For the first time in a generation, the Wake County Board of Education will follow the lead of a chairperson who has an eastern Wake County address.
School board members, earlier this month, elevated Tom Benton from his role as vice chair to serve as the body’s chairman.
A career educator, Benton moved to eastern Wake County in 1986 when he assumed the principalship of Zebulon High School, which was a 6th-12th grade school at the time. During his stay, he worked to smooth the merger between Zebulon High School and East Wake High School. He became principal of the new Zebulon Middle School, where he served until 1994 when he became principal at Durant Road Middle School, which was a new school and among the first middle schools to open in Wake County under the multi-track year-round calendar.
Benton retired in 2005 and was elected to the Wake County Board of Education in 2013, after being appointed to fill the seat left vacant by Chris Malone who won election to the state legislature. Benton’s arrival coincided with a Democratic tidal wave that reclaimed a clear majority on the board of education, which had been beset by partisan politics for most of the previous four years. Benton was soon elected as the new board’s vice chair, a role that normally rolls into a stint as the board’s chairman.
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But Benton said Friday he first took the vice chairman’s role under the agreement that he would not serve as chairman down the road.
“I had too many outside obligations at the time to take that on,” Benton said. “But in August or September, my outside load had diminished somewhat, and I told some of the other board members that I would stand as chairman if they would have me.”
Formally sworn into the role earlier this month, Benton says Wake schools face a number of challenges, some of which stem from incessant growth, others which are foisted upon the school system by state policymakers and changes in the current education network across the nation.
Sitting in the high-ceilinged kitchen of his 105-year-old home along Zebulon’s main drag, Benton is intense and attentive. His background in education, he believes, informs a lot of his decisions. He points to a network of about 15 or 20 informal advisors including former superintendents, principals and even some friends outside the education fold, spanning his career in education whom he relies on for advice and feedback when he comes up with a new idea or when he faces a difficult decision.
“It’s nothing for me to send an email to that whole group of people and share an idea with them and ask them to shoot holes in it before I take it to the superintendent,” Benton said.
Like school board chairs before him, Benton will have to lead the board of education through the sensitive minefield of building new schools, renovating existing facilities and reassigning students to fill the new schools. Each time the county floats a bond issue, it sets out a program of work that will be covered under the bond. But those plans don’t always work out and voters sometimes feel jilted when a construction project in their area gets pushed back in favor of one that wasn’t on the original list.
Benton says school board members struggle when those topics surface. “We have real heartburn when our staff says we need to change something,” Benton said. But he notes a recent study identified $2.2 billion in facility needs in Wake County alone and funding all that work through a single bond simply isn’t practical. “What we do is include money in the bond to begin planning for the schools that will be at the front of the next bond issue.”
He also says testing continues to be a difficult proposition for Wake schools. “It’s not the testing so much as the way it’s used. It really stigmatizes a school when test scores are low and it is labeled as a failing school,” Benton said. He said schools with high rates of low-income students are much more likely to do poorly on standardized tests, while students at schools with low poverty rates fare much better.
“But if you’re just going to spread the low-income students out across the county, what are you really solving. You make the schools look better, but what are you doing for the students,” Benton asks.
He hopes to spend his time as Wake’s school board chairman working with state legislators to reexamine the state’s testing process, including possibly seeking new kinds of tests, which he says will more appropriately measure what students are learning, particularly at the high school level.
“I believe state legislators truly want what’s best for the students of North Carolina,” Benton said. “I feel like I can work with them to find a better way to help them accomplish that.”
Backing off the rhetoric
Working with legislators and with county commissioners will require a new kind of diplomacy for Benton, who has served as the school board’s unofficial bulldog over the past two years. He has roundly criticized state lawmakers and questioned county commissioners for their failure to adequately fund school system operations and raise teacher salaries. And he has been equally sharp with school system staff whose decisions he believed were improper.
In that sense, he was the antithesis of former school board chairwoman Christine Kushner, who he said was a perfect chair for the time she served. “She took on that role at a time when we really needed to reach out to people and mend some relationships and rebuild our working relationships with a lot of groups. That’s something Christine is really good at,” Benton said.
Benton has anticipated a need to change his tactics in his role as a school board chairman, but he says he’s not likely to stop speaking his mind. Benton said he conferred with school system attornies prior to assuming the chairmanship about what kinds of positions are proper for a chairman to take as opposed to the freedoms that other school board members have.
“But there may be times when you’ll see me relinquish the gavel to the vice chairman, so I can speak my mind as just a member of the school board,” Benton said.
Benton will be working with a superintendent in Dr. Jim Merrill, who once served as the school system’s finance officer during a time when Benton was working as a principal. “I had to go through him whenever I wanted money for something or new teaching positions,” Benton said with a smile. Now, Merrill has to go through Benton to get what he wants.
“Yeah, it’s a little weird,” Benton admits. “But I think we really have a close relationship because our careers have run in such parallel. I feel like I can take an idea to him and have a serious conversation with him about most anything. And I think he feels like he can do the same with me.”
Long time coming
The last Wake school board member to serve as that body’s chairperson was Linda Johnson, of Zebulon, who served in the role in the late 1980s. She was among those who endorsed Benton’s candidacy when he sought appointment to the school board seat to replace Malone after he was elected to the General Assembly in 2012. Benton says he’s honored to carry the eastern Wake flag on the school board, but he says his service as chairman won’t likely mean he will be bringing a lot of pork home to his district.
“I still represent this area on the school board and so I see it as my responsibility to make sure that the needs and issues of parents, teachers and schools in eastern Wake County are laid out on the table, but once that happens, this board has a real sense of taking ownership over the issue. It becomes everybody’s problem,” Benton said.
Still, he expects big changes to come to eastern Wake County schools in the next few years. The school system recently began implementing recommendations from the Knightdale Area Education Work Group, a panel of parents, business leaders and educators in the Knightdale area that studied the challenges facing Knightdale schools and developed ideas for addressing those issues.
A similar group recently completed a study of East Wake High School and its feeder schools. Those recommendations are expected to come before the school board this month or next.
Though Benton is the first local leader of the school system in a long time, he worries that the area could find it hard to win representation in the future.
“All nine of the current board members are up for election next year,” Benton noted. “The new districts created by the legislature have several of us double- and triple-bunked and the the district lines are just crazy.” Benton, for instance, is in a newly-drawn district that wraps around Raleigh from near Brier Creek in northwest Raleigh through Wake Forest and Rolesville, into eastern Wake County and down to Garner. Benton and fellow school board members Kevin Hill and Monika Johnson Hostler are now in the same district.
“The amount of institutional memory these new districts threaten to eliminate is just scary when you think about it,” Benton said.
Whatever happens in the future, though, for Benton, the future is now. He will serve as the elected leader of the largest school system in North Carolina. It’s a role he didn’t want early on, but he’s settled with the idea now and he’s ready to get on with business.