Johnson-Hostler: Better planning can improve Wake schools

School board member Christine Kushner, center, congratulates Monika Johnson-Hostler, left, on her successful bid for school board member following a Wake County school board work session in 2013
School board member Christine Kushner, center, congratulates Monika Johnson-Hostler, left, on her successful bid for school board member following a Wake County school board work session in 2013 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

When Monika Johnson-Hostler was elected to the Wake County school board in 2013, she didn’t put much thought into the structure of the policy-making body.

She had personal interests in running for a seat, with a teaching husband and daughter in the school district. She had concerns about student assignment, particularly the former choice plan that gave families a chance to request schools from a list of options.

“I’m still on for that same reason, which is because I was concerned about what, if anything, we were going to be doing about low-performing schools,” Johnson-Hostler said. “What I wanted to know was what were people going to do and how are we going to do it.”

Today, Johnson-Hostler needs only to look in the mirror for an official statement on Wake schools affairs.

After being re-elected in November, the 41-year-old was chosen by her colleagues Dec. 6 to serve a one-year term as chairwoman of the nine-member board – a promotion of sorts from her former role as the board’s vice chair.

She views the job as a “healthy challenge,” a chance to shepherd a board featuring four new members to decisions in the best interest of North Carolina’s largest school system, which has nearly 160,000 students.

While Roxie Cash brings past experience to the board, Johnson-Hostler plans to help board newcomers Donald Agee and Lindsay Mahaffey settle into their seats. The board will soon appoint a successor for Zora Felton, who died unexpectedly a week after being re-elected.

“We will miss having past principals on the board and Zora Felton, a past teacher,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Roxie is a former school board member and Bill Fletcher brings a lot of history.”

Johnson-Hostler believes the leadership skills she has formed over 15 years as executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault and work with civic organizations will prove beneficial in her new role.

She believes anyone who runs for a school board must genuinely care about the children, but also thinks it is reasonable to assume their differences could interfere with their ability to work together.

“We’re going to have to build relationships and cohesiveness,” she said. “I feel like I can work with anybody. I would not even say any two of us are philosophically the same, but I believe we are all there to make Wake County schools a better place for our children. This group will be productive for Wake County Public Schools.”

Improving assignment

Those who have been around Johnson-Hostler long enough may have heard her go-to slogan – “I want a system where every child can learn and every teacher can teach.”

She said it sounds a little cheesy, but sticks to it because she says it best sums up her intentions on the school board.

“I have a lot of goals, but my one-year goal is I want to be able to walk away at the end of the year and say I absolutely know the school system has a plan in place for academic growth for all of our students,” she said. “We want them all to be proficient.”

Student assignment, she said, is one area that still needs work. She acknowledged it is impossible to please everyone.

“I personally still didn’t think we had a clear and concise way to address it, so that’s why I ran for re-election,” Johnson-Hostler said. “How do we ensure all our schools are high performing? For me, it’s about making the decisions that are going to be hard, but I am very honest with people that we have to be intentional about those decisions.

“Assignment is only one tool, not the only tool. We can use all the tools in the tool box, but I want a plan in place on how to use the tools, when to use the tools and when to use which tool.”

Challenges ahead

Johnson-Hostler doesn’t see the title of chairwoman leading to extra sway as she represents District 2, which includes Garner, Willow Spring and parts of Fuquay-Varina, Knightdale and Southeast Raleigh.

“It’s a one-vote, one-person board,” she said. “You don’t get two (votes) and you also don’t get more because of your leadership or relationships. I do feel like I will continue to represent my district well – ask questions of my district, take things to the table when people don’t agree. I will attempt to be extremely persuasive representing my district. But I’m a public servant, not a politician just yet.”

To little surprise, Johnson-Hostler expects budgetary matters to be the board’s greatest challenge during her term of leadership.

The school board makes annual funding requests to the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The school district has seen sharp increases in funding the past two years, but still not as much as requested.

Johnson-Hostler wants to see a more steady approach to all cases of funding for the school system, like the seven-year, $1.98 billion school construction plan both boards agreed to earlier this year.

“When you’re trying to explain to people why you need money, but it’s a lot of money, I ask people to put it in perspective to the numbers,” she said. “We need a strategic plan in place so there isn’t this begging and back and forth. There will still be back and forth, as with any funding plan, but it won’t be the same.”