When Democrats choose a new Wake County school board member later this month to replace outgoing Republican Chris Malone, they will have the opportunity to create a supermajority.
Seven Democrats and one Republican applied for the vacancy earlier this month. Board members get testy when the media defines them by their party, since the board itself is technically nonpartisan. But major policy questions—including student assignment, performance pay and charter schools—almost always cut along party lines.
A 6-3 supermajority would allow Democrats to waive board policy and move resolutions along more quickly than with a simple 5-4 majority.
Democratic board members have said they won't take party affiliation into consideration when choosing a new board member. Instead, they've indicated they will look for experience.
Former principal Tom Benton has the most education experience of all the applicants. However, Hilda McCullers is a career teacher, and Wendy Ford served 19 years on a school board in upstate New York.
The board may also consider race. Wake County is made up of 30 percent racial minorities, according to census data, but only one person of a minority race serves on the nine-member board—chair Keith Sutton.
The district faces many important questions in the coming year, but student assignment is still the biggest. After discarding a choice assignment plan, Democrats put a one-year student assignment plan in place for the 2013-14 school year.
The central question in the renewed student assignment debate will be whether to add some measure of diversity back into the plan. Democrats have signaled they want some measure of socioeconomic balance to help prevent high-poverty schools.
Republicans contend that allocating extra resources is a better solution than busing for dealing with the endemic problems of high-poverty schools.
We asked each of the applicants about his or her stance on diversity. And in light of our other story this week looking at the implications of placing armed guards in every school, we asked the applicants if such a strategy would be a good idea.
WENDY FORD, 62, Republican
Ford served 19 years on the Gates Chili Central School District outside of Rochester, N.Y. Unlike Wake, it is a city school district. Ford retired from her previous school board when her career in information processing for hospitals brought her to the Triangle in the late '90s. She considers herself a moderate Republican.
Diversity "I would first look at putting additional resources into a school. But I would be open to other options. When I hear parents say their children are being bused 45 or 50 minutes each way, that's unacceptable." Ford also says she would consider teacher bonuses as a way to improve underperforming schools, as she did in her former school district.
Armed guards "I know we do have some type of law enforcement in middle and high schools. Elementary schools? Truthfully, I think it sends the wrong message to our elementary school students."
Choice plan "They just pulled the plug on something they didn't think was working. Without being able to see the full picture, I think I might have given it another year to see if we are succeeding and which way to go."
Performance pay "Performance pay can be used for staff that might have to go into schools that are underperforming. Let's face it: Teachers and administration don't want to go in those schools. But if the Board of Education is behind them with performance pay and support, at least they have a winning chance."
Construction bond "I do believe that there is a need for a bond to build more schools; as long as the population is growing, we have a responsibility to address that. We can't have overcrowded schools because that puts a strain on all other services and staff and students themselves."
Charter schools "I did not come from an area with charters but I do see them down here. Charters are great for your technology students and your students that have more additional needs to be met. They are competition for public schools. That's no question. Whether or not they should be allowed—why not? The taxpayers have that discretion; they should be able to make that choice."
TOM BENTON, 63, Democrat
Benton is a retired teacher and principal who spent almost his entire career in Wake County schools. His first post was as a social studies teacher at Enloe High School, and he retired as principal of Durant Road Middle School in 2005. He has worked as an education consultant since that time.
Diversity In the ideal world, socioeconomic balancing is the way to go. ... You want to try to use your assignment plan to keep schools away from high poverty levels, but if you do have schools at that level, ethically, you have to provide the extra resources."
Armed guards "We have to be real careful about the knee-jerk reaction of putting armed guards in all schools. I wouldn't rule it out. But we need to study this and not look at that as a simple solution."
Performance pay "I like performance pay as long as it is based on fair measurements. But it can also lead to strife among staff. One of the things you like to help build as a principal is a high spirit of collaboration, all teachers serving all students, sharing everything. If you're not careful, a performance-based system will stop that.
Construction bond "One of the first things that I think has to happen is the board has to build trust with the public or any bond is going to struggle. The board has to be transparent in terms of what it needs to provide, why it needs to provide it and how much it is going to cost."
Charter schools "The issue with charters is: Do they disturb a level playing field? Any time parents have to apply for something that eliminates a whole group of students whose parents don't have the time to fill out an application. When a charter school can choose to admit a student or make them return to public school, that's another issue that doesn't make it a level playing field. When a charter school can place academic qualifications on how you can get in, that's not level. Any charter that doesn't provide transportation, that knocks out a whole group of students."
DAVID MENAKER, 64, Democrat
Menaker, a builder and developer, has a 9-year-old son at Lake Myra Elementary. He served on the town board of commissioners in Kill Devil Hills. He says he applied because he wants to provide a voice with a background in business rather than education.
Diversity "Generally speaking, I think it's better to move money before you move students. I kind of run down the middle. I see some good things from both sides of the argument. What I haven't seen is a good final decision. I'm pretty tired of the petty politics."
Armed guards "I was born on an Air Force base and there were people with guns all over the place, but I'm not sure that's the best environment for a school. There may be other options, like securing points of entry, before armed guards need to be looked at."
Performance pay "Most places have it at this point. I know a lot of teachers, though, that when you ask them, money is not the first thing they say they need. Support, time, supplies [are some of the things you hear]. You've got to get the teachers to the table and hear from them about what they need."
Construction bond "I don't think the amount and the quickness is as important as identifying what the money will be used for and how much. My approach is generally to research the information before making a proposal. You don't want to end up with a short-term bond."
