NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Democrat Stephanie Walker is running for a spot on the New Hanover County Board of Education.
Walker will appear on the ballot alongside five other candidates; voters may select three.
Early voting is underway. Same-day registration is available during the early voting period, which ends Oct. 31. Election day is Nov. 3. Check your voter registration and county elections office to confirm polling locations, dates, and hours.
Port City Daily emailed all candidates the below questionnaire and will run their responses ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Port City Daily edited responses for spelling and grammatical errors only.
Port City Daily (PCD): NHCS publicly changed its reopening plan three times before settling on a final course of action. How would you grade the current board’s handling of COVID-19? What, if anything, should have been done differently?
Stephanie Walker (SW): B-. Keep in mind this pandemic is a lose-lose situation, and not even the best experts have all the answers. I know many districts are grappling with the best way to handle a near-impossible situation, and I know not everyone is going to be happy with every decision. It is my opinion that we must always look at our county’s infection rate to determine the best course of action, and we should always couple those decisions with solid plans.
Deciding to go with the Plan C scenario for the first grading period was the right thing to do at the time because the community infection rate was too high, and the district was clearly not ready with adequate protocols and PPE to ensure the children, educators, and staff could return to the classroom safely.
For the second grading period, they were going to go with their original Plan B plan (A/B/C – three cohorts, one-week rotation), and they had, by this time at least, extra time to get protocols and PPE in place. The arrival of Dr. Foust in early September gave way to changing from the A/B/C to the A/A, B/B Plan B scenario instead, so that children were in two groups, instead of three, and so they could all be there weekly. I am not sure if this was a result of a pressure campaign from some vocal parents, or if this just made more sense to our new superintendant. The superintendent recommended this as the better plan, and the school board felt confident in his decision.
I know a lot of parents were confused by the change. Perhaps it would have been better to phase in children with EC and at-risk needs first, and then bring in the lower grades before deciding about the middle and high schools. Under the circumstances, staff has had to scramble and adjust, and I have no doubt they are working hard with the directions they are given.
Communication could also have been better, especially concerning teachers. As far as I have been told, teachers had been left out of the conversation, and this has caused concern amongst them over safety in returning. They have also not been able to give feedback on teaching methods and programs, and they took particular issue with the virtual program that was chosen called “Edgenuity.”
Communication with parents has been challenging also. I know they did virtual town halls and social media campaigns, but there were so many other questions that came out of them. I have heard that language barriers and reaching some families in our marginalized communities has been difficult, and I believe some of this has been left to each principal. With each principal being the gatekeeper and disseminator of information and communication, this is where some of the problems may exist. In order to get the best picture of where there are gaps and issues, I believe there should be a line of communication that allows a direct line to the superintendent and school board, otherwise, things get missed.
Additionally, there has been issues and confusion with block scheduling for the upper grades and also with remote learners. Families that missed a deadline for the virtual academy (or just believe it was not right for their child), have had to decide whether to risk potential exposure to the virus or pull their child out of school for the remainder of the year. Communication could have helped with this as well, but having a new superintendent in place will hopefully help.
Teachers get an A, though! They are under an enormous amount of pressure. Not only do they have to keep themselves and their families safe, they have to care for their kids in the classroom in a totally different way. They have had to juggle combinations of remote/virtual and now in-person learning, and this has to be very stressful for them. This pandemic has been hard on everyone, but I just hope people are seeing the value in their teachers. I know they want what is best for kids.
PCD: How concerned are you about the achievement gap for minority students at NHCS? What, if any, policy changes would you push for to address it?
PW: Extremely concerned. The policy decision to fundamentally change districting in 2010 is one of the reasons I am running. Not only did this policy change undo hard-fought integration of our schools in New Hanover County, it caused hyper-segregation in quite a few of our elementary schools. This county is still residentially segregated (with some exceptions), and changing the districting policy caused hyper-segregation socioeconomically (unfortunately, this intersects with race also in some of our schools).
Some of the biggest achievement gaps are at our high-poverty schools. I’m concerned with the enormous kindergarten-readiness gaps, the high rate of suspensions and grade retention. EOG test scores are a metric used to evaluate how students are doing, and scores are very low at some of our schools. This has been an issue for a very long time and has not been given the attention it deserves. There is so much we can do to address achievement gaps and equity issues in our schools, such as expansion of pre-K, discipline with a focus on ACEs and resiliency, hiring of more counselors, social workers, and tutors.
I am a proponent of a community schools model also, so we can figure out what our students, and the community around it, need in order for all our kids to reach their highest potential. I would also like to focus on these changes as part of our new strategic plan.
PCD: Do you support higher pay for bus drivers? How else would you address the district’s need for bus drivers?
SW: Yes. Bus drivers should get a minimum of $15 an hour, and the wage for veteran bus drivers should reflect their hard-earned experience on top of that. Our veteran bus drivers are a valuable asset to our county and, I believe, if they are compensated properly, we can fix the shortage issues. Furthermore, I don’t think people understand the important role that bus drivers play in our school district. They are oftentimes the first staff to see our children in the morning and last to see them in the afternoon, and while they are on that bus, they are doing the important role of getting our kids to and from school safely every school day.
