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Monday, May 27, 2024

New Hanover County Primaries 2024: Judy Justice seeks a seat on the board of education

Judy Justice is re-seeking a board of education seat, after serving the board from 2018 to 2022. (Courtesy photo)

NEW HANOVER 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

Democratic candidate Judy Justice is a retired educator who served on the New Hanover County Board of Education from 2018 to 2022. She hopes for re-election in 2024 to take one of three seats on the board. In the primary election, Justice is running against three other Democrats — Jerry Jones Jr., Tim Merrick and Cynthia Munoz. The primary will take place March 5.

Justice’s stances on issues are discussed below. 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 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 New Hanover County takes place at various locations: Northeast Regional Library (1241 Military Cutoff Rd.) in the David E Paynter Room, Carolina Beach Town Hall (1121 N. Lake Park Blvd.) in the police training room, CFCC Health Sciences Building (415 N. 2nd St.) and NHC Senior Resource Center (2222 S. College Rd.)

Early voting stops are open Feb. 15-16, 19-23, 26-29 and March 1, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., noon to 5 p.m. on Feb. 24-25, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on 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.).*

Justice’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? 

Judy Justice (JJ): I am a knowledgeable and experienced educator who is running to ensure that all students, no matter what their life circumstances, receive a quality education so that they can grow up to be productive and happy citizens. In my 30 plus years as an educator, I have served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal, and developed and run education programs for a variety of nonprofits.

Also, after four years on the school board, I know this district inside and out. I know what it will take to move our district in the direction of providing that quality education to all. Our school district and community deserve the most qualified people like myself to help successfully run our system.

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

JJ: At this point I do not see them doing a lot of “anything” right. Wrong? They are unfortunately doing plenty wrong.

They are too busy carrying out an extreme right-wing political agenda that is not focused on providing a quality education but instead on implementing a political agenda that is counter to what needs to be taking place in our schools to achieve a quality education. They are implementing such anti-education actions as banning books, limiting the teaching of history and government, falsely accusing teachers of “indoctrinating students”, making our Black and LGBTQ students feel unwelcome and not supported, doing away with our equity and Title IX committees, ignoring policy, making a sham of the parliamentary procedure process, hiring an incompetent lawyer based on political connections, refusing to use the local resources available to properly fund our schools and making excuses why they can’t, trying to close down quality programs based on political reasons, recently telling students that they are not allowed to speak up when they want their voices heard and a lot more.  

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

JJ: First and foremost, we need to tap into the available resources to properly fund our schools. NC is 50th in the nation for per-pupil expenditure because our state legislature, controlled by right-wing extremists like our current school board, has been systematically defunding our public schools for the last 14 years. They are currently setting on a 6-billion-dollar “slush” fund that should have gone to support our schools during that time. Yet, our past Republican controlled boards, like our current one, have never stood up to that political action and fought to get the proper funding for our public schools.

Locally, we have $1.5 billion from the sale of our local hospital to Novant Health that was promised in the actual sale document to go to help our public schools. That promised money is currently sitting in a bank, drawing interest — while not being used to help our failing public schools in any meaningful way. In the meantime, those funds are being dispersed to other organizations, such as UNCW and GLOW Academy and Novant itself, which do not need any extra funding because they have access to many other funding sources.

[Ed. note: $1.25 was put into an endowment from the hospital sale and one of its 2023 recipients was Spark Academy, an early childhood education center overseen by Beacon Education, which also oversees GLOW — GLOW did not receive the $3.3 million awarded. See all of last year’s recipients here.]

In fact, our county commissioners have immediate access to over $300 million from that sale. Instead, they ignore our crumbling, overcrowded, and unsafe schools who are losing our best employees in droves because of poor pay and horrible working conditions. In the meantime, they ignore their responsibility to provide a quality education to all our counties students.

One third of our schools’ funding comes from our local per-student allotment provided by those same county commissioners. We currently are ranked as the 9th wealthiest county in the state yet are ranked as only 71st in per-pupil county spending according to our county’s income. It is obvious that our county commissioners can and should do better.

It is up to the school board and our superintendent to inform and convince the commissioners to do so. Instead, we have a superintendent who agrees with some commissioners that we spend to much local money on positions and a right-wing school board that would rather “tighten our belts” then fight to get the money for resources that our students deserve.

