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School Board – The Land Down Under on the Ballot

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By Leslee Kulba- School boards can give the impression that their members sit, smiling, at the dais, rubber-stamping budgets, and talking about good news. As it turns out, Chapter 115, Section 47 of the North Carolina General Statutes lists about 60 functions of the school board. These include traditional basics like setting the school calendar, controlling class size, regulating extracurricular activities, providing teacher training, arranging for food service, and availing special needs programs. Roles added to the ever-growing list by special legislation include oversight of recycling programs; and protection of students from pesticides, mercury, and diesel fumes. Article (51) obligates the board to require schools to provide students with information on cervical disease and treatment; (52) does the same for lawfully abandoning a newborn baby. Article (63) says the board “shall establish single-sex, multiple-occupancy bathroom and changing facilities as provided …”

School board candidates’ names are listed at the bottom of the ballot, and they don’t get much news coverage. Suffice it to say, all candidates want more money for students in the classroom, and all have an interest in recruiting and retaining quality teachers. Ann Franklin is running unopposed in the North Buncombe District.

Peggy Buchanan is one of three contenders for the Owen District seat. She said she’s not running “to change a lot of things.” Instead, her goal would be “to meet with all principals in all districts to find out what is important to them, so I will be more ready to support their priorities and make those changes when possible.” This is the first time Buchanan has run for public office. “I’m not going in with an agenda,” she said. She wants to support teachers and administrators, “but needs to learn the lay of the land.” Mark Siler withdrew from the race too late to have his name removed from the ballot, and he has thrown his support behind Buchanan.

By way of contrast, Bob Chilmonik has a substantial resume of service on boards and commissions with special emphasis on schools. In addition to over twenty years in corporate management, he taught eight years and, as a two-term school board member in Florida, oversaw a $1.4 billion district. “My first priority,” he says, “is to ensure that tax dollars are directed to the classroom and not to unnecessary operating and administrative costs. Second, teachers are the county’s most important asset; they require a competitive compensation package that rewards performance with bonuses based on student achievement, school grades, educational experience, and school leadership. I believe that every citizen has a right to cost-effective public schools, open public records that are easily accessible, and highly ethical behavior by public officials.”

Mark Crawford’s experience includes substituting in all grades and all but three schools in Buncombe’s system. He also served as a legislator in the North Carolina General Assembly. But, perhaps most importantly, as an instructor at Western Carolina University, he finds the number of students going to college without even ninth-grade reading or writing proficiencies unacceptable. Crawford said when he first ran for school board, he combed through the budget and presented then county chair Nathan Ramsey with $1 million in waste. He said he has already met with several principles and doesn’t expect to hear any “bombshell requests,” but he wants “to listen to staff, teachers, parents, and students” and have an open-door policy.

Amy Churchill is the incumbent from the Roberson District. She also serves on the state School Board Association. Churchill says, “I consider myself not only an advocate for our schools but also an agent for change, working to improve the learning environment for our children, and to secure the resources our students and staff need to ultimately graduate young people who are well-prepared for career, college, and life.” She says in another term, she would, among other things, work toward, “securing fair pay and sufficient resources for our teachers” and “collaborating with local business, industry, and higher education to expand and enhance opportunities for our students.”

She is challenged by Laura Bowen, who self-describes as conservative and volunteered she is a fan of Lisa Baldwin’s articles in the Tribune. The grandmother of an autistic child, she says she would prefer to see schools program education to meet the abilities and interests of children individually. A substitute, she sees too much disruptive behavior discouraging children who are eager to learn. Commenting on the number of people waiting tables with master’s degrees downtown, she thinks schools should offer more in the way of career counseling and vocational training. STEM, she says, is a great program. But only 100 of 240 applicants made the cut. If there is that level of passion for the program, she says it should be offered at all schools. Bowen would also like to make the budget more transparent. As an example of how spending isn’t reaching students, she told of a teacher who had a closet full of gadgets she didn’t use because she didn’t know how.

Three candidates are running for the at-large position. Matt Kern feels a “tremendous need to serve the community.” He is running for school board after coming in second in a four-way race for the District 2 county commissioner seat in the March primary. He says his twenty years of management experience, community involvement, and knowledge of construction will help him with the job. If elected, his priorities would include increasing funding for mental health programs, expanding affordable housing for teachers, increasing local supplementary teacher pay, and building partnerships with the business community.

Donna Pate is a retired educator. Awards racked up include one Teacher of the Year and two Counselors of the Year. She is concerned about low graduation rates in the school system. One of her “greatest points of advocacy,” therefore, would be for more vocational training options. She would also “advocate for more student support services at all levels.” She is concerned about all the distractions in kids’ lives these days. “What I have always believed and told students is, ‘You may not be able to control things that happen to you outside this building, but once you walk through these doors, you can control what happens here.’” She adds, many students “thrive when they witness and experience firsthand the compassion and dedication our educators pour into these children on a regular basis.” Retirement, she says will allow her to visit all schools in the district as well as avail a listening ear to parents and teachers.

Last but not least, Amy Wamsley says she’s running at-large “because in order to be effective in a position of influence concerning the welfare of our children, one must possess a 360-degree view of the system and its impact. Acquiring that view requires years of observation, activism, commitment, and unselfishness.” She says she has gained that perspective through the various advocacy roles she has assumed on behalf of children in Buncombe County. If elected, her priorities, outside the two aforementioned, would be reviewing the efficacy of required testing and assessments, increasing global learning opportunities, and building business and community partnerships.

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