They may also play a part in knowing if anything is going on with our kids that may need attention. Having sat in the room with bus drivers, I have heard their concerns over pay and a culture of retribution for speaking up for themselves. This deserves further investigation.
PCD: How familiar are you with the Isaac Bear school facility situation? What would you do to address it?
SW: Somewhat familiar. I am aware that the Issac Bear location is LONG overdue for an overhaul/relocation because the program has way outgrown its space, and the buildings are no longer adequate or conducive to a quality learning environment. The program is clearly a winning program for our school system, and we must find a solution to the problem.
It is my understanding the agreement between the district and UNCW is that the university is responsible for the site. I need to know the details of the agreement, so we can find a solution. I know there have been a few talks over the last few years about finding a solution, but there has got to be a way to come to an agreement. COVID has put things up in the air, and it will be interesting to see budget priorities in the next year, but maybe we can find grant money or look to an education foundation. It is worth exploring and making part of our strategic plan.
PCD: Do you support the district’s current use of school resource officers? What changes would you make and why would you make them?
SW: I definitely think the program needs evaluating to see what is working and what is not working, or if they are necessary in all schools. I do not support SROs in elementary schools because I think we need to explore better ways to discipline our youngest children. I realize there may be extreme circumstances that need a law enforcement officer, and I understand the original reasons they were put in our schools, but I think there are times they are used for discipline—and that is not their purpose. I
’d like to see money used in our elementary schools for more counselors and social workers, using a trauma-informed approach to discipline, especially in schools where ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are higher. We need to address the school-to-prison pipeline and use restorative justice methods instead of relying on SROs as a first resort.
PCD: How comfortable are you with the way the district uses local funds? What redistributions, if any, would you make?
SW: Somewhat uncomfortable. I have looked at the budget, and I have noticed several areas for improvement. I have had some discussions with both a current school board member and a county commissioner regarding the district’s budget also, but I would really like the opportunity as a school board member to do an evaluation of where we stand. I would like for our new strategic plan to connect with the budget in a better way, so we are addressing specific needs of the district.
My initial observation, and the feedback I’ve gotten from others, is that the budget is very admin heavy, and there are needs not being met in regards to shortages with bus drivers, teacher assistants, expansion of pre-K, ESL positions, and supplemental teacher pay could be bolstered. Sadly, more than 60% of the school district’s funds come from the state, and the only way to get more money for our schools in that regard is to support state-level candidates that are in favor of funding public education. The county gives approximately 28% of its budget to the schools, but really has no say in how it is spent. As an elected body, the school board should be studying better ways to manage the budget with the help of the superintendent. It makes more sense to direct funds where they are needed most.
PCD: In 2018 many board members branded their campaigns on increased transparency and accountability — do you think those goals have been met? [No] Why or why not? What policy changes, if any, would you implement to improve those things?
SW: There have been some exceptions, but the last couple of years have not been big on transparency. I am really not sure if there were legal reasons for not speaking out in some instances, but the lack of transparency and accountability has been hard on victims and families of sexual assault, and has further damaged the reputation of the district.
Additionally, I have been made aware of several pre-determined decisions made amongst a few members without the knowledge of other board members, which was not a good look. It has only furthered the narrative that the school board is not being transparent. These exclusive decisions, coupled with the occurrence of many board meetings that were inexplicably closed to the public, show that there is still a great issue surrounding the lack of transparency.
Some ways to address transparency and accountability is to open more direct lines of communication, and put methods in place that will allow the board and superintendent to have a greater knowledge of what is going on in our schools. We need to make as many meetings as public as possible, and make them more convenient for the public to be able to attend and speak.
They did implement Ethix360 to help with reporting problems and strengthened the Title IX committee, which was a great first step. In addition, there has been quite the number of top admin positions vacated that were part of the accountability problem. I know there is still much work to be done!
PCD: Has NHCS administration addressed long-standing issues that resulted in an alleged cover-up culture and consistent failure to protect students from pre-identified criminal activity on behalf of staff aggressively enough? [No] Why or why not?
SW: I want to be fair and say I am not privy to all the legal details of these matters, but had it not been for some active folks in the community, some very thorough investigative journalism, and the removal of three long-standing school board members, the community may not even know about what has surfaced and been uncovered. Having said that, after these details were revealed, matters could have been handled better.
Now that we know there was a systemic problem with covering up misdeeds, it is time to do a deep evaluation of what has gone on and who has been involved in any coverup. I am concerned about the files also. I really hope files were not removed, but a news report I read last week uncovered the fact that key information was missing from a student’s file. In my estimation, this seems criminal. I really hope files are not being removed to protect or cover-up. A recent OCR report verdict has identified negligence, and the district is supposed to be addressing remedies for that.
As old board members leave and a virtually new board comes into office, I believe there will be the will to get to the bottom of these matters. At least five top administrative positions that I know of have been cleared from the system, which helps, but the school board must take the lead here and govern by example. We should not tolerate this behavior in our schools—and, as a child survivor myself, I understand how deeply this affects the child victims. I’m not suggesting we jump to any conclusions without evidence, but we should absolutely take ALL allegations seriously, and follow through to get the bottom of it.
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