Wake County voters this fall are picking school board members who will make decisions such as where children go to school and how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars in one of the nation’s largest school systems.
All nine Wake school board seats are on the Nov. 6 ballot, but five incumbents are unopposed — including the late Kathy Hartenstine, who died after ballots were printed. Barring a victory by a write-in candidate, board members anticipate filling Hartenstine’s seat after the election.
In the four contested races, all nine active candidates say they have unique credentials that make them the best choice to be elected. But they all agree on some things, such as thinking the school system is good overall and not wanting to arm teachers with guns.
Unlike past elections, questions about student assignment and busing have taken more of a backseat this year as candidates discuss the need for things such as more mental health services and dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline.
Candidates are running for two-year terms. Voters can only cast ballots for their individual district, unlike Wake County commissioners who run countywide.
Don Mial, Heather Scott and Jim Thompson are running for the District 1 seat, which includes Wendell, Zebulon, Rolesville and parts of Knightdale and Wake Forest. There is no incumbent running because school board member Don Agee isn’t seeking re-election.
Mial says his top priority is increasing Wake’s pre-kindergarten program as a way of providing students with the foundation they need to get a good education. He’s also campaigning to keep more students in school by trying to reduce the disproportionately high school suspension rates for minority students and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Mial says he can best address the discipline issues because of his career in the state’s juvenile justice system, where he retired in 2015 as assistant facility director at C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center in Butner. He’s also a former Army officer and teacher.
Scott says she wants to build on the work now being done to promote racial and socioeconomic equity in schools, which is particularly an issue in eastern Wake where there are many high-poverty schools. She says Wake needs to improve training to reduce implicit bias among teachers and address how minority students are both disproportionately suspended and are under-represented in academically gifted programs.
Scott says she will bring to the job the needed perspective of being both a teacher and a parent. She was a music teacher and has two children now in the Wake school system, including one who has a 504 plan, which provides classroom accommodations to help students who have disabilities.
Thompson says Wake needs to improve on workforce development — providing students with the training and job skills needed to help the county’s economy grow. Thompson says he also wants to address how many parents in Wake Forest and the northeast part of the district feel like they are the overlooked “step child” of the school system.
Thompson said his experience as a former Wake Forest town commissioner and now executive director of the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents means he has ties with other elected officials, particularly state lawmakers, that can help Wake. He also says he has the passion to serve since he’s the parent of two Wake students and the husband of a Wake teacher.
Cash says her priorities are increasing community involvement, business partnerships and funding for public education as well as giving principals more flexibility to do their jobs. Cash says she will also continue to push for renovating older schools so that all students will have the kind of environment they should have.
Cash says that experience matters as she served on the school board from 1991 to 1999 and most recently since 2016. The pharmacist says she has a track record of listening to the concerns of her constituents.
Pollenz said his is main focus is eliminating the student achievement gap so he wants to restore K-8 summer intervention programs to help struggling students. As the son of a Wake teacher, Pollenz also says he will be an advocate for teachers to help them get the respect they deserve.
Pollenz says he would be the only attorney on the school board, which means he can help with legal issues such as reducing the number of student suspensions that triggered an ongoing federal civil rights investigation. Pollenz, a 2001 graduate of Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, also says that it’s time for his generation who attended Wake County schools to lead the district.
Jim Martin says his top priority is developing an adequate, sustainable and equitable funding structure for the school system. He also wants to provide education programming that develops creativity and critical thinking and eliminates the dependence on high-stakes standardized testing.
Jim Martin says being a school board member since 2011 and a chemistry professor at N.C. State means he brings both classroom experience and governing experience to the position. Martin says he wants to ensure every Wake student gets the same high-quality educational opportunities his two children received from the district.
Logan Martin says his top priority is improving mental health funding and services because he feels there’s a lack of focus in that area. He says his other priorities include providing budget accountability, improving school safety and giving teachers, parents and students more of a role in the decision-making process.
Logan Martin says he has the experience to help address the mental health issues because he’s an advocate for those in crisis and has seen firsthand the school system’s failures. He is a former policy adviser to state Rep. Nelson Dollar and is now legislative and policy coordinator for a nonprofit association of human service providers.
A third candidate, John Crowe, is on the ballot but filed paperwork suspending his campaign.
Mahaffey says she wants to focus on meeting the social and emotional learning needs of students and reducing student suspensions. She says more counselors and social workers are needed and also more training for teachers so they can ask students what’s wrong rather than having to discipline them.
Mahaffey, who was elected in 2016, says she brings a unique perspective as the only current K-12 educator on the board and the only parent of elementary school students. She says she sees what students are actually bringing home from school.
Melone says he wants to improve vocational and technical opportunities for secondary school students because of the lack of people entering skilled trades. He said his other top priority is improving the health and safety environment of schools, citing concerns raised by teachers in a state survey.
Melone is the only candidate who has not said he supports the $548 million school construction bond referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot. When asked, he declined to answer or said the bond is something voters will have to decide for themselves.
Melone says he’s the most qualified candidate in District 8 based on his 30 years of education experience, which include having been a teacher, counselor, school administrator and superintendent in New York.