When Monika Johnson-Hostler came home from school as a child in Thomasville, her parents would ask how her day was and what she learned. But at her house, “fine” and “nothing” proved to be unacceptable answers, she said.
“It was our daily ritual, one that I’m doing with my daughter,” said Johnson-Hostler, a first-generation college graduate. “ ‘What did you learn? What does that mean?’ ”
“It doesn’t mean she always likes it.”
Johnson-Hostler, a Raleigh resident, has filed as a candidate for the Garner-centric District 2 of the Wake County School Board. She believes her skills as a career anti-sexual violence advocate and her vested interest in the public school system – a daughter in third grade, a husband teaching high school math – help make her a quality candidate to advocate for students.
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John Tedesco, a Republican from Garner, occupies the seat Democrat Johnson-Hostler seeks. He announced Wednesday that he will not run for re-election. No other candidates had filed as of press time for this edition.
Johnson-Hostler, 38, has spent a career advocating for victims of sexual violence. She’s the executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and has spoken to legislators on both the state and national level about issues related to the problem.
She said her work fosters abilities that would fit naturally on the school board, as she regularly listens to victims and professionals and relays their experiences to members of the General Assembly and Congress.
“That’s really why I felt like my skill set would be valuable. I know how to get people into a room, I know how to listen to what they are saying, and I know how to synthesize those thoughts and bring them back to the board,” said Johnson-Hostler, who a year ago finished a masters in public administration at North Carolina Central University.
Johnson-Hostler said she wants to do what she can to ensure that the county invests in schools, particularly teachers. She also said she thinks it is important that schools possess diversity in areas like socioeconomic status. But she said she comes into the race ready to listen to parents and school employees to figure out the most pressing needs in what has become a highly-charged political environment in recent years.
“I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I can bring one additional voice to the table,” she said. “I don’t think (members of the school board) have an easy task, and I don’t think that task is going to get easier.”
The man whose seat she hopes to take played a big role in a heavily-politicized fight over student assignment. Tedesco helped spearhead a Republican board majority that in 2010 did away with a goal that no school have more than 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
The anti-busing advocate said he wanted to put wasted transportation money into helping individual students and to give parents more choice. His opponents said high-poverty schools decimate student achievement. Voters turned to a Democratic majority in 2011 and some compromise in student assignment resulted. Tedesco ran unsuccessfully for state superintendant in 2012.
Johnson-Hostler acknowledged that there would be variations of viewpoints on the board, but didn’t get into many details of either past policy disputes or her plans. She emphasized listening to all sides and trying to understand the dynamics of the board. She said she didn’t necessarily like the direction the school board had moved in recent years.
“I just felt like I didn’t see that there was going to be the parents’ voice,” she said, noting her daughter would be in the schools for the next decade. “What we do today has an impact on those next 10 years.”
Among its 18 schools, District 2 encompasses all 10 of Garner’s schools, as well as Smith Elementary near Garner’s corporate limits. Other schools are located in Fuquay-Varina and Knightdale.
In her work as an advocate, Johnson-Hostler worked to promote state legislation to deal with various forms of sexual violence, both through criminal laws, and prevention and education programs. Stalking and fondling protections have been implemented, and the Healthy Youth Act of 2009 included sexual violence in its mandated sex education requirements.
She also worked for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act this year after it expired in 2011. House Republicans had attempted to lessen protections for illegal immigrants and same-sex couples
The psychology major from Fayetteville State University said initially she expected she’d largely be providing counseling to victims. She said she underestimated how pervasive the assaults could be.
“They need advocates in every aspect of their lives,” Johnson-Hostler said. “I’d be sitting at tables with directors of the department of social services, school principals, things I hadn’t known I needed to do.”
That, she said, prepared her for later work sitting down with state and federal lawmakers to discuss the issues. At times she walked away frustrated – “it takes more than one visit for people to fully understand” she said – but she learned to be persistent and patient in terms of working with legislators. She also acknowledged that legislators have busy schedules and face a wide range of issues.
“Everyone knows rape and sexual violence is a horrible thing. Not everyone considers how that will impact a child for the rest of their lives,” she said. “Nobody realizes that we have to figure out what trauma that child was exposed to.”