Wake Ed

Mom who fought Wake County to protect son files for school board

Election boundaries for Wake County school board District 1 adopted by the General Assembly in 2013.
Election boundaries for Wake County school board District 1 adopted by the General Assembly in 2013. Wake County Public School System

A Wake County mother who challenged the school system over how it was treating her special-needs son filed Thursday to run for the school board.

Mary Beth Ainsworth, who lives in an unincorporated area near Knightdale, became the fifth candidate to seek the District 1 seat that stretches from northwest Raleigh to eastern Wake and into Garner. Ainsworth received local television media coverage this year when she appealed the school system’s decision not to provide a certified feeding therapist for her 3-year-old son, Gavin, who has Down syndrome.

Ainsworth said in an interview Thursday that her fight with Wake showed there’s a strong need to improve special-education services in the district.

“There’s a culture in the school district that’s not in place to support the children,” Ainsworth said. “After going through it, it’s what drove me to get involved and to be the change I want to see.”

ABC11 reported in April about how Gavin attends a special preschool program at Weatherstone Elementary School in Cary. Ainsworth wants the district to provide a certified feeding therapist because Gavin can't feed himself and has problems swallowing and chewing.

Ainsworth said she had offered to pay out of her own pocket so it wouldn’t cost taxpayers to have a private feeding therapist come to Weatherstone. But Wake school officials said it was unnecessary to provide feeding therapy.

Ainsworth went to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. ABC11 reported that it resulted in the state Department of Public Instruction sending a letter to the school district directing it to “develop an appropriate program for the student.”

Ainsworth said Thursday that she’s still trying to get Wake to carry out the federal directive. Ainsworth said she wants to make sure that Wake is in full compliance with federal regulations for serving special-needs children.

“I’ve had a lot of personal issues with (school board Chairman) Tom Benton and the school board with regard to special education in Wake County,” Ainsworth said. We found a lot of systemic issues.”

But Ainsworth, 32, a business development representative with a daughter about to enter kindergarten, said there are a number of other issues that need to be addressed. She charged that the school board has “lost the focus on what’s best for the kids” and has become too politically focused.

For instance, Ainsworth disagrees with the school board’s recent vote to do away with naming of high school valedictorians and salutatorians starting in 2019. While Wake will switch to using the Latin honors system, Ainsworth said eliminating the naming of valedictorians and salutatorians takes the focus off academic achievement.

Ainsworth also disagrees with the use of busing for diversity.

“We have to address education in our high-poverty areas head on,” Ainsworth said. “The school board tries to bus around it and is leaving kids behind in our high-poverty areas.”

Ainsworth also disputes how the Wake County school system has warned that it might have to make $15 million in budget cuts for the fiscal year starting July 1. Ainsworth said that if Wake wants to cut the school-to-prison pipeline then “there’s no common sense behind” threatening to charge students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.

“How are we going to charge kids to make up a budget deficit?” Ainsworth said. “There’s plenty of wasteful funding to address. We shouldn’t take it out on our children.”

Ainsworth will now run against retired Wake school facilities employee Donald Agee, Benton, former Wake teacher Sheila W. Ellis and school board Vice Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler.

Wake school board races are officially non-partisan. Ainsworth, Agee and Ellis are registered Republicans. Benton and Johnson-Hostler are registered Democrats.

Under the new election rules developed by the General Assembly, there’s no longer a runoff election for Wake school board if a candidate fails to win a majority of the vote. A candidate only needs a plurality to win the election.