In fact, our current board also refuses to fight to get the needed money from the state, such as the court-ordered Leandro funds, which have been ignored by the same right-wing politicians for over a decade. Because of the political actions of our current school board, our county commissioners and state legislators, our schools are failing due to lack of proper resources.

I intend to focus on how we can turn that around so that all our students can receive the quality education they need and deserve.  

PCD: In December, the board voted to dissolve the equity, diversity and inclusion committee. Do you agree with this decision, and what is your plan, outside of reestablishing or opposing the committee, to promote inclusivity and ensure every child has the resources they need to succeed?

JJ: The EDI committee was established while I was previously on the board and that is one committee that I will fight to re-establish once re-elected. The current board dissolved the committee for purely political reasons. They are intentionally ignorant of the good and needed work that this committee does when it comes to improving our district’s culture, actions and policy around the historic systematic racism that has taken place in New Hanover County schools for decades.

Our district itself was on the path to establishing equality and achieving equity between the different ethnic groups in our county, students of different nationalities and religious beliefs, students who are do not identify with “traditional” gender orientations, our exceptional children population and children living in poverty. I would promote the needed, proven programs to bring about equality and equity, diversity and inclusion in our district while working to create policy that will support our students and these programs.

One of the reasons I am so vocal about our need to tap into the available financial resources is to enable the district to invest in these programs and policies without taking funding from other needed programs and policy implementations.  

PCD: A 2023 space needs study concluded NHCS needs significant capital projects and repairs to accommodate its current student population. However, other analyses by the county show the district could better distribute students across its facilities, indicating a redistricting is needed, and the student population is expected to level off and decrease in the future. Where do you stand on addressing potential growth and the district’s capital needs? What projects do you think the district should prioritize?

JJ: First, after serving on the board previously for four years I can confidently say that these analyses by the county and by the school district itself have proven to be inaccurate every time they have been used to make projections. So I would not use them as an authoritative source.

What is true about these studies is that our students are districted unequally around the county, due to the use of the very faulty “neighborhood school” concept when we have re-districted since around 2008. It has left some of our schools overcrowded, others with many empty seats and a huge problem with schools that are 90% high poverty and racially segregated.

In my professional opinion, and I have researched and studied this challenge for years, we need targeted redistricting and effective magnet programs so that those high poverty and segregated schools will no longer exist in their present forms and instead have economically integrated schools in their place. All studies over the last 25 years have shown that when doing so, all students in the school benefit, not just students whose low-income challenges are improved by this type of school districting. Of course, we will still have an increase in student population, no matter what the “official” analysis says, since they have continually proven wrong over the last five years in my experience.

I believe using the hospital money in configuration with a countywide bond will be able to provide us with at least one other elementary school and possibly a new middle school and ninth-grade center to alleviate the overcrowding of two of our traditional high schools. 

PCD: Since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the school district has 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?

JJ: At this point the return to a new normalcy two years after the pandemic is becoming the norm. Unfortunately, it has offered the Republicans in control of our legislature more opportunity, by denying the proper funding for our public schools, with their goal of handicapping our public schools so that they continue to often fail. They want our public tax money to go to private and charter schools instead.

At this point, short of electing people to the legislature in 2024 who will support and fund our public schools adequately, we are left to deal with the many resulting problems from the pandemic in our district locally.

As far as the calendar law goes, we as a district should join other districts across the state who are defying it and let it be resolved in the courts. We should be doing what is best for our students’ success by not allowing a small group of business interests, who are large donors to the politicians in our legislature, to dictate our school calendar. We as a board need to be lobbying our county commissioners for the money to increase staff salary, increased positions, money for facilities and transportation, special programs, etc. As I detailed earlier, we have the money to use for all these needs, but our county commissioners and current school leadership is ignoring those needs in favor of politics.  

PCD: Do you think the district is adequately staffed? What positions would you like to see prioritized and/or deprioritized, especially considering the district having to make significant cuts to next year’s budget? What should the board do to create a better working environment for its employees?

JJ: At this point, our district is lacking in staff in all departments except for the superintendent’s division and his overstaffed PR department.