Charter schools "The more you try to control the market, the less control you will have over it. When you try to control it, it gets out of balance. Charter schools have a place in the education market place. Clearly, there are parents who want them. We've got to start with the big concepts in education and agree on how we see those in Wake County, then figure out where charter schools fit in."
DON MIAL, 62, Democrat
Mial retired from the Army and is nearing his retirement working in the N.C. Department of Public Safety. His three children graduated from Wake County schools. Mial also graduated from Wake schools and was in the first integrated class at Daniels Middle School. He has run unsuccessfully for the Wake County Board of Commissioners and the N.C. House.
Diversity "I don't think we want to create high-poverty schools. I just don't think that in the long term we can continue to afford to put a lot of money into any one school."
Armed guards "No. I absolutely do not see that as the answer. ... The idea of putting armed guards in every school is totally ludicrous. Having spent 30 years in the military, [I believe] there is no place for assault rifles in civilian life."
Performance pay "We should be willing to look at it and consider it. We want the best quality teachers here. I'd be willing to listen to both sides for what's best to bring in quality teachers. What you've got to be concerned with is making sure teachers have fair, across-the-board representation and equity and that everyone is treated fairly."
Construction bond "Another bond is crucial to what we need to do in Wake County. Our county is still growing and we've got to be proactive. We can't wait until after we get the additional students. It's going to be too late then. It's time now."
Charter schools "I'm not a supporter of charter schools in their present state. I'm for public education. And it seems we're pulling money from public education for charter schools, so at this point I'm not for it."
WADE MINTER, 37, Democrat
Minter is an executive for a Web startup that promotes recreational sports. He has two children in Wake public schools and moved to the Triangle in 1999. Minter ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature twice as a Libertarian in the early 2000s. Minter says he's fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He eventually "saw the light," he says, and registered as a Democrat. Minter is also a ring announcer for an improv wrestling troupe.
Diversity "I tend to side with the traditional Wake County school model: socioeconomic diversity throughout all schools. Growth in the 2000s and reluctance to spend tax money got us into a bad situation with too much reassignment and not enough stability. On the spectrum, though, I am more supportive of socioeconomic balance than neighborhood schools."
Armed guards "I am generally not supportive of that mindset where you have to be on guard 24/7, wondering if each new person is a threat."
Performance pay "On the surface it seems reasonable that if a teacher's students do well we would pay them more for it. But I'm generally suspicious of the idea of merit pay and that sort of stuff. It's a reasonable idea, but I think it can be used to get rid of teachers who don't teach to the test."
Construction bond "I have a qualified answer. I feel like, to a large extent, the kind of political waves in Wake County have been much like across the country. 'We can underfund this or we can go another year without building.' I need to do more research, but in general I'm supportive of getting schools the money they need to do what they need to do."
Charter schools "I am in general not in favor of the current trend of privatizing education, cutting funds or redirecting money to charter schools."
BEN CLAPSADDLE, 53, Democrat
Clapsaddle has one child who recently graduated from Wake County schools and another still in high school. He retired from the Army in 2008 and now works as a contractor at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. Despite working in Fayetteville, Clapsaddle says he moved his family to Wake Forest so his kids could attend Wake County public schools. He is an Asian-American and as a child was initially turned away from both white and black schools when he was growing up in North Carolina.
Diversity "I'm probably more in the middle. If we have a higher-poverty school, we have to look at what resources we can put there. There may be different solutions. Maybe we bring a charter school into the area to help out. If we are just busing kids out of a high-poverty zone, where is the fairness in that?"
Armed guards "No. Do we need a security specialist in our high schools and middle schools? I would say yes. Do I think we need to have an armed contractor with an AR-15 and body armor in every school? Absolutely not."
Construction bond "It is important that they do a study and that the verified pros and cons have been laid out and the growth patterns of this county. If we don't, the impact on our students is insurmountable. The political jib for jab with the county commissioners... Let's focus on what are the needs for our students and public education, the big needs."
Charter schools "One, it shouldn't take resources from public schools. Two, it does give options for our parents. One way to use them effectively could be to put them in lower-income areas."
SHINICA THOMAS, 39, Democrat
Thomas has a master's degree in government from Regent University. She has two children in the Wake County school system and currently serves on the District 1 school board advisory council. Thomas works at Wake Tech in the human resources department. She would not answer questions regarding policy, saying she would answer to the school board through the application process: "This is an application, not an election. When the time comes, I will talk about my policy beliefs."
While Thomas didn't answer our question on diversity, she did make a relevant comment about her children's assignment: "I have one child at Heritage High and another across the county at Ligon Middle. It's really difficult for me as a parent to get across the county to participate in both schools. Our node has been reassigned several times."
HILDA MCCULLERS, 63, Democrat
McCullers worked 30 years as a biology and science teacher in Wake County schools. She's retired, but she continues to work as a substitute teacher. Her daughter graduated from Wake County schools, and McCullers herself was in the first integrated class at what is now East Wake High School.
Diversity "There isn't a short answer. It's a complicated issue and something I need to study more before I have a definitive answer."
Armed guards "When you're putting an armed guard in a school, bullets kill whether they are coming from a good guy or a bad guy. Gun to gun is not the answer."
Performance pay "I don't know about that one. Teachers are responsible for delivering students information. Are you going to put it back on the teacher if the students didn't learn the information?"
Construction bond "Perhaps we need a bond, but sometimes haste makes waste. We need to cover the right amount for the right time period. Quickly is not always the solution."
Charter schools "That is another one I have to think more about. I guess they have a place. I would cautiously approach it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Eight candidates vie for Wake schools seat."