School Board Candidate Forum Highlights Areas of Consensus and Contrast

SCHOOL BOARD

By Heather Smith Craig

The six candidates for the upcoming board of education (BOE) election met in an online forum Sept. 28, 2021 to answer questions submitted by community members. The forum was hosted by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Council, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, League of Women Voters of Orange, Durham and Chatham Counties, El Centro Hispano NC and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators. Questions addressed issues such as staff shortages and teacher pay, the student opportunity gap and inclusion of the Hispanic community.

Forum moderator Aaron Keck began the event by thanking the organizers, participants and audience members. Candidates then each introduced themselves and stated their priorities if elected.

Meredith Pruitt is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at UNC Health. She
stated she has a skill set that will complement the current board and can speak and act for those who feel currently unrepresented. She said she would prioritize commonsense and transparency, full-time, in-person schooling, and using data-driven decision-making to address the opportunity gap, i.e., the difference between minority and non-minority students in academic performance.

Mike Sharp is a parent and veteran teacher in the district. His main priorities are using his experience to combat the opportunity gap and championing underrepresented groups such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and Exceptional Children (EC)  students.

Riza Jenkins, a parent of three in the district, has volunteered in the community over the past 11 years with the PTA, PTA Council, School Improvement Teams and district task forces. She would focus on advancing diversity and equity, ensuring transparency and accountability, and promoting fiscal responsibility for the funding the district receives.

George Griffin has lived in Chapel Hill for 40 years and has two adult children. He has experience as a teacher, principal, program director, NCCU faculty member and, more recently, has worked as a school system evaluator in five states. He would prioritize the basic learning systems for general education, address the opportunity gap and focus on unmet capital improvement needs.

Tim Sookram, a local attorney, stated that the school board needs to work with the Chapel Hill community, which has a large amount of expertise that has largely been untapped. He would prioritize transparency and communication, improving infrastructure to plan for climate change, and devising creative solutions to improve student achievement, such as later starts to the school day.

Ryan Jackson is a US Navy Vet who has taught online classes in many states. He has two children who have gone through the CHCCS system. He would like to focus on returning to a commonsense and foundational education — “math, reading, science and, of course, the arts.” He would also prioritize helping students catch up on the learning missed during the year of virtual instruction and would remind the board that they need to serve the community and “are not a political body to use the students as stepping stones for political agendas.”

Searching for solutions to the racial opportunity gap

In a forum that saw a great deal of consensus amongst the candidates regarding continuing in-school nutrition and finding ways to increase teacher salaries via bonuses, candidates distinguished themselves in areas such as combating the opportunity gap, curriculum, fiscal management and capital improvement, Critical Race Theory (CRT) and in-person learning.

Two of the evening’s questions addressed the topic of racial disparities and the large opportunity gap in our district. Candidates cited various methods that might prove effective in remedying this persistent problem, such as providing more preschool opportunities, identifying minority students for academic enrichment tracks, examining school discipline rates, and using ‘gifted’ teaching methods in all classrooms.

Mr. Sharp pointed out that racial equity training could help overcome unconscious biases in a district that identifies too few minority students as academically gifted. Mr. Griffin and Ms. Jenkins reminded the audience that many of these reparative steps have already been outlined in the 2015 report the Campaign for Racial Equity submitted to the district, while Ms. Pruitt and Mr. Jackson felt that returning to reading fundamentals would help close the gap. Ms. Pruitt said we need to cultivate the habit of parents and guardians reading afterschool with students 20 minutes a day as reading is one of the “keys to bridging and solving the opportunity gap.”

Ms. Jenkins and Mr. Sharp praised existing programs such as Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and the Blue Ribbon mentoring programs and Mr. Sookram advocated the expansion of assistance to adults with EC children. Ms. Pruitt reiterated her belief that reading early and often, in addition to increased accountability, would help alleviate the opportunity gap, while Mr. Jackson felt looking at high-achieving students of color and expanding what is working for them would be beneficial.

Ms. Jenkins and Mr. Griffin both prioritized fiscal responsibility and stated that a capital investment plan is imperative to school success. Mr. Sookram spoke of lead in the water pipes at Ephesus Road Elementary school. Mr. Griffin reminded the audience that the Orange County Commissioners cannot issue another bond until 2024 due to the debt limit. Mr. Jackson emphasized building safety for students and staff, including the need for medical staff on site. Many candidates highlighted the need for local, grassroots efforts to advocate for increased education funding from the N.C. legislature.

Disagreement over the Social Studies Curriculum

A question regarding how to teach about racism and social justice in social studies curriculum and the role educators play brought out the most difference of opinion among the candidates. Mr. Griffin acknowledged that the question was really asking about CRT’s role in classrooms. In his faculty role at NCCU, he examined white privilege and acknowledged that, “The reality is that our history has been taught from a white perspective, by and large, … we need to balance the playing field.” He would like our students to have “an understanding of history from a multicultural perspective to be prepared to … go out into the world.”

Ms. Jenkins supports teaching “truthful history that is well-rounded, balanced …[so] young minds can be critical thinkers.” She stated, “We should be ensuring that what we are teaching our kids is diverse, thoughtful, and inclusive of all aspects of our history … whether it makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable or not.”

Mr. Jackson felt differently; he said that CRT teaches victimhood and oppression, “telling one group of students that ‘You cannot succeed’ based on what another group of students is doing.” He continued, “We should be teaching students that … they are responsible for their own success.” He fully supports the recent state legislation, vetoed by the governor, stipulating that CRT not be taught in classrooms, while still acknowledging that racism exists in our country.

Mr. Sharp said the idea that teachers tell students what to think is outdated; instead, teachers present information and students make up their own minds. He went on to say, “We should help people work through their feelings of discomfort” but that we should not conflate discomfort with guilt.

Ms. Pruitt wanted to focus on the “fundamentals of reading, math and science” so students can think critically and stated that instructors “should teach students how to think, not what to think.”

In closing statements, Mr. Sookram suggested voting for Mr. Griffin, Mr. Sharp “and a wildcard,” and Mr. Sharp reminded the audience that focusing on data-driven approaches can place the blame on the student rather than the structure around them. Ms. Pruitt emphasized that she is running to represent 800+ people who felt unseen by the current school board and reiterated her commitment to advocating for in-person instruction (instruction has been in-person since the beginning of the school year in August).

Election Day is Nov. 2, and early voting begins Oct. 14.

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