NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As each inherits a damaged school system looking to reverse course, the New Hanover County Board of Education 2020 electees are vowing transparency and unbiased decision-making, in hopes of regaining community trust that past leaders severed.
Once they’re sworn in come December, the board will consist of a Democratic majority for the first time in years, with blue-party candidates Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus and Republican Stephanie Kraybill taking seats at the table.
The three electees will join Democrats Stefanie Adams, Judy Justice and Nelson Beaulieu, all of whom ousted veteran members of an all-Republican board in the 2018 election. (A sixth member of the board will be selected by the GOP to fill the seat of Republican Bill Rivenbark, who was elected to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.)
Although two of the newcomers secured a Democratic majority for the board, all three believe party lines should not exist when making decisions for public school children, despite the handling of Covid-19 and past redistricting decisions being heavily politicized.
“In the past, school boards have turned these races into partisan issues,” Walker said. “Talking about students – high-poverty kids or students of colors or Latinx kids – should never be a political issue. It should be best for the children, no matter who they are.”
McManus originally wanted to run as an independent, but didn’t want to have to petition to be on the ballot. “I just don’t know how a party affects making decisions for those kids in public school,” he said. “Why do you have to be in a party?”
One of two Republicans to soon join the board, Kraybill said she actually holds values from both parties. “I think the majority of people actually do,” she added.
While most school boards in North Carolina are nonpartisan, New Hanover County is part of a small group that elects members based on affiliation. All electees expressed interest in working with other members to establish the board as nonpartisan — or at least have an understanding of it.
“Boards of the past have been very divided down party lines,” Kraybill said, “and other than that, they just don’t get along.”
The frontrunner of the race was Walker — who earned more support in the school board election than the top vote-getter in the board of commissioners race. Walker went through the local school system herself, as did her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, and her daughter, who excelled academically.
“I had a spectrum of issues as a parent navigating the school system,” she said. “I had to advocate hard for both of them in different ways.”
Kraybill, a familiar face across the district, received the second-highest percentage of votes. When her daughter started kindergarten in 1998, she disliked one of the substitutes and tried out the role herself. She then spent two-plus decades substituting and volunteering, including in her current seats on the school’s crisis management team, Health Advisory Council and Title IX Committee.
“I feel like I have seen the gamut of what goes on in our public school system,” she said.
McManus came in a close third, just decimal points away from the other two candidates’ leads. After accepting a teaching job on a whim in 1970, McManus continued his career in education for 40-plus years, both as an educator and administrator at several local schools.
“How fortunate was I that [former students] will still walk across the street and speak with me,” he said. “I’ve been blessed.”
All electees agree transparency is top-of-mind for many in the community now, who are closely eyeing the school board’s actions. Kraybill said citizens were looking for leaders who are actually listening — “then acting on what they’re hearing instead of just logging it in a notebook.”
She stressed communication as crucial to the board’s success, and suggested including a question-and-answer session with the board for the public and teachers to partake in.
McManus is interested in providing more reasoning and explanation on actions taken, such as how complaints received through the new online reporting system are processed.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to recapture the trust and the support of our community,” he said.
A survivor of child sexual assault, Walker takes particular interest in stopping the sexual misconduct and crimes that have been prevalent in the New Hanover County School system.
She and the other board members see the recent replacement of former superintendent, Tim Markley, as well as other top officials, as a step in the right direction. But Walker compared moving forward to “lancing a boil — squeezing all the gross stuff out.”
“There’s probably more stuff in there that I don’t even know about,” she said. “We just need to continue on cleaning out.”
At the same time, in the wake of social justice movements, more of the community is aware of deepening disparities within the system. While predominantly white schools are thriving, students of color are falling behind.
According to 2018 findings from ProPublica, Black students in New Hanover County were three grades behind white students. The academic disparities were less drastic in Brunswick and Pender counties, both with 1.9-grade gaps.
“In my opinion, the school boards of the past have just not cared about our students,” Walker said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have let them languish for so long.”
The inequities are also evident from school to school. At Freeman, less than 5% of kids came to school ready for kindergarten in 2019, as opposed to Parsley where more than 70% of students were prepared.
“Six and a half miles apart geographically—miles apart in other ways,” Walker said.
McManus stressed how the district needs to hire staff of other races to promote diversity, and needs to ensure technology and internet access are available for all students so the pandemic does not further exacerbate the diversity-learning gaps.
“No matter what, the computer and technology is going to be part of education,” McManus said. “I mean, it’s not going to be reduced. It’s going to get greater.”
All the candidates have other issues of concern to address as well. Walker is focused on pre-K and adverse childhood experiences, while McManus is concerned with bullying. Kraybill wants to see a thorough review of human and financial resources, and an emphasis on recruiting and retaining staff.
Kraybill and McManus are outspoken proponents of the area’s technical high school, SEA-Tech, which exposes students to career and real-world work and training.
“The one thing we’ve done in public ed is convince everybody that they need to go to a four-year college,” McManus said, “and I think most people today will tell you that’s not where the jobs are.”
Under the guidance of the new superintendent, Charles Foust, the school board will soon be tasked with helping the district lay out its next strategic plan and have the first opportunity to advocate for their campaign promises.
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