The schools are in crisis for lack of staff. We need teachers in all areas, especially to work with exceptional children. While this should be our priority, we also need so much more. We need teachers’ assistants, substitutes, nurses (the county is supposed to provide them but isn’t) social workers, guidance counselors, bus drivers and maintenance workers across the board. Again, if the county and the school leadership did their jobs properly and used the resources available in this county, none of this would be an issue.

As far as the board creating a better working environment, they need to work to fund the schools, stop attacking our staff and curriculum, and provide the needed oversight of the superintendent who is one of the main reasons our staff is so demoralized. He has repeatedly blamed the teachers and administrators for student pandemic loss and the low scores from the high poverty, segregated schools in our district. If the board really wants to discover what is going on with the low morale and reasons for our staff leaving, they could put back together the task force I managed to create in 2022 to address these issues and follow through with its main goal. As soon as the new board members were seated in 2023, they let it disappear.

PCD: Many districts, including NHCS, have been experiencing issues with student discipline. NHCS is also unique in its struggle with discriminatory discipline practices against Black students per a federal sanction. Do you think changes should be made to the way the district disciplines students, and if so, how?

JJ: Staff, especially classroom teachers and school administration, need more resources, such as effective staff development and added supports — more social workers and counselors for our kids. The reason for the high number of discipline referrals for our Black students is because of a toxic racist culture that has dominated important segments of our school district leadership for decades, especially toward our high poverty, Black majority schools who also serve a disproportionately high number of exceptional children.

These schools need to be re-imagined and turned into schools that have socio-economic balance and which can add support to the staff to our highest needs staff. That actually needs to happen across the district.  

PCD: Since the last board election, the topic of parental rights has influenced discussions, including over curriculum, library materials, surveys and medical care. Where do you think the balance lies between parent and school staff responsibility over a student’s education, particularly in these areas?

JJ: Honestly, the current emphasis on so called “parental rights” is nothing more than a national propaganda campaign created and organized by the far-right extremists in order to get their conservative base out to vote. I have worked in education for over 30 years and know that our public schools bend over backwards to try and get all parents involved. Parents are our most important partners in the education of our children and there are numerous ways that public schools work to get parents involved.

All the curriculum, developed by experts in different subject areas, is all online so that all parents can see what their children are learning. The schools constantly, almost daily and sometimes multiple times, text, phone and email all parents to keep them abreast of what is happening in their child’s classroom, with their child and school. Schools have different staff contact students for a whole variety of needs and have open houses on a regular basis to bring in parents.

I could go on and on about the multiple ways parents can and should be involved with their children’s learning. It is ridiculous to even say that there is an issue with schools not communicating with parents and not wanting them involved. The reality is that our schools do a great job in this area already and it is up to the parents to hold up their end and work with our schools.

The current narrative promoted by our current board is nothing but part of a political agenda that is taking away from the real goal of our schools, which is to provide a quality education for all our students. Their culture war behavior is counterproductive to achieving that goal.  

PCD: The board has discussed different ways to hold each other accountable, such as a code of ethics policy, and ways to make the board more efficient, such as adding agenda review meetings. Do you think the board should be doing more to promote civil and efficient discussion? If so, what actions would you propose to accomplish this?

JJ: There already is a policy in place that should serve the purpose of ensuring effective meetings and respectful interactions, but a couple of members only seem to use it when it serves their purposes. Writing a new code would most likely have little-to-no effect on those members’ behavior except to give them more ways to force their agenda on the other board members who are not part of their political “clique.” Those members do not know or even seem to understand how parliamentary procedure works, even though they have been trained on numerous occasions.

Their current so-called expert, the lawyer hired for political reasons, seems clueless when it comes to the topic. We have always had agenda review meetings, but under the current board they decided to expand those involved on the board. It used to be just the chair and vice chair attending, but now all board members are coming to these meetings. When I was on the board, we had a committee that focused on improving our meetings, which came up with a lot of good ideas. The irony is that the board at the time refused to enact the ideas presented and instead continued to operate in the ineffective system we currently are experiencing.

A couple of board members who complain the loudest about how long the meetings last are the same people who refused to incorporate the ideas for shortening the meeting length that were presented to them by the committee. The committee needs to be re-established and the ideas need to be re-visited. 

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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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