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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Brunswick County Primaries 2024: Incumbent Steven Barger runs for board of education seat

Brunswick County Board of Education Chair Steven Barger will run for the school board in 2024 for District 4. (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 Steven Barger is hoping to be re-elected for a Brunswick County Board of Education seat in District 4. Barger will face off against Republican Shirley Babson in the primary election, to take place March 5.

A local firefighter and police officer, Barger served as mayor pro tem for three years on the City of Boiling Spring Lakes Board of Commissioners. In 2020, he was elected to the Brunswick County Board of Education and appointed vice chair in year one and currently serves as chair.

Barger discusses issues facing Brunswick’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 Brunswick County takes place at five locations: the Cooperative Extension at the Government center (25 Referendum Dr. in Bolivia), Leland Cultural Arts Center (1212 Magnolia Village Way), Brunswick Center at Southport (1513 N. Howe St.), Brunswick Center at Shallotte (3620 Express Dr.) and Sunset Beach Community Center (200 Station Trail). 

Early voting at the Cooperative Extension is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb. 15-16, 19-23, and 26-Mar. 1, and on Mar. 2, 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.

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.).*

Barger’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? 

Steven Barger (SB): I am a fierce supporter of public education. Our staff, students, and families need us more than ever. As a parent and longtime public servant, I see the need for improvement in our public education system. As a first responder in multiple locations over the last 18 years, I have seen situations with young people that contribute to challenges in their learning. Generational poverty, unstable homes, and access to food all contribute to a student potentially struggling in school. I want us to serve all students in Brunswick County with the level of support that will enable them to be successful. 

I am experiencing the challenges of modern parenting, including what children are exposed to at school and home. My three children currently attend public school. I take our ability to keep schools safe and free from unneeded influences seriously.

Lastly, as a lifelong learner who came through Career and Technical Education, I see the importance of expanding programs that give students access to job certifications and exposure to many career options.

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

SB: We are excelling in bridging the gap caused by the past pandemic. Our learning loss was less than in many other areas, and we have invested heavily in programs to raise achievement and support students at home and school.

Expanding our Career and Technical Education programs has shown a positive outcome in student graduation, attaining job certifications, and removing the stigma of not going straight to college out of high school. We continue to foster a healthy partnership with Brunswick Community College, which gives additional opportunities to our students.

No system is currently getting it 100% correct, but I am proud of our board for facing issues head-on and bringing all stakeholders to the table. I believe in the rights of parents to be involved in educating their children, and I will not waiver in supporting our staff through recruiting and retention measures to ensure we have the best staff in our buildings. I am dedicated to continuous evaluation of our district and working with all stakeholders on adequate improvements.

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

SB: Continuing to address achievement deficiencies is a top priority while also addressing the fast-paced growth in Brunswick County. We have many projects going on currently to get ahead of the increased student population where we can. Addressing the teacher pay issue is another area we must work with our state officials on while looking at ways to make a difference locally. 

PCD: In November, the board voted to review the makeup of the district’s book review committee, particularly examining more community stakeholder input. Do you agree with the way the district reviews curricular and library material? Would you change anything about the process, and if so, what? 

SB: Stakeholders, to me, means involving all involved parties. To have integrity in any review, it must include parents, teachers, community members, and students. Our stakeholder group is large, and the work should start small. I feel the best way to review materials is with small groups at the school level that then come together with appointed members to form a county group. This allows collaboration and transparency in a process that hears all sides.

PCD: Also in November, the board voted to review its sex education curriculum after one board member said he found some of its content “inappropriate.” Do you see any problems with the district’s sex education curriculum, and if so, what would you like to see changed? 

SB: I see many issues facing not only the schools but society as a whole in this area. Young people today are faced with so much in the world of electronics and access to social media, websites and other means. The school system should be teaching a curriculum that addresses the necessary material while also aligning with community values. I would much rather a state-approved curriculum teaching a child about this than TikTok. However, as I’ve said many times, this is where we have to partner as a system with families. Our opt in system was a way for parents to be engaged in what their students are learning and deeming the appropriateness for their beliefs.

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? 

SB: The short answer to this is no. The solution is not short in that we have many areas of need that constantly change.

We see mental health needs increasing with students and this alone encompasses many areas including early addiction in students. We have to support students in this fight that many adults aren’t even equipped to handle.

Teachers and teaching assistance are needed as well. The state provides funding based on their formula, but we see that isn’t enough.

I see the greatest need for the assistance in K-2, where the fundamentals of reading are so important. If a student gets to 3rd grade and cannot read, they are at a disadvantage statistically for the rest of their school career.

Bus drivers are another area we struggle just like many other districts. The pay is part of the issue but also student behavior on the bus. This is where investing in the mental health of our students is important.

The staff working environment is nowhere near what I envision for our system. To improve this, we need to partner district leaders with staff from all areas to find solutions. Teachers need time returned to their day to conduct planning and prepare for their role in student success while recognizing how difficult the job has become and improving that where applicable. Our classified staff need additional staff where workloads can be shared, and their value is recognized.

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? 

SB: The calendar law has been a point of contention for our system. It makes the calendar planning difficult and potentially harms the students’ learning. The semester length should be equal so that instructional hours are the same whether you take the class in the fall or the spring.

Being in a tourist area and working with a local economy that relies on that revenue, I understand the potential impacts but see that as a much smaller issue than others may. The state budget has been late in recent years in passing and can complicate school system funding and particularly the raises staff received within it. During the delays, we continue operating on the previous year until the time a budget is passed.

PCD: At a legislative luncheon in December, Superintendent Dale Cole said the district is focusing on providing students with education and connections with CTE and trade careers. Do you agree with a focus in this direction, and how do you think the board and district should promote these pathways, while also still providing support for students seeking higher education post-graduation?

SB: My emphasis has always been, “we support students in whatever their picture of success looks like.” Whether a student is heading to a four-year college, community college, work force or military, I want our system to support that.

Like our superintendent, I strongly support CTE programs as we have seen a drop in skilled labor across the country. Our local area relies heavily on skilled labor in both the private and public sectors.

An example of that would be my introduction of creating a public safety pathway in our system to fill a gap we have locally with first responders. Teaching as a profession is another new program aimed at increasing the interest of students who may want to be teachers and working to keep them in Brunswick County.

PCD: Brunswick County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state and nation. Do you think the district is in a good position to accommodate the county’s growth as far as staffing, capital needs and infrastructure? What else can be done to prepare for additional students? 

SB: The rapid growth in our county is a huge challenge we face everyday. Currently, we have multiple expansion projects going on. Assessment of future needs is ongoing as we look for locations for future development to accommodate the increased student population. Many of our schools are positioned to handle this growth short-term, but our long-term solution must include the potential replacement or remodel of aging buildings as well.

The use of modular classrooms is a last-choice solution in our eyes, and we look to continue to fund expansions and even the addition of new schools through smart fiscal planning and debt management.

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? 

SB: The balance lies in the fact that education is a partnership between families and the school system. The state constitution provides the right for that education and the only way to execute that in my eyes properly is a partnership.

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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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