Tuesday, July 16, 2024

2022 Primary Election: Judy Justice eyes second term on NHCS board

NEW HANOVER COUNTY ⁠— Judy Justice, a Democrat, is striving to retain her seat on the New Hanover County Board of Education for a second term.

Port City Daily has sent a questionnaire to every candidate running in local elections in the tri-county region. The paywall is dropped on profiles to help voters make informed decisions ahead of casting their ballots.

As a reminder, the early voting period runs from Apr. 28 to May 14. The voter registration deadline is Apr. 22. Voters may partake in same-day registration throughout the two-week early voting period (check if your registration is active at your current address).

Primary Election Day is May 17. Voters will choose which candidates from their registered party they want to move forward in the formal election. Those who are registered as unaffiliated can choose which party’s primary they want to vote in.

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

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Port City Daily (PCD): What is your top priority and how would you address it?
Judy Justice (JJ): My top priority is finding and using the needed resources to allow our staff to actually do their jobs to the best of their abilities. That means raising pay, providing needed staff to cover our staff shortages while hiring more to assist our school district in providing our school community the support they need to achieve a quality education for all our students. Our staff, especially the teachers, need the proper amount of time to plan and access. They also need to be treated as professionals who are trusted to provide their own professional expertise to craft and implement curriculum. So we need less “canned” curriculum, less testing since our students lose valuable instructional time to testing, when in fact the teacher’s own assessment of their students is a better indicator of a student’s learning than a bubble sheet. We need so many other resources such as safe up-to-date facilities, a real student-centered, effective transportation system and a strong district-wide after-school program. I would address the large increase needed for these resources by utilizing the over $300 million dollars we have available to our schools through the monies set aside and promised to our public schools from the $1.5 billion dollar NHCRMC hospital sale. The catch is that it is up to the County Commissioners via a super majority vote to access these monies for our schools. Instead they ended up raising property taxes last year for all county residents for an increase in teachers supplements while not providing needed supplements to our hard-working employees. We also could get rid of some of the unneeded administrative positions brought in by our current school administration and send that money to pay for people who actually work daily in our schools. We also need to hire a full-time grant writer since this is one area that has been underutilized by our district in the past and in the present.

PCD: Mask mandates. Canceled proms and sports. Virtual schooling: How would you describe the current and past leadership’s management of Covid-19? Moving toward an endemic phase, what is your stance on how the board should weigh public health into its decisions?
JJ: I know it was very difficult for all of our districts, in fact it was a nationwide challenge. I always weighed public health into every decision I made as a board member and I feel good about the decisions I made. I listened and studied the information daily from many, many sources, even those that were in disagreement with the mainstream studies. The biggest problem the nation faced during the pandemic was that the subject was turned political by one of our major political parties which sadly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Instead too many people listened to political leaders with an agenda that basically denied proven science for their own political gains. Right up to the present I continue to daily check in on public health reporting sites and I am very pleased that we have little to no cases reported of Covid at this time. It also has reassured me that the method I supported and followed, which was science based, for both school re-opening and ending mask mandates, matched what was safest for our schools and our community throughout the pandemic.

PCD: What is your opinion on the district’s current salaries and staff morale? What changes would you advocate for, if any, and how so?
JJ: For our classified staff the salaries are awful and have caused many good people to leave. Actually hundreds this year. While our certified staff is in a better position, due to the teacher (only) supplement increase we could still do better considering the access to resources at our county’s disposal. Also we still have a large share of the ESSER money available and it needs to be redirected to our staff needs. I asked for a task force back in the fall to look into staff morale since we were losing staff in high numbers and we were getting a lot of reports of upset, overworked, disrespected staff. This resulted in a climate survey being generated for our staff. What it showed was that our staff morale is at rock bottom for a number of reasons. While conditions created by the pandemic drove some of the complaints, most of the results showed that our staff felt disrespected, overworked and ignored by both our school central office leadership and by board members. This is why I pushed for a task force to investigate the problems and come up with solutions. It took several requests on my part and the part of other board members to finally have one created. Unfortunately that was over a month ago, Dr. Foust placed it in the hands of the Human Resources director (one of the central office departments that our employees said they feel are intimidating them) and I don’t even know what the criteria for the membership of that “task force” will be. I requested that I and another board member be part of the planning for the group and so far we have been totally left out and we have yet to meet. We need to access the set aside money from the hospital sale and ESSER funds to raise wages to a minimum $17 an hour across the board as recommended by the Salary study that was just released last year. We also need to hold our central office staff, especially the superintendent accountable for their current and past job performances. We need to hold them accountable when they violate policy. Our entire staff is watching what the board is doing and supporting those in the schools needs along with being transparent and accountable would go a long way to improving staff morale and working conditions.

