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Monday, May 27, 2024

Pender County Primaries 2024: Phil Cordeiro hopes to secure a board of education seat

Phil Cordeiro is vying to keep his seat for the PC school board of education, District 5. (Courtesy photo)

PENDER COUNTY — 2024 is a presidential election year but also one that impacts numerous local boards —  such as county commissioners and education districts in the tri-county region.

READ MORE: Here is who filed for the 2024 elections

Republican Phil Cordeiro, who currently serves on the Pender County Board of Education, is hoping to keep his seat in District 5. Cordeiro will face off against Republican Tommy Reeves in the primary election, to take place March 5.

Cordeiro — an occupation certified public accountant, who also has served as a local government finance officer in Hillsborough and town manager in Youngsville, both in North Carolina — discusses issues facing Pender’s schools district. All answers are included in full; responses are edited only for grammar, spelling and clarity.

Port City Daily has compiled candidate questionnaires so voters can read up on contenders’ stances before heading to the polls. The paywall is dropped on profiles to help voters make informed decisions ahead of casting their ballots.

Voters will choose which candidates from their registered party they want to move forward in the formal election — or those who are registered unaffiliated can choose which party’s primary they want to vote in. After the March 5 primaries, Election Day will be Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2024; a valid photo ID will be needed to cast a ballot in both. 

Anyone not registered to vote can partake in same-day registration, available throughout the early voting period, Feb. 15 – Mar. 2. Check here to see if your registration is active at your current address.

Early voting in Pender County takes place at four locations: Shiloh Volunteer Fire Department (19170 US Hwy 421, Watha), Pender County Annex Building (15060 US Hwy 17, Hampstead), Pender County NC Coop Extension Auditorium (801 S. Walker St., Burgaw) and Surf City Community Center Gym (201 Community Center Dr.). 

Early voting stops are open Feb. 15-16, 19-23, 26-29 and March 1, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and at 3 p.m. on Feb. 18, 24, and March 2.

Below is a breakdown of dates to expect ahead of the primary election:

  • Jan. 19, 2024: County boards of elections begin mailing absentee ballots to eligible voters who submitted an absentee ballot request form.
  • Feb. 9, 2024: Voter registration deadline (5 p.m.).*
  • Feb. 15, 2024: In-person early voting begins.
  • Feb. 27, 2024: Absentee ballot request deadline (5 p.m.).*
  • March 2, 2024: In-person early voting ends (3 p.m.).
  • March 5, 2024: Primary Election Day.
  • March 5, 2024: Absentee ballot return deadline (7:30 p.m.).*

Cordeiro’s questionnaire is below; all candidate’s opinions and statements are not a reflection of Port City Daily. 

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Port City Daily (PCD): Why do you want to run for the school board?

Phil Cordeiro (PC): My son will attend the new K-8 school the community is building in Hampstead, and will be a Pender County Schools student for the next decade. I have a strong interest in the school system’s success. 

Further, my experience as a town manager and certified public accountant makes me uniquely qualified to participate in the budget formulation and approval processes. I am an expert in governmental accounting and can ensure financial resources are being used in the most efficient and effective way possible.

PCD: What is the current board of education getting right? Wrong?

PC: Pender County Schools is a great place to work and has a top-notch workforce. Every member of the team has done an excellent job recruiting talented teachers who go above and beyond for our students. We are blessed to have them on board.

One key opportunity for improvement is facilities. Specifically, every school in the Topsail area is over-capacity and half the schools in the Pender and Heidi Trask areas will be over capacity by 2026. The school board needs to sharply focus on solving this problem. Smartly allocating the $178 million in school bonds passed by the voters in 2022 is key — and we must prioritize projects that create new classroom space for students.

PCD: If elected, what is the top issue you want to tackle?

PC: Building a new K-8 school in Hampstead will be the board’s biggest challenge for the next five to 10 years. For example, the Surf City K-8 school opened in August 2018 and it’s already over capacity. We cannot make that same mistake again.

As a member of the school board, I’ve already presented a detailed analysis to my colleagues and the superintendent regarding how the demographic data we’re relying on are flawed (the data indicate many parts of the county will shrink over the next 10 years). 

We cannot afford to ask the voters to approve more bonds in a few years — and ask the county commissioners to raise taxes — because we didn’t do the important work of asking the right questions.

PCD: Last year, the board voted to remove eight books from library shelves as part of a review process initiated by a constituent list of “obscene” books. Do you agree with the way the board addressed this issue and do you think those books should have been removed? How would you respond if residents produce similar requests of the board? 

PC: I challenge everyone who reads this to read my proposed policies in the October 10, 2023 board meeting packet. That information can be found at:

I have never advocated for removing or “banning” any book whatsoever. My proposal simply required that students obtain parental permission before checking out books that the librarian and book review committees have determined to be age-inappropriate. This is similar to a parent having to escort their child into a rated R movie and just makes plain sense. This is the approach I would prefer over removing books.

PCD: Do you think the district is adequately staffed? What positions would you like to see prioritized and/or deprioritized, and what should the board do to create a better working environment for its employees?

