NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Four Republican candidates will be narrowed down to three in March’s primary election; those three will challenge Democratic candidates for three open seats on the New Hanover County Board of Education in the general election.
All three current board members whose terms are up this year — Republicans Chair Lisa Estep, Vice-Chair David Wortman, and board member Jeanette Nichols — have chosen not to file for reelection.
Republican board member Bill Rivenbark, whose term runs through 2022, is running for the county’s Board of Commissioners, and will leave his seat if elected. In that case, a new board member would need to be appointed by the County Executive Committee of the political party of the member (in this case, the New Hanover County GOP).
Stephanie Kraybill, Republican candidate
1. Let’s tackle the elephant in the room: NHCS has seen multiple sexual predators arrested, in each case with evidence suggesting the administration knew about misconduct for years — or decades. Is the current board doing enough? What else would you do to address this systemic problem?
Until just recently, I do not think they are doing enough because I feel certain that they (either collectively or individually) have known about some of these issues (and like issues) for years and have hidden behind confidentiality concerns. Teachers and students who are accused of bad behavior have the right to appeal decisions regarding their behavior to the School Board so School Board members have heard about some of these issues and have determined if the Superintendent’s recommendation was good/correct or bad/wrong/incorrect.
But School Board members can only be as good as the information they are given. If school principals are “handling” issues at their level and either documenting or not documenting what has occurred and what the outcomes were reached and then not reporting the information upward to Senior Administration, then how could the School Board know? If Senior Administration was informed and turned a blind eye (maybe with the thought process of creating a personal action plan and hoping the behavior does not happen again) and did not report upward to the Superintendent, then how would the School Board know? If the Superintendent does not inform the School Board, then how would they know? It appears that some of each scenario just described has occurred, creating a very messy, dysfunctional, chaotic, and distrustful environment at all levels of the school system and with the Board of Education.
At some point, though, the School Board’s fiduciary responsibility of asking and knowing has to kick in. One of the School Boards’ major duties is to adopt policies that give the district direction to set priorities and achieve its goals. NHCS has many excellent and well thought out policies (published for the public) and internal procedures that support these policies (not usually published). They just need to be monitored and enforced. So, I want to see more formal regular reporting from each NHCS division Assistant Superintendent to the School Board regarding a summary of activity and/or highlights from their each of their areas of responsibility, similar to how community partners present summaries and highlights each month. I would also be interested in hearing from established school system committees such as the Crisis Management Team, the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), the Superintendent’s Teacher Council and Student Council, the Title II Committee (if one still exists), and other established committees who meet regularly to ensure that students and teachers are protected, nurtured and educated/professionally developed in the best manner possible. I would like for Board members to randomly review School Improvement Plans, School Safety Plans, and School Wellness Plans to get a better feel for what is actually happening at the school level to increase student achievement and improve the school climate.
One practice that I was told about years ago is that teachers on a personal action plan for performance improvement are not eligible for transfer. That lead to principals not always documenting poor performance and other issues so they could move these teachers out of their schools. If elected, I intend to delve into the use these kinds of practices.
2. Many, including Star News’ editorial staff, have criticized the board for relying too much on closed-session. Do you think the board is adequately transparent? If not, what would you do to address that?
I would like to have ALL Board meetings (regular, interim, and special called) recorded and televised except for those that require confidentiality according to NC Statutes. I would like to have ALL meeting minutes published (with appropriate redactions for confidentiality). I would like for the Call to the Audience topics also be recorded in the minutes. For meetings that are closed, the reason for the closed meeting should be more fully explained than just providing the NC Statute number. I believe parents and the community have the right to know what kinds of issues are being identified and addressed (or not addressed) in our public schools.
I have found, though, that over the years that many Board of Education will openly answer questions. However, to get to a satisfactory answer, one often has to ask the right (aka specific) questions. I would like to resurrect the Board of Education – NHC Council of PTAs town hall type meetings so that parents and community members can ask questions and receive answers, unlike the Call to the Audience segment of Board meetings where questions and concerns can be posed but no comments or answers received.
3. NHCS has struggled to hire and retain enough bus drivers. How would you address this issue?
A recent article that I read reported that ~80% of school systems across the country have a school bus driver shortage, so our situation is not unique. The first place to start is to increase school bus drivers’ pay so that they can actually support themselves on their wages, and very importantly, to show them that are valued employees in our system. Drivers were recently given a pay raise with the promise to work towards another in the near future. That is a positive step, but our bus driver pay is still well below the national average.
One tactic that works well in other industries is to give bonuses (sign on bonuses, years of service bonuses, and attendance bonuses) and job referral incentives. Any NHCS employee would be eligible if they recommend a bus driver candidate who is subsequently hired. This would require additional financial resources so the Board of Education would need to look for grants or lobby the County Commissioners and the NC General Assembly for the resources, perhaps asking for an increase in the per pupil allotment with the sole intent of targeting an “x” dollar per-student allotment to the school transportation department, specifically for bus driver pay and/or bonuses and referral incentives.
Intrinsic benefits are important to job satisfaction, too, so giving bus drivers more non-driving training might be appealing to them (both current and potential drivers). I am thinking training on people skills to better communicate with students and parents, training on how to handle unruly and/or disruptive children and how to de-escalate situations, and training on how to report suspected neglect and/or abuse (such as the ongoing Darkness to Light training for in-school staff).
