Name as it appears on the ballot: Margaret Samuels
Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website: www.margaretsamuelsforschoolboard.com
Occupation & employer: CEO/President OE Enterprises, Inc.
Years lived in Chapel Hill/Carrboro: 10 years
1) Given the current direction of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?
First, I think it is only fair to acknowledge that the current Board of Education has made significant progress in difficult circumstances. The introduction of a long-range plan grounded in a “Growth Mindset” has been a very positive development. But we must also acknowledge that there are some challenges that still need to be addressed. As a former PTA Council President I know firsthand that the Board has fallen short when it comes to community engagement and ensuring that voices from all sections of our community are heard with equal force. If elected to the Board I will make accountability and transparency the watchwords of my tenure, and will do my utmost to ensure that the views of the entire community I represent are given the full weight they deserve. I am committed to the values of collaboration, accessibility and transparency.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues the school system faces and how you will address them.
The first most pressing issue: Resources.
I think it is clear to everyone that the most challenging issue facing our district is securing the provision of adequate resources to ensure that we can meet the needs of our students, and the needs of students entering the school system in the future. As President of the PTA Council I campaigned for the passage of the ¼ cent Sales Tax increase to secure additional funding for our schools. Raising taxes is always a difficult decision but an infinitesimal increase in the Sales Tax provided relief to our School District. The key to this initiative was making the case to the community and getting voters on board with this proposal. However, we also owe it to district taxpayers to ensure that we are making all the savings that we can within existing revenue streams – this means identifying innovative and cost effective ways to support student growth and teaching excellence. No one knows our school district better than the teachers and administrators that work in it – they are an invaluable source of ideas and initiatives in this regard and if elected I will ensure that they are encouraged to submit their own suggestions about where money can be saved or spent more effectively. Running an efficient school district must be a collaborative venture and I will always be prepared to listen to new suggestions about how improvements can be made.
The second most pressing issue: Results.
At the end of the day the key metric by which all school systems are judged are the academic outcomes achieved by the student body – skills development, job placement, high school graduation and college admissions. But we will have also failed our students if we have not helped them to develop as well-rounded individuals connected to the community from which they come. My vision is for a school system that produces young adults who achieve academic excellence, and also demonstrate social and emotional intelligence. I will work to create an environment in our district that places an emphasis on strong professional development and access to resources for teachers, and that will support evidence-based instructional excellence with measurable outcomes. I will ensure that district staff are held accountable for the effective implementation of the CHCCS long-range plan, while keeping the focus on student achievement, critical thinking and academic performance.
The third most pressing issue: Respect.
The School Board serves the community and as public servants the School Board’s approach to its work must always be grounded in respect – respect for our students, respect for our parents, respect for our teachers, and respect for every single employee of the school system. Every member of our community must feel that they have the opportunity to participate actively in our decision-making and to have their voices heard. We are a diverse community with many competing interests. They are all important. Children at every point on the education spectrum must have access to same quality services and must be given the space to develop to their full academic potential. There is tendency in the public debate for competing interests to run down other points of view – I believe that a community like ours, that values education to the extent that we do, has to find a way to ensure that all students succeed. I will work to ensure that this is the default position on the School Board. We must close the achievement gap, emphasize academic rigor, and demonstrate our commitment to helping every single student in our school system realize his or her full potential.
3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of the Board of Education? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?
I am running for the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools Board of Education because I have spent a large part of my life working with and for children. As the Executive Director of the Orange County Partnership for Young Children I was intimately involved in early childhood education funding. I am especially proud of the work we did in collaboration with the Community Care Network of North Carolina to ensure that children utilizing Medicaid attended well-child visits to ensure all their developmental milestones were being met and, if support was needed, it was provided so that they could arrive at school healthy and ready to succeed.