PCD: Some community members have expressed a desire to see less invasive measures taken in a school setting. Where do you stand on suspensions and seclusion rooms?
JJ: Seclusion rooms need to be shut down and restraint should only be used by properly trained staff and then only after all other interventions have been applied. This is an outmoded practice that harms our most vulnerable populations, usually EC students that are Black males in the lower grades. We have used this thousands of times over the last 4 years on these small children. This is a form of mass child abuse in my professional opinion that is placing these children in the school-to-prison pipeline in the early grades. I have worked in four other districts in my career, including for a non profit for at-risk children and I have never seen seclusion and restraint used in this way. In fact at least three of the districts did not even use seclusion rooms. And restraint was only used by staff who were trained and certified to do so. I myself have been trained, certified and had to assist in the process a number of times. If not done right staff and students can suffer severe injuries.

PCD: Do you think community members, parents and staff members have a platform to be adequately heard? How can the district improve?
JJ: At this time we do not. But parents, staff and other community members have been pushing for more access and they definitely are making a difference. I am proud of our community and staff for giving us constant feedback and attending our board meetings and functions. We have a family communication group but it is small and does not represent the community and staff as a whole. We need to keep pushing the board to allow more public input, such as the promised town halls, that have yet to materialize. Luckily the majority of the board is now listening, that is why we voted to have town halls a couple months ago. But again leadership, both from a couple board members, especially the chair have yet to follow through with this majority decision. Our staff has two staff groups (certified and classified) that meet with the superintendent monthly but that is a select group and does not really represent the overall employee population. Plus he only started these meetings recently and that is most likely in response to the problems of staff morale identified in the climate survey. We still have a strong message sent to the staff that if they speak to board members about complaints that the superintendent will find out and there will be retaliation at the school level. This message was conveyed to the principal’s year before last and it still holds sway in many of the staff’s communications. This needs to improve but such actions as the communication director sending emails to local media informing them that the staff cannot talk to them (violation of first amendment rights in my opinion) at the end of February only further chills communication between the public and our staff. These types of actions need to cease. I have asked Dr. Foust in an email if he approves of these type of communications from our communications department to the media but he has not replied to me yet about my concern.

PCD: What needs to be done to make schools safer?
JJ: Our schools are too large as a whole and our staff is overworked. Our culture needs to change so that students and staff feel safe communicating their concerns without reprisal from “higher ups” whether it be in an individual classroom, school or district. We also need better relationship with the community in general so again trust in communication needs to be established. We need to listen to students, staff and parents so that we can identify a lot of situations that lead to violence before it takes place. We are putting in place better “hard” defenses for our schools but we still need to do more. A bond for facilities or using the funds for the hospital endowments would help build some other facilities that would lessen the number of large schools we operate. Studies show that the most effective and safe schools are those with much smaller student populations. In this case larger is not better. 

PCD: How comfortable are you with the way the district uses local funds? 
JJ: We need to spend the funds, which we have access to from the hospital endowment grant ($300 million) and our large tax base, to improve our schools in so many ways. When the hospital was sold, that money was promised in the sale agreement to go to our public schools. Instead is sets in a bank, The county commissioners (they need a supermajority vote of 4 out of 5 to access it) used a very small part of it for safety measures when there was a shooting at NHHS, We desperately need new programs, like district-wide before and after school enrichment program, staff salary and wage increases (as laid out in our salary study) and new and improved facilities. The local resources are there. We have access to the best resource base of any district right now in NC and if we use the resources wisely we literally can have the number one school district in NC. Our students and our community deserve the best and our leadership, both at the school level and county level, need to step up and make it happen. As a school board member I will continue to fight to make sure that it happens. 

PCD: Is there an additional issue or issues you think need(s) to be addressed during your term, should you win?
JJ: I have identified many in these responses. My 30+ years as an experience as an educator, community member, parent and grandparent (I currently have custody of two of my grandchildren who attend NHHCS) and almost four years as a board member, puts me in the position to actually understand the problems facing our district and how to solve them effectively. Sadly I have had to work with many board members who were more interested in “protecting the organization” than protecting our students and staff. I finally, after three years, have the pleasure of working with three other board members who are honest, knowledgeable and who want to solve the problems that are harming our district. From calling for an investigation of the sexual assault allegations (which the SBI is now conducting), trying to end the obvious resegregation of our schools, to holding our past and present employees accountable and demanding transparency, I have had to work with a majority of board members who wanted to shut me up and stop me from trying to solve these problems. One of the main drivers of my actions has been public concerns and input since the community is also demanding change in our district for the better. I finally am seeing the board move forward in the right direction since the new members were elected last year. I want to see that continue and I know that if I remain on the board that will happen!

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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