I think we need to broaden our recruiting casting net. NHCS does a good job in advertising for bus drivers in the usual places (on the NHCS website, on public job and career boards such as LinkedIn and Indeed, and on advertising banners displayed on busses placed around town). Maybe we could purchase billboard space located around town and on major highways (74/76 and 17 coming in from the south and I-40/I-140 from the north). Maybe we could host a Community Fair (or several fairs) using established faith-based and community partners as hosts where the bus driver job is fully explained and 1st round, weed-out interviews are conducted right there. We could hire non-CDL drivers who are currently enrolled in a CDL certification class and expedite the hands-on driving test requirement. We can reach out to grandparents, to retired teachers, coaches, and military personnel, to local faith-based and educational non-profit organizations, and partner with some afterschool programs to supply drivers for morning routes in addition to after school routes.
To utilize as many of the bus drivers’ other skills as possible, and to give them more hours of work, we could possibly use them as extra adults in the building of the schools they service as teacher assistants, lunchtime cafeteria workers, lunchroom and playground monitors (so teachers can get a bathroom and lunch break!), midday and evening custodians, and in miscellaneous tutoring roles. After all, our bus drivers already know our students and are invested in their education by getting them to school safely and on time.
I would like to see Board of Education members actually ride a few school bus routes to experience what drivers and students experience each day.
4. Some of NHCS’ campuses have numerous access points. This became a heated issue after recent school shootings, but was overshadowed by other issues. Is school safety being adequately addressed?
I am a member of the NHCS Crisis Management Team as the PTA Council representative, and I do think that school safety is being appropriately, but maybe not always adequately, addressed due to budgetary restrictions. Risk assessments are conducted internally and externally on a regular basis, and new equipment and systems are being installed and added as the budget allows. Drill are conducted throughout the year to ensure school readiness to respond to a variety of emergencies. NHCS has a close working relationship with the Wilmington Police Department and the NHC Sheriff’s Office to provide Resource Officers. I would like to see a standing report from the NHCS Director of Safety on the Board of Education agenda so the Board really grasps the important safety issues and the appropriate interim and long-term remedies and solutions in action.
School cameras are helpful but installing them in hallways isn’t going to pick up many safety issues like the ones that occur in classrooms, on sports fields, and off campus. All elementary and middle schools have AI phone intercom systems at their main entrances to control access into the buildings. Schools with multiple entrances need to have a door locking system that locks all doors but still allows for student access between buildings. These systems are being evaluated.
Recently, metal detectors have become mandatory at football and basketball games.
I think we can do a better job at letting parents know about new physical features and programs at individual schools and throughout the school system. Posting information online and sending information out via Connect 5 phone calls and emails is great, but personal, face to face, interactive meetings are also needed so parents are assured their concerns are being heard and addressed. Adequate notice of these meetings is a must.
I would like to see School Board members shadow a teacher for a day to experience what teachers and students experience each day. In this way, they can observe firsthand the beginning and end of the school day and lunch time and class changes.
5. NHCS appears to spend more on administrators compared to other districts on a per-student basis. The Board has never publicly discussed this — what are your thoughts?
I was not aware of this, so I would have to do more research to give any thoughts. I do know that County Commissions provide additional resources to their local school systems to augment teacher, administrator, and other employees’ salaries.
6. How do you feel about the current use of technology in schools?
I like the use of technology in the classroom as long as all students have equal and convenient access to it. For example, students who have a cell phone with internet access should not have an academic advantage (real or perceived) over those who don’t. Technology in the classroom opens so many more ways to present course material, conduct research for lessons and during lessons in real time, and to communicate with classrooms and other organizations locally, state-wide, nationally, and globally. Technology also enhances and promotes student creativity in their project work and provides an excellent way to organize, store, and submit their classwork.
On the down side, substitute teachers are not granted access to technology (i.e., cannot log in to use white boards or to show educational videos that support curriculum) and, at some schools, are not even permitted to let students use classroom iPads or computers. This policy often times leaves sub lessons to be just busy work which is a waste of a day. This policy also throws off the rhythm and structure of the day which can lead to more behavior issues.
I also like the multitude of Apps that parents have access to, such as Power Schools app, the Transportation Department’s Edulog Parent Portal Bus Tracking app, and the Child Nutrition Department’s Mobile Menu App that includes a link to the online payment provider.
On another downside, parents cannot access the school system WiFi so they cannot get online while they are in a school or admin building without prior approval from the school’s principal or admin building Technology Dept contact. This often makes it very difficult to conduct PTA, Booster Club, and other Parent Support Organization committee meetings on campus or to have parent-teacher conferences where showing important information is necessary. At Board of Education meetings, community members in the audience cannot access attachments and follow along when items presented on the screen are too busy or the font too small to read if they do not have data capabilities on their phone.
7. What other issues and ideas would you bring to the Board?
One school board member cannot do the job alone. Effective school board members contribute their unique talents while collaborating and working as a team with other board members. I would like to work specifically on unifying the School Board so that the public, the people who elected School Board members), have respect for Board members and confidence and trust that the Board collectively is setting the vision and goals for the district, adopting and enforcing appropriate policies that give the district direction to set priorities and achieve its goals, hiring and accurately evaluating the superintendent’s performance, and adopting and overseeing the annual budget (which includes looking to secure additional funds to support the budget).
I would advocate for networking and partnering with local businesses to develop a database of lecturers and classroom instructors, to establish recurring lasting mentorships, apprenticeships, internships, and job shadowing opportunities for students, and to secure resources to cover unfunded mandates and enhancements for classroom instruction, outside-the-classroom activities, and athletic facilities.
I would also advocate to grow our Career and Technical Education programs so that all students have viable and respected paths after high school, and our business partners see immediate results in the local job market.