if you can’t read, it’s a little hard to use them,” he said.

Stephens, Williams and Coffey said closing the achievement gap between white and minority students is a top priority.

A 2013 district report noted a gap ranging from roughly 25 percent to 45 percent between black and white students in grade 3-8 reading, math and science testing scores. The gap between white and Hispanic students fell along roughly the same lines.

The board is considering ways to work directly with students most at risk of failing or falling behind, Stephens and Coffey said. More pre-K services and better communication with Spanish-speaking parents will help, Coffey said.

She also would like to make breakfast available to every child, Coffey said.

“A lot of the working poor may not meet the criteria (for federal food aid) and have had a hard time making ends meet,” she said.

Quality teachers

Students learn best from happy teachers, who are given a say in education decisions, Carr said. They shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, he said..

“I know teachers so unorthodox but so good that if they didn’t have tenure, principals would let them go because of personality and things like that,” he said.

Teachers face many challenges, Williams said.

“Either there’s not enough teachers or teachers are so disillusioned that it trickles down to the students. Good, quality teachers motivate or inspire students,” she said.

A teacher who isn’t doing a good job should be fired, but it’s not always the teacher’s fault, she said.

Andrews said more resources could help teachers, teaching assistants and other staff members. Board and schools officials will have to collaborate to find money in the budget, he said.

There might be less-expensive rewards, such as asking local services and businesses to provide teacher discounts, Stephens said. It could help them save a few dollars on dinner with the family, car repairs or even a deposit on an apartment, she said.

Dental and vision insurance or an additional planning period might be appreciated, Coffey said. State leaders have been critical of teachers, schools and students, but it says a lot that the state is 48th in teacher pay and student funding, she said.

School board members sent a resolution to Raleigh lawmakers recently to share their disappointment with recent decisions. The board has to follow state law, but they don’t necessarily support ending tenure, Coffey said.

“We think our number of teachers meeting (high performance qualifications) is way more than 25 percent of the total. We want to be able to reward all our teachers,” Coffey said.

Growing expenses

Money – or the lack of it – is central to district decisions. The current operating budget is roughly $25 million, and future budgets will have to be crafted very carefully, Coffey said.

One hurdle is funding more than $100 million in school repair, renovation and building needs. Lottery proceeds for schools are “fizzling out,” because the state is siphoning money off the top, Coffey said.

Andrews, whose company has done a few smaller school projects, said deferred maintenance has created substandard facilities at Efland-Cheeks and Central Elementary schools. The system could save money by not including expensive architectural elements in new construction, he said.

The image of a panther in the new brick work at Orange High School is a good example, he said.

“I could not support wasteful spending on school architectural features when we’re not supportive of our schoolkids,” Andrews said.

Coffey said the needs are so vast, she thinks it will be hard to catch up and maintain the county’s existing buildings.

“Governments and schools have a very long history of building something new and walking away from maintenance for 20 years, primarily because the funds are limited,” she said.

Other concerns revolve around campus safety. County schools built 40 or more years ago are challenging because they have multiple buildings and outside doors.

“It was at the forefront of all our minds after Sandy Hook,” Stephens said. “Everybody started to take a look.”

Stephens said the board is working with county officials to improve school security. School resource officers should be in every school, she said. She declined to offer other details, citing the need to keep some plans out of the wrong hands.

“You can have the best computers, the best classes, but if you don’t feel safe, it’s hard to feel comfortable enough to learn,” she said.

Williams said bullying prevention should be among the security improvements.

“It’s important to correct security issues now and put procedures in place to prepare everyone before something happens,” Williams said.

Budget concerns

Hood said the budget is his top priority, especially whether programs are delivering the best results for the money. The board also should ensure the administration is seeking the best deals for the county, he said.

“Money is tight, and we’re going to have to evaluate everywhere we’re spending money,” Hood said.

Williams supports cutting programs that don’t affect students or the classroom. Programs that still have potential could be modified, she said.

“We need to look at programs first to see whether or not they are working and whether it’s the best program for the school,” she said.

Hood and Coffey advocated for a zero-based schools budget, which requires departments to justify every expenses every year.

“Clearly, in any budget, there are always opportunities for moving money from one place to another,” Coffey said.

Carr said there could be millions in savings by refusing to adopt every new program to come along.

“We’re not going to get much help from the state,” he said. “If we stick with one program, we could save a lot of money.”

There also might be cuts in the Central Office, or school administrators and board members could fill in as substitute teachers once a month to save thousands, he said. It would give them a new perspective about what’s happening in the schools, he said.

There is little left to cut in the Central Office because of previous cuts and job freezes, Coffey said. While roughly 85 percent of the budget pays for personnel, about 95 percent of those are teachers, she said.

The school board needs to separate its wants from its needs, she said.

Some programs might need more funding, the candidates said. Carr, who wasn’t sure more budget cuts are possible, said he would be willing to put more money toward teacher’s assistants, basic equipment and school safety.

Williams and Coffey said they might advocate for more literacy funding so all students can reach the same achievement levels.

“I don’t see how we can call ourselves a successful school system if some students are at 70 percent and others are at 30 percent,” she said. “Every child should be given the opportunity to excel. Not necessarily being excellent, but give the opportunity to be the best they can be.”