PC: The school system is understaffed, but it’s important to realize this is a product of funding. The state only allocates minimal funding and the county commissioners have been very meager in their local allocations. As a result, it’s incumbent upon the school board to find savings where we can to hire more staff and increase pay.

As an example of my finance experience at work, in my first six months on the board, I identified approximately $750,000 in wasteful annual spending. When I brought this to the attention of my colleagues on the board, they voted unanimously to cut that spending. We can now use those funds (totaling $3 million over a four-year term) to hire teachers, counselors, and bus drivers. Those are the positions we need most and the positions I support reallocating savings to.

Regarding the working environment, the school system needs to put more effort into its capital budget requests to the county commissioners. The county gave the school system the bare minimum this fiscal year, and we need to help them understand how that impacts facilities and the learning environment. As a former town manager, my expertise preparing complex, multi-year capital budgets will be extremely beneficial during this process.

PCD: The board is considering implementing a tiered bell schedule for the 2024/2025 school year after voting in favor, then backtracking on the vote last year. Do you think the district’s bell schedule should be modified to alleviate double and triple bus routes, or should the district be taking other measures to respond to transportation issues?

PC: Implementation of a three-tiered bell schedule is inevitable in Pender County. The only question is how we will implement. The main reason I voted against implementation last year was no meaningful community engagement took place. Until I asked during a board meeting, no parent surveys were done, no community meetings took place, and no meaningful outreach was done. This is simply not how a decision like this should take place.

I look forward to the superintendent and his team presenting a detailed plan for how we will engage our entire community in this decision moving forward. This is critical to ensuring our final plan reflects Pender County values.

PCD: Since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, many school districts have been grappling with a return to more rigid and, in some views, inadequate processes highlighted by pandemic flexibility. These issues — calendar law, budget cycle, allotment funding — often stem from the state level. What is your view on these topics, do you think they should be changed and how would you plan to do so?

PC: First and foremost, the school system’s responsibility is to educate children. According to the state’s most recent report cards, 40.6% of students in Pender County are not proficient in math and 46.3% of students in Pender County are not proficient in reading. We must do better.

Regarding the calendar law, I made a motion during the board’s December 2023 meeting to direct staff to explore all options on school calendars — including those that do not adhere to the state mandate. I look forward to hearing all the options staff has to bring to the table and making the best decision for the learning outcomes of our students.

Regarding the budget cycle and allotment funding, we must adapt to our environment and exercise outside-the-box thinking. If the state decides to change its funding formula and that becomes state law, we must find creative solutions within that framework to benefit our students. If that means we need to start our budget process earlier in the year, we must embrace that reality.

As a town manager, I required my department heads to have their final budgets submitted to me by December. To me, that’s best practice and I would support maximum early-planning and transparency in the budget process so our community can be engaged in our expenditure of their hard-earned money.

PCD: Do you think the district is responding to the capital needs of the schools — and if not what could it be doing better?

PC: The school system needs to put more effort into its capital budget requests to the county commissioners. The county gave the school system the bare minimum this fiscal year, and we need to help them understand how that impacts facilities and the learning environment. As a former town manager, my expertise preparing complex, multi-year capital budgets will be extremely beneficial during this process.

PCD: Over one-third of the schools within the district are considered “low performing” by the state, only one less than last year’s measurements. What do you attribute these results to and how should the board do to promote better student achievement for these schools and the district as a whole?

PC: Soon after joining the school board, I met with representatives from Camp Lejeune to see how the school system could partner with the military to help our students. As a retired Marine, I understand the significant resources the military brings to the table.

As a result of this meeting — along with staff, and fellow board member and retired soldier Brent Springer — Pender County Schools is about to implement an exciting new tutoring program. This program will provide unlimited, free online tutoring in math and reading to all students in our Topsail area schools.

Further, because the military is providing this program at little-to-no cost to the county, the school system will have enough funding to offer similar in-person tutoring services to all students in our Pender and Heidi Trask area schools.

If you have a child in the school system that would benefit from free tutoring services, I encourage you to contact your local teachers and principal to learn more.

This is just one example of how my outside-the-box thinking — and desire to be smart about spending — has benefitted the entire county.

PCD: Many school districts are seeing an influx of issues related to parents rights, and the state has passed legislation, the Parents’ Bill of Rights, to promote better communication and more parental control over public education. Where do you think the balance lies between parent and school staff responsibility over a student’s education?

PC: Communication is paramount. Even before it was codified in the state’s recently passed ‘parents’ bill of rights,’ I strongly believed in engaging parents in the education process. We cannot expect our teachers to do everything, and parents are the most important factor in the equation of success. Studies have shown that engaged parents create successful students.

To address this topic, the most important thing we can do from the outset is plan for communication and transparency. For example, if we’re implementing a new curriculum we need to ensure the vendor has a way to allow reasonable access to all materials for parents. This is required under the new state law, but it’s also best practice.

If we design the education process around parental engagement – and put systems in place from the beginning planning stages — we can meaningfully engage parents without requiring significant extra costs or effort. This is the approach I recommend.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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