Wednesday, November 30, 2022

2022 Election: Judy Justice seeks another term on NHCS board

Judy Justice. (Courtesy of Justice).

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Democrat Judy Justice hopes to keep her seat on the New Hanover County Board of Education in 2022.

Port City Daily has sent a questionnaire to every candidate running in local elections in the tri-county region.

Justice’s stances on issues are discussed below. All answers are included in full; the candidate’s opinions and statements are not a reflection of Port City Daily. Responses are edited only for grammar, spelling and clarity.

The paywall is dropped on candidate questionnaires to help voters make informed decisions ahead of Election Day.

To prepare, here are a few dates for readers to keep in mind:

  • Absentee ballots will be available Sept. 9 and have a Nov. 1 deadline.
  • Registration to vote will open until Oct. 14; afterward, according to the state board of elections, same-day registration only will be available during one-stop early voting. 
  • Early voting begins Oct. 20 and remains open through Nov. 5 (3:30 p.m.).
  • Election Day polls open Nov. 8, 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Locations to vote early in New Hanover County include CFCC Health Sciences and Learning Center (415 2nd. St.), Carolina Beach Municipal Building (1121 Lake Park Blvd.), CFCC North Campus (4500 Blue Clay Rd.), Northeast Library/Board of Elections (1241-A Military Cutoff Rd.), and the Senior Center (2222 S. College Rd.).

Once early voting closes, voters will need to go to the location listed on the voter registration card.

To see a sample ballot for the upcoming election, fill in voter registration info here.

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Port City Daily (PCD): Tell us your top three concerns within the school district and how do you plan to address them? 
Judy Justice (JJ): Our staff and students are under-resourced. Our county and state need to provide resources to our schools, such as good pay for our staff and good facilities for all students, so that our district provides quality education to our students.

In my 30-plus years as a professional educator I have never seen our schools in such dire straits. Currently, the county commissioners have control of the 300 million dollars in funding that were promised to the NHCS district at the time of the hospital sale. Even though it was put in writing at the time of the sale as part of the sale agreement, the commissioners instead have repeatedly used excuses not to help our schools. It took a school shooting last year for them to release a small part of those funds.

Our school district is in crisis now. I will continue to lobby the commissioners for that unused and available funding. 

As a board we need to deal with the failed leadership at the top of NHCS school administration. Our staff morale has hit rock bottom as a result of the many problems imposed on them such as an overly burdensome PD schedule, horrible communication, diversion of funds that should be spent in the schools to central office positions, refusal to listen to the concerns of staff, blaming staff for systematic problems they have no control over, and blatant retaliation if the employees speak out about the horrible working conditions.

Employees are leaving in record numbers for reasons that have nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with our current leadership. All seven board members need to do their elected duty and provide oversight of the administration, not just a couple of members.  

We need to recognize and correct the increasing racial and economic segregation which is preventing equitable education opportunities for too many of our students.

PCD: The school board has stalled on a decision to end the practice of seclusion in schools for months. What indicators are you looking for to end the policy? Can you commit to ending the practice by a certain date?
JJ: I was ready to change this policy at the end of the spring when it was obvious that the measures we have put in place over the last year are working well.

In fact, I have worked in at least four other districts and even in a special nonprofit for students with extreme behavior problems. I have never seen the use of seclusion rooms in any of the schools associated with those districts or that program.

I also have extensive and certified training in the proper use of restraint for students in crisis and have had to use it a number of times in my career as a school administrator. Locking a child in a padded room was never an option and shouldn’t be. Doing so, because they are having an emotional meltdown, is in my professional opinion a form of abuse.

In fact, 90% of the time, with proper training, staff members can prevent this situation from even occurring. These are some of the areas we are currently training our staff in so that the use of seclusion rooms is not part of our school’s policy. At this point, with the ongoing training in our district, we should be able to end its use, in my opinion, by the beginning of the 2023-24 school year. 

PCD: How should the district address two years of learning loss due to Covid-19?
JJ: This is a worldwide, complex problem. All students were affected by the pandemic in a variety of ways, not just through learning loss but also because of the fear and isolation created by the pandemic. Many lost loved ones or watched a family member or friend contract and heal from Covid. I think a majority of our students experienced some form of trauma as a result of the pandemic.

We need to keep supplying a supportive and nurturing environment for our students and most importantly meet them where they are, not where they would have been if not for the pandemic. We should support them academically, socially and emotionally and have patience. Over time they will “recover” and the last two years will literally pass into history. There are some things in life a lot more important than test scores. 

PCD: There are 60 SROS across NHC schools. Is this effective for school safety? Why or why not? Should there be more measures implemented?
JJ: I have worked with SROs in NHCS since they were first implemented in the high schools in the 1990’s. With close to 2000 (and some over) students in our high schools, they are equivalent to small towns and it is appropriate to have properly trained law enforcement officers on those large campuses. Since most of our middle schools are extremely large, they are also needed for the same reason.

I have been and still am concerned that the SRO’s receive specialized training in order to work with our student population. There have been too many instances in my opinion that officers approached students as adults in a school setting and the results harmed the students unnecessarily. The county and schools need to provide them with more appropriate training.

As far as the elementary schools go, SROs are good to have in the vicinity of our schools but not necessarily in all the buildings themselves. I have discovered, from working with certain groups of children in high-poverty areas with a lot of criminal and law enforcement involvement, that many of those children are traumatized by what they have witnessed when it comes to law enforcement officers’ actions in their neighborhoods. We need to be very aware that SRO’s can actually further traumatize those students so we should look at their assignments on a case-to-case basis to make sure their presence is a positive experience for our students.

