School Board Candidates Agree On Much – Transylvania County, NC
Last updated 9/22/2020 at 11:01am
From increasing teacher supplements to providing more behavioral and mental health services for students, the four candidates for the Transylvania County Board of Education agreed on a variety of topics during the Brevard/ Transylvania Chamber of Commerce's online candidate forum last Thursday evening.
All four candidates – Republicans Tawny McCoy and Richard Kimsey Jackson and Democrats Ron Kiviniemi and Alice Wellborn – agreed that higher local supplements are needed to recruit and retain good teachers.
"The biggest thing that teachers need is a bigger teacher supplement so that they can get paid a decent wage for what they do," said Wellborn.
McCoy agreed teachers need a higher teacher supplement, more respect – which includes board members listening to teachers – and affordable housing.
"We just need to listen and hear their concerns," said McCoy. "They are the ones that are in the classroom providing that instruction that our students need."
Kiviniemi said the school board has no fundraising authority, but that if he were king, teachers would have a starting salary "well above" the current $35,000 starting salary, there would be affordable housing and everyone would treat teachers with the respect they deserve.
"Since I'm not the king, I will continue to work in those areas to help recruit and retain teachers," said Kiviniemi.
"I can echo what Ron (Kiviniemi) just said," stated Jackson. "I think one of the biggest problems we have in this area is affordable housing. I really don't know how one, or even two teachers, can afford to live in this county. I think we need to pay an appropriate wage. I think we need to respect them, and I think, some way or another, we need to partner with people in the community and have some affordable housing."
When asked how the school system can support the behavioral health needs of its students, McCoy said students' needs should be met in the classroom as best they can, but school social workers and school nurses also play a vital role.
She said it is unfortunate that some issues at home affect classroom behavior and the schools need to provide the safest environment possible for students.
"I think we really need to listen to those students and see what we can provide," said McCoy.
Kiviniemi said behavioral health is now at the forefront because students have been isolated for several months.
"We need more school guidance counselors, we need more school psychologists, we need more school social workers," he said. "We are seeing more and more children in our system with mental health issues."
He said the school system has done a good job of partnering with regional health agencies, but the school system needs even more services.
"Once again, I tend to agree with Ron," said Jackson. "It's a tough problem. It's one that affects many, many people in many ways. I agree that we probably need more mental health workers in the school."
He agreed that just listening to students to learn their problems could lead to solutions.
Wellborn, a retired school psychologist, said, "Better student access to mental health services, behavioral support, social/emotional learning opportunities are absolutely vital."
She said teachers really want that access for students because many teachers feel they cannot handle all of the behavioral and mental health problems and still teach.
She also agreed the school system needs more counselors, psychologists and social workers.
In addition, she said having an outside agency provide day treatments has had a few problems and the system is looking at how it could provide those services.
The candidates also held similar views on the need to train students to enter the local workforce.
Jackson said, "I do not believe that everybody needs a college education to succeed in life."
He supports programs in the schools that prepare students for construction work and other jobs that do not require a college education, but he also supports programs that prepare students to have a good college experience.
He said that while he came out of Brevard High well prepared and did well at N.C. State University, "many students do not come of out of our schools prepared and we need to correct that."
"Workforce development is something that we've really paid a lot of attention to," said Wellborn. "We have a very strong relationship with Blue Ridge Community College."
She said many students graduate from high school with credentials because of the CTE (career/technical education) program.
McCoy agreed that the school system's "great relationship" with Blue Ridge Community College helps prepare students to go directly into the workforce and that the school system has a "great CTE program."
McCoy said the school system also communicates with local businesses to see what areas students need to be trained in to go directly into the workforce.
"We also work in the classroom to teach our students more of those what we call 'soft skills' so that they have the work ethic that they need, so that they know to show up on time and be responsible," said McCoy.
Kiviniemi agreed that Blue Ridge Community College does a "wonderful job of working with us on workforce development."
He said the school system offers graphic design, carpentry, robotics, masonry, welding, CNAs, office management and is on the verge of starting a pharmacy technician credentialing program.
"We are doing a good job now with workforce development. We can always do better and we will continue to work on that," Kiviniemi said.
In regard to race relations, all four candidates support policies addressing racial discrimination.
Wellborn, who has been on the NAACP Education Committee for several years, said the committee has worked very closely with the school system on racial relations.
"Our high school principals are being very strict about any sort of bullying," said Wellborn.
McCoy said the school board passed a resolution earlier this year decrying racism and that "Racism is not tolerated in Transylvania County Schools."
Kiviniemi said "the board corporately spoke out very strongly about our opposition to any form of racism in our school system and in our county" in the resolution it passed earlier this year.
He said the school board needs to continue developing policies that deal with the bullying issues and intolerance of students who are different.
Jackson said, "As far as I'm concerned, every student in our system deserves the best education we can give them without being bullied, called names or discriminated against in any way, and I would support a strong policy in that situation."
There was some disagreement when asked what the school system could do to help students catch up from class time lost since last March.
"I would like to see us be able to offer greater summer access to education for those students who have fallen behind," said Kiviniemi.
He also said they need to work with other agencies, such as El Centro and the Boys & Girls Club, that work with students after school.
"I am appalled that our elementary students are not back in school full-time with in-person teaching," said Jackson.
He said they may have to wait to go back to full-time in-person classes, but "I hope we can very quickly get back to that."
