LUMBERTON — If there’s one thing that incumbent school board members and challengers agree on, more money is needed if students attending public schools in Robeson County are to receive the best education possible.
Finances were a dominant issue discussed at Tuesday’s candidates forum sponsored by the Robeson Association of Educators. Ten of the 12 candidates on the May 8 ballot participated in the event held at Robeson Community College, with Steve Martin, the unopposed candidate from District 7, and Mitchell “Boscoe” Locklear, District 4, being absent.
Board seats up for election this year include Districts 1, 4, 5, and 7, as well as three at-large seats. The candidates are: Loistine DeFreece, incumbent, District 1; Altan Hagans and Locklear, District 4; Gary C. Strickland Jr., Larry Brooks and Royal Travis Bryant, District 5; Martin, incumbent, District 7; JoAnn Chavis-Lowery, Jerry Long and John Campbell, all incumbents, and Robert L. Davis and Randy Lawson for at-large seats.
The candidates were asked questions submitted by the 58 people who attended the event. Each candidate could answer every question or just the questions he or she wanted to answer.
Questions covered issues ranging from the candidates’ views on school finances, teacher tenure, and school security, to favoritism and politics in the hiring of school employees.
Both incumbents and candidates agreed that there will be budget decisions made in the future that may not be popular. Cuts in state and federal funding, they said, make it imperative that available resources be used where it best serves the interests of students and local school employees.
“We need folks in Raleigh who appreciate state employees and education,” Campbell said in response to a question about how to guarantee financial resources will be obtained to provide a quality education. “We have to challenge citizens and our county commissioners to find money to supplement state funding.”
Lawson suggested the possibility of implementing a consumer tax that could be designated to the school board for operation of the schools.
“It has worked well in other places,” he said.
Asked how important teachers assistants are to the school system, all the candidates said they play a vital role in the educational process. All of the candidates also said they would try not to have to cut teacher assistants from the next budget, but that might not be possible if state funding continues to be reduced.
Long said that while other school districts have been cutting teacher assistants over the past few years, Robeson school board members resisted the school superintendent’s recommendation to cut teacher assistants. The decision was made last year to cut some of the teacher assistants after money to fund the positions could not be found, he said.
“We took bad publicity because we tried to help,” Long said. “Last year, we just ran out of money. We only have about $1 million in reserve, not the $32 million in reserve that Cumberland County has.”
Brooks, a retired educator, called teacher assistants the “right arm” of students in kindergarten and first grade. He chastised the state General Assembly for not extending a sales tax that he said would have generated enough revenue to keep all teacher assistants across the state employed.
Davis said teacher assistants are important in lower grades because that is where students are in their “developmental stage.”
“The teacher assistants allow teachers to provide individualized instruction,” he said.
Lowery, the board’s current chairman, also defended the board’s decision to reduce the district’s number of teacher assistants until money is available to fund the positions.
“This wasn’t something we wanted to do,” she said, “but we have to make do with what we have.”
Asked about their views on the hiring of employees, all of the candidates stressed that employees should be hired on qualifications and not by political influence.
Qualifications have to be the key in hiring, according to Strickland, even if it means saying no to a friend.
“We have to make sure we have integrity as a board member,” he said.
Campbell noted the diversity of the county’s population.
‘We require that the superintendent bring diverse recommendations for hiring,” he said…”All of us want diversity represented. We always have to be diligent so we don’t lean one way or the other.”
The candidates were also asked about a plan rolled by state Senate Republicans calling for the elimination of teacher tenure. All supported teacher tenure as a way to ensure that teachers are protected from political or individual retaliation for the way they do their job.
“Tenure just gives you protection,” said DeFreece, a former teacher and school administrator. “If a teacher is not doing their job, there are still ways to fire them.”
“Each of the candidates had a chance to give a brief statement of why he or she want to serve on the board. The challengers said:
— Davis (retired educator): “I’m concerned when I look around at India and China and see that they are graduating scientists and engineers. We are behind here in Robeson County, not because of our personnel, but because of the finances we have to work with.”
— Lawson (employed by Lowe’s Home Improvement): “Kids are our No. 1 priority … . Children need more of a voice. I think I can be that voice (on the board).”
— Hagans (retired teacher): “Education is the way to a better future. I want to serve so I can help the (school) system do better.”
— Bryant: (educator): “From an early age, education was driven into my life. Education has been good to me … . I enjoy teaching. My main objective in life is to be a good servant.”
— Brooks (retired educator): “I have a 32-year career in the Robeson county schools as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal. I feel I have the experience and background.”
— Strickland (bank loan officer; school volunteer)): “As past president of Pembroke Elementary PTA and the current president of the PTA at Purnell Swett High School, I’ve seen what students, teachers and principals need. Tough decisions are going to have to be made over the next four years.”
Incumbents said the following:
— Campbell: “I believe that education is the only sure way to a better quality of life. Our schools are under attack from both the right and left. (State) resources should rightfully be placed in our public schools.”
— Long: “This board works well together. I think I have a lot to offer. I have the skills, knowledge and integrity to get the job done.”
— DeFreece: “I’m a former teacher and principal.”
— Lowery: “We’re policy makers. When we make policy for children and (school) employees, we are doing our job.”
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.