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We need a School Board that will lead instead of follow

By Jan Nichols
Posted Friday, July 9, 2004

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What's at Stake on July 20?

At a June 29 forum for Chatham County Board of Education candidates held at Carolina Meadows, District 2 incumbent Ernest Dark inadvertently summed up the core problem facing Chatham County Schools - its lack of leadership. Dark made a statement that it is the Superintendent's job to be the public face of the school system and make the key decisions on issues facing the district. The School Board's job is to support the superintendent, Dark said.

In fact, the failure of the Chatham County School System to meet the needs of students, parents and teachers has discredited this passive approach favored by Dark and the majority of the current Board of Education.

The Board should actively push for what the community wants.

At the June 29 forum, District 1 candidate Norman Clark disputed Dark's proposition. Clark's eloquent arguments strike the perfect contrast between the leadership outage that currently afflicts the School Board and the new vigor and vision we need to shape the future of a school system at a crossroads. "I want to be the public face of the school system," said Clark, and he outlined a plan for community outreach by the Board to better understand the needs and concerns of our school's stakeholders. The Board should actively push for what the community wants, Clark insisted.

Also at that forum, Holly Duncan, running against Dark in District 2, pointed out another failure of the School Board's leadership when she discussed the Board's inaction in response to the Governor's Leadership Survey results. That 2000 survey of teacher working conditions across the state found Chatham County's teachers highly dissatisfied with the support they received from the school administration and principals. When asked at the forum about these results, Dark said that the Board reviewed them but that implementing changes in response was not a priority.

Duncan, a teacher who taught at Pittsboro Elementary before leaving because of the very problems cited in the survey, countered that there is no higher priority for the school system than retaining its teachers and cultivating their talents. The current Board's attitude, revealed in Dark's comments, may have a lot to do with the fact that Chatham's annual teacher turnover rate is 33% higher than the state average, with some individual schools experiencing greater than 50% turnover in recent years.

Right now, the Board of Education faces decisions that will shape Chatham's schools for decades to come. The School Board and school Administration's inaction and lack of vision over the last decade has compounded the magnitude of the problems our schools and students face. Clark and Duncan hold the promise of proactive planning and responsive leadership to ensure that our schools are equipped to prepare our children for the Twenty-first Century. Among the critical issues the next School Board will address:

1. New school construction. The long-awaited study from North Carolina State University finds that we need two new schools built now to handle our current student population, without even taking into account prospective future growth from mega-developments such as Briar Chapel, Buck Mountain and the Homestead. Parents with children attending classes in trailers at Siler City, North Chatham, Perry Harrison, and Silk Hope Elementary Schools didn't need the study to know that we are woefully behind in providing adequate school facilities. At the June 29 forum, Clark maintained that when a school hits 80 to 85 percent of its capacity, the school system needs to start planning construction of a new school. In contrast, Dark indicated that once a school is at 85 percent, we should start reviewing whether we need a new school-indicating the mentality that has allowed us to get so far behind in our construction needs in the first place.

Dark claims to be an advocate of smaller community schools, but in his 16 years on the Board there has been no follow through on this idea. Given the additional construction and operational costs of having more, smaller schools, planning for such an initiative needs even more attention, and given their track record, the current Board and school Administration are not equipped to provide that vision.

2. Maintenance of existing schools. From the day they were built, the roofs at North Chatham and Perry Harrison Elementary Schools have leaked. And for almost that long, some students at both schools have had to attend classes in trailers. Northwood High School's list of maintenance needs has gone unaddressed for decades. Any bond for construction of new schools will have to include funds for finally repairing these past failures of the current Administration.

3. New superintendent and principals. After over ten years as superintendent of Chatham County Schools, Dr. Larry Mabe is finally retiring, and the next School Board will choose his successor. Duncan and Clark advocate for a national search to find a replacement, and have a clear picture in mind of the qualities that the right candidate will have. He or she must provide leadership that empowers and inspires staff, involves the entire school community, and eliminates the inequities, fear, and censorship that many experience now in our schools. In addition to educational credentials, the next superintendent must have proven skills in managing large budgets effectively, says Duncan. She and Clark agree that the superintendent should welcome and encourage active participation of parents in the schools, invite volunteers from the community to assist in classrooms, and form advisory councils for every school to allow greater parent and teacher input on key decisions.

Likewise, two schools need new principals, and a third opening is likely soon. Duncan points out that the failure to adequately involve parents in the selection process for principals often leads to quick turnover in these positions because the administrators are unprepared for the demands that parents in that school make. Giving the community a greater voice in selecting principals means parents will have more investment in helping to make sure a new principal succeeds, she notes.

In contrast, Dark, in his answers to a Chatham Coalition questionnaire, worried that more involvement of the community in school decisions and student instruction would impinge upon the authority of administrators.

4. Redistricting. Any new school construction will necessitate redistricting, as well as a review of the school system's transfer policies. Few decisions have greater potential to inflame parents as the assignment of their children to a new school. And again, Clark and Duncan's advocacy of actively listening to and involving the community will be essential to achieving a redistricting plan than meets the needs of Chatham's students. Just as with principal selection, involving the community creates buy-in on the ultimate compromise solutions that emerge.

5. Hiring and retaining qualified teachers. In addition to the turnover crisis, Chatham schools are up against challenging demographics: 50 percent of our teachers plan on retiring in the next 5 years. The need to find and retain qualified teachers is therefore even more urgent, especially since our schools have been least successful at keeping new teachers. Everyone running in the School Board election agrees Chatham County should increase the supplement it pays its teachers on top of their state-funded salaries. Clark and Duncan distinguish themselves by offering concrete suggestions not only to find the money to pay for a supplement increase but to address the second most common reason for teacher dissatisfaction with Chatham schools, lack of support from administrators. Among their proposals:

* Conduct a full-scale performance audit of the entire school system to determine areas where money is spent inefficiently. We should be spending our money on the community's highest priority needs. Chatham consistently has one of the top ten school budgets in the state, yet our students' SAT scores are in the bottom half of North Carolina counties, indicating that there is waste that should be eliminated.

Dark promised a performance audit would be a top priority when he ran four years ago. Two other current Board members also support such an audit, yet it has not even been discussed in School Board meetings.

* Move the day of School Board meetings to eliminate conflicts with Board of Commissioner meetings. The Commissioners must approve the School budget, yet the two bodies rarely have any formal interaction. A key problem is that the regular meetings of both Boards are the same day of the month, meaning members of one can't attend meetings of the other to share ideas and concerns.

* Conduct exit interviews with teachers who do leave the system. This is a potential goldmine of information on what we can do to keep our teachers, and it has gone completely untapped by the current administration.

* Visit classrooms regularly. Board members should understand first hand the needs of students and teachers, instead of counting on administrators to supply them with information.

* End the requirement that teachers' assistants drive school buses. This mandate drives away potential teacher assistants, robbing teachers of a vital support resource.

* Establish student teaching programs with local universities. There is a ready pool of talent from the education programs at UNC, Duke, NC State and NCCU that would jump at the chance to student teach in a nearby community. This would give us the chance to convince these future educators to return to Chatham County for employment, especially given the relatively lower cost of living in Chatham compared to the rest of the Triangle. Yet currently Chatham schools have no formal student teaching program.

It's time to face up to our school challenges and bring new energy to meeting them. That's why the Chatham Coalition endorses Norman Clark and Holly Duncan, and why we encourage you to vote for both in the July 20 Board of Education election.

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