Overall, I have seen some wonderful SRO officers who are an asset to our school’s communities. As far as school safety, though, most recent major studies have shown that the presence of SRO’s are not a major factor in improving school safety. In fact, the events in Uvalde, Texas, where law enforcement stood by while an active shooter was murdering innocent children for over an hour, should be an indication that their presence is obviously not always helpful.

PCD: The school board has faced many calls to ban books in schools and offer more parental oversight of curriculum. How do you promote a relationship of trust between educators and parents and ensure both parties’ roles are respected? 
JJ: I actually believe it is a small group of people, some not even parents, who are actively promoting this idea of banning books and attacking school curriculum for political reasons across the country. In fact, it is part of a national campaign co-ordinated by major political activists.

We need to keep politics out of our public schools. There are plenty of systems in place to make sure that a student’s parents can stop a child from reading material they find objectionable. If they do, students can be given alternative reading choices if an assignment is involved. Parents can instruct the media specialists not to allow their students to check out material they find objectionable.

What, to me, is telling is that most students have access to internet technology that has nothing to do with our library materials and they can easily access pornographic material online using a variety of devises. That should be of real concern for the people who are currently upset about what is in school libraries.

It also goes against our first amendment rights of our citizenry when people start trying to censor our libraries. I feel comfortable leaving it to the professionals to decide what is appropriate for our school libraries.

Along the same vein, I feel the curriculum issue also is part of a national political campaign that actually is an effort to prevent students from learning the facts of our country’s past, among other things. Public schools were designed to educate all the populace, using the most up-to-date curriculum about a multitude of subjects across all grade levels. Our curriculum is designed by educational professionals and taught by professionals. We need to support the fine work our educators are doing, not attack them. Especially after the amazing job those educators did under very, very difficult teaching conditions during the pandemic.

PCD: Research has shown the district’s “neighborhood schools” districting policy has increased segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines reflected in Wilmington’s residential segregation. Do you think the district should redistrict using different techniques, why or why not?
JJ: We need to develop and implement effective methods to solve this ongoing problem across our district.

The methodology is out there, but it will be up to our leadership, including the school board, to research and implement the type of solutions that will reverse this ongoing trend that has taken place in New Hanover County over the last 15 years. For example, there have been many studies on the topic and the most effective method for reversing the current situation is to ensure a balanced socioeconomic population in all our schools. This is where targeted redistricting would be useful.

Also, an increase in resources and high quality experienced teachers would go a long way to assisting in improving the educational outcomes of students attending those schools that still have large numbers of low-poverty populations attending.

We could also establish a real magnet program across the district, which would give parents actual school choice, unlike the current system that really has not developed true magnet programs for over a decade.

I would like to point out that we are lucky to live in the second-smallest geographical district in the state, so if done properly, any redistricting that would take place should also involve bus rides that should not take over 30 minutes for any students. Of course that means we also need to correct the many problems with our current transportation system. 

In the past the central office staff had achieved the “no bus ride over 30 minutes” through careful planning in 2008 during redistricting, but the school board at the time threw out that plan and instead enacted “neighborhood schools,” which is the concept that intentionally resegregated our schools.

We have a lot of tools to correct this problem but it will take the will of the school board to make sure they are implemented. 

PCD: Do you think schools are adequately staffed? Why or why not? Do you think teachers and staff are adequately paid? Why or why not?
JJ: The schools are far from adequately staffed.

The main reason is because the North Carolina General Assembly has radically cut school funding for staff for the last 12 years to the point that North Carolin is 48th in the nation when it comes to supplying resources to our students, including staff pay. We spend $3,000 less on average in this state than the national average.

It has been left up to the local governments to make up the difference. Unfortunately, our county commissioners are not doing their job when it comes to paying their share of the county budget to our schools, so that our staff can earn at least a living wage let alone a good living wage. From a recent salary study it was shown that not only are we not paying our staff enough but that the cost of living in NHC is 20% more than in all other counties across the state. And we are the 5th wealthiest county in the state.

Even with the money promised to the schools with the sale of our local hospital in 2021, our commissioners are ignoring this need. In a way you can’t blame them alone though, considering that during the budget process this last spring our superintendent falsely told them that we have been paying for too many staff positions with local money. They listened to this false statement, and no matter how much evidence I and others have shown them that this is not true, they continue to believe the superintendent’s false statement.

Meanwhile, we are losing hundreds of experienced and hardworking employees to the private sector, which will pay them much better. We also have tens of millions in ESSER funding at our disposal that has been allocated to materials and programs over staff over the next two years.

Another huge problem is that the central office administration has radically increased in size since the current superintendent came on board two years ago. Those positions need to be dissolved in my professional opinion and that money used for staffing in the schools.

These are some of the main reasons I refused to vote for the current budget we are operating under for the 2022-23 school year.

PCD: Current board members, please, answer this: What is one action you’ve taken as a board member you would do differently and why? Potential new board members, please, answer this: What would you bring to the board that is missing right now?
JJ: I would never have voted “yes” to hire our current superintendent two years ago.

I expressed many of the concerns about his leadership style and abilities to lead this district in the right direction to the other board members before my vote. I realized that the other six members were going to vote for him no matter what input they received from me, so I decided to vote for him hoping that I was wrong about my assessment of his abilities or if not that he would improve.

He was going to become superintendent even without my “yes” vote, so I felt that presenting a united front would give him an opportunity to succeed as superintendent, especially if I was wrong about my assessment of his abilities. I have learned my lesson about doubting my professional instincts.

I will never vote contrary to those instincts again.

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