He said virtual learning is just not as effective as learning in person.
Wellborn said the first priority of the school board has been to keep children safe "and that's why we don't have full-time, in-person learning right now because it's not safe for the children; it's not safe for the teachers."
She said the Jumpstart program the school system offered this summer will have to be offered every summer and the school system will have to work with Rise & Shine, El Centro, the Boys & Girls Club and other organizations to help students catch up academically.
McCoy said teachers have found "new, exciting and creative ways" to teach students virtually, but it is best to have students in the classroom. She said since there are a smaller number of students in the classroom, students are receiving more individual attention and are "beginning to catch up."
The candidates also were asked how the school board could work with commissioners to develop a budget and address school needs not met by the $68 million bond?
She said the capital funds received from the county are used for maintenance and recurring items, not major renovation and construction.
Kiviniemi said the two boards work much better than they did eight years and credited McCoy "for leading that effort."
He said by state statute, county commissioners are responsible for funding the capital needs of the local school system and the General Assembly is responsible for the current operating expenses. However, he said the General Assembly does not currently fund current operating expenses as they should.
"If they did, it wouldn't be necessary for the county commissioners to appropriate $11 million each year," he said. "If they (county commissioners) had that $11 million, they could put that towards the needs that we have for capital construction."
Jackson said, "What can I say? It's not good to be adversarial to your parents. Unfortunately, in this state the school board is not a taxing authority. All the taxing situation comes from the county commissioners, and they are jealous about protecting taking money from people."
He said the solution, based on his work experience, is for people to sit down, talk and work together, and he would do that if elected to the school board.
"I think Kimsey (Jackson) put his finger on the problem when he said you shouldn't fight with your parents because I think the county commissioners often see themselves as the parents of the school board and that we have to ask them for money, and then they wonder, 'Oh, do they really need that money,'" said Wellborn.
She said it becomes a hierarchical relationship rather than an equal relationship even though members of both boards are elected.
She said both boards need to work together and recognize that each member is an elected official and each board has its specific duties.
School Board's Role And Effectiveness
Jackson, who retired after serving in a management position for Florida Power & Light for more than 30 years, said he views the Board of Education like a board of directors that monitors the budget and oversees its operation.
"We need to bring our real-life experiences to helping run the school system," he said. "I know what it means to put a budget together and make it work."
Wellborn said the school board's job is to make sure taxpayer money is spent efficiently and effectively in order to offer local children a strong, well-rounded education with an excellent teacher in every classroom and an excellent principal at every school.
"That's what this community has always valued, not the cheapest education, but the best education that we can provide," she said.
She said the school board sets the policies and priorities that govern the schools and oversees the superintendent, who runs the day-to-day operations of the school system.
McCoy said the role of the school board is to establish policies in compliance with state laws; employ, support and evaluate the superintendent; support teachers and staff; and prepare a recommended budget paid for by county funds.
"I believe the Board of Education provides a vision and direction for our school system," said McCoy. "The role of the Board of Education is to care for our teachers, our students, our staff and to provide the best education possible."
Kiviniemi said the school board's role is set in state statutes, which gives the school board all responsibilities not specifically designated to any other governmental entity. He added the board should work in a nonpartisan manner to support the best interests of the students.
"I think board members must also be strong advocates of public education," said Kiviniemi.
As for how to best measure the success of the school board, Kiviniemi said, "I think the work of the school board is best measured by the success of our students."
He said local SAT scores are above the state and national average and students have done "exceedingly well" in debate and agricultural competitions.
He said the multiple successes of many students are the direct result of the superintendent and teachers, who are under the guidance of the school board.
"I can say 'amen' to that because that's my exact feeling," said Jackson. "You measure success by the results ... the results of the Transylvania County school system are stellar. I compliment the teachers, the principals and the staff on the work they do."
Wellborn agreed the school board's success is measured by the success of its students, who excel in music, art and science competitions.
"We win lots of awards. Our kids go to college. Our kids do well on tests," said Wellborn.
She said the school system compares "extremely well" with other schools that do not have as many special education students or students who receive free and reduced lunch.
"We deal with the kids in the community who need the most and we do a really good job," she said.
McCoy, too, agreed about the success of the students as a measurement of the school board, but added the board also should be measured on how well students are prepared when they leave school.
"I think we're doing a good job of preparing our students for the workforce," said McCoy.
She also said many students receive scholar-ships to further their education.
"I am an engineer by education," said Jackson. "I am a manager of people, resources and money by training and experience."
A fiscal conservative, Jackson said he is committed to having students be prepared for life.
Wellborn said her priorities include completing the bond project as promised; expanding internet access for all students and developing a more effective online learning path; working on teacher recruitment and retention and increasing the teacher supplement; valuing and respecting everyone in the school system; providing better student access to mental health services and behavioral support; and updating and strengthening the attendance policy.
"I believe that children are a gift from God," said McCoy, who added that it's an honor to be on the school board and play a role in educating children.
McCoy said she would like to see the bond projects through to their completion.
Kiviniemi said he brings a wide variety of educational experiences to the school board. He has spent 41 years in education – 36 years as a teacher and principal and five years as director of elementary education at Brevard College.
"I'd like to continue to offer that expertise to the board," said Kiviniemi, who also pledged to work in a nonpartisan manner for the betterment of all students.