As a social worker and Clinical Director working in the field of child trauma I have helped young children, and their families, begin to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of tragedy, including the genocide in Srebrenica and the terrorist attacks in New York City on 9/11. I also served in the Peace Corps working in the field to improve conditions in orphanages in Romania. At Yale and Duke Universities I worked with local police departments on community policing and child development projects designed to provide mental health support to families experiencing trauma.
I am currently the Chief Executive Officer of OE Enterprises, a local community nonprofit dedicated to finding employment opportunities for adults and recent high school graduates with severe disabilities. I am acutely aware of the challenges our clients have faced in the education system, and of the fact that successful programming can be the foundation for lifelong success. As a volunteer, I have spent many years supporting and advocating for students in the Chapel Hill Carrboro School District as a member, and more recently as the former President, of the PTA Council. I know the importance of setting high expectations for all students, and I have a strong belief in the power of education to transform a child’s life for the better. As President of the PTA Council, I worked closely with parents, administration officials and the community at large to partner on advocacy and engagement. During my tenure as President we successfully submitted a grant to the National PTA that provided funding for the Take Your Family to School Week – one of the groundbreaking projects developed in our district by the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program to help students of color succeed.
4) Please give one specific example of something you think the Board of Education has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the town has done during that span.
Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools Board of Education is accountable to the community, and the Board must actively listen to the parents and community members who both participate in and fund our district’s activities. I truly believe that it is the current Board’s intention to do this, but having attended many School Board meetings, and having reviewed many School Board reports, over the past 10 years I believe there are a number of decisions taken by the Board where I would have worked for a different outcome. For example, the decision to hold make-up days on Saturdays was poorly received by the community. Weekends are an important time for families - both those of our students and our teachers – the Board should have looked more seriously at less disruptive options for families, such as adding additional time on to existing school days. It should also continue to advocate for more local control over the District calendar. This year has been a challenging one with delays to the state budget and the Orange County Commissioners allocating less funding to the School District than was needed. This latter shortcoming was in part a consequence of the negotiating strategy adopted by the School Board. I believe that the School Board could work harder at building a more collaborative relationship with the County Commissioners. The Board could also do a better job of ensuring the community is informed of the key issues effecting the School District by getting information out to our stakeholders about how and why funding requests are necessary.
More positively, I think one of the best measures the School Board has adopted in the past year is the appointment of a Sustainability Coordinator to identify opportunities to introduce more environmentally-friendly practices to School District operations, which will result in decreased costs for the District as a whole and increased learning opportunities for students. This is an excellent example of an innovative low cost, high impact, initiative.
5) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?
I identify myself as a progressive. I have been Co-Secretary of Orange County Democratic Women, and am currently serving on the Program Committee. I believe in diverse and multicultural societies. I also believe in the importance of strong public education and social services to ensure that the entire community, no matter their background or income, has equal access to the benefits of community membership. That’s what democracy is all about – equity of opportunity.
6) The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?
There is no stronger foundation for a just society than well-educated children who have been exposed to the values of social justice, equality and human rights in a nurturing and inclusive school system. But such a foundation has to be carefully constructed. I believe in the fundamental importance of implementing evidence-based programs, and in effective monitoring and evaluation of results. As a manager, I have come to value the importance of setting system-wide standards and holding those responsible for their delivery to account. If elected to the School Board I will work to ensure that our students receive an education that prepares them for the modern world – one that will provide them with a thorough grounding in the STEM subjects, but which also does not neglect social justice and creativity. I have been most impressed by the Global Connections curriculum my son participated in at middle school, and by the East Chapel Hill High School’s Social Justice Academy. We must ensure that our children receive a well-rounded education that prepares them not just for the workplace, but also for citizenship.
I am also very concerned about the manner in which disciplinary issues are handled in our school system. If elected to the School Board I will support programs that show promise in addressing social inequalities in this area by paying greater attention to the actual intent behind student actions and by exploring restorative justice alternatives to more punitive sanctions. Research shows that restorative justice solutions promote equity, improve student connections, and invest in our children, all while minimizing out-of-school suspensions.
Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools:
7) While North Carolina lawmakers have approved some modest raises for teachers in recent years, teacher pay continues to lag behind most states in the country. What would you do as a local school board member to offer incentives for high-quality teachers to remain in the school system? Please offer specifics.
The desire to secure funding for quality education is a driving factor behind my candidacy for the School Board. One of my son’s favorite elementary school teachers left his school to take a job as a real estate agent. This was a person who loved teaching, who was enthusiastic, talented and a tremendous asset to our School District. We cannot afford to lose people like this and it is the School Board’s responsibility to find a way to keep them. We face serious financial challenges, but we cannot let this undermine the quality of the schooling we provide, or the compensation packages we offer our teachers. I understand the role of the General Assembly, County Commissioners and Federal Government in the funding process and I have worked extensively with County and State legislators and officials. I have also managed large budgets and overseen complex programs. I believe that by bringing this experience to the School Board I can help to secure the funding we need to invest in our school system, and to support and retain high quality teachers.
Having worked extensively in early childhood education – I know that quality teachers who are well compensated are the number one factor for securing successful outcomes. We must do better as a community. Our teachers have an excellent reputation and they are always in demand in school districts seeking to raise the level of services they provide. We have lost too many excellent teachers over the years because of pay-related issues. This is unacceptable. High turnover rates and uncompetitive salaries will inevitably result in a decline in standards. The School Board must prevent this from happening. Chapel Hill and Carrboro City Schools have recently begun implementing Project Advance, a new professional development system that is intended to reward teachers for lifelong learning and innovation. As a School Board member, I would ensure that we closely monitor this new initiative and require school administrators to provide the data that the School Board will need to evaluate the effectiveness of this program.
We must also focus as a district on developing a long-range funding plan to complement our long-range outcome plan. We must continue to advocate at the State level for the funding our school district needs to move forward. Stagnation is the mother of decline. We must also build partnerships at the local level to ensure that our county places school funding at the forefront of every decision.
8) Where do you stand on the ongoing debate over the Common Core curriculum in North Carolina? If you would support doing away with Common Core, please explain what you would substitute.
Common Core is a an initiative from the federal government to provide guidelines and markers for what every student should know at each grade level to be considered successful and ultimately graduate ready to attend higher education or enter the workforce. This is not in and of itself a bad thing. The School District has a great deal of flexibility in how it decides to work within this framework. How we set about implementing Common Core will inevitably have both supporters and detractors. We need to listen to both sides – to learn what is working and what is not. Providing support to students who may not immediately thrive in the environment created by Common Core, and giving parents the tools to support their children as they adapt to new curricula, is a fundamental obligation for the School District.
9) Orange County is expected to consider a $125 million bond referendum next year with the stated goal of paying for infrastructure improvements for local schools. Many school officials say that spending amounts to less than half the total needed for aging school facilities. Considering budget constraints, what kind of innovations can you offer as a school board member to help manage these costs?
The Capital Improvement Plan developed by the Board and administrators has identified many inadequacies in our education facilities. Many of our schools are not accessible to students with disabilities; some have drainage issues, others safety concerns, aging mechanical systems, or are not operating adequately. Capital expenditure is unavoidable and the Board of County Commissioners must address the issue. The School Board must also do its part. Paying close attention to spending is a priority for me and pushing for a full review of finances and budgets would be one of my first tasks if elected to the Board. As a CEO I have a track record of finding efficiencies and alternate funding sources, and I would bring this experience to bear on the Board. However, I would certainly acknowledge that we are unlikely to be able to solve funding issues with efficiency savings alone – especially after years of recession and belt tightening. Where shortfalls exist we must work harder to identify where opportunities exist to establish innovative public-private partnership programs – for example, programs that engage community business partners to support local schools - to fill funding gaps.
10) Racial academic disparities are a perennial problem in every school system. Please provide fresh ideas you have for addressing this long-running problem.
I am committed to creating a blueprint for educational excellence by setting high expectations for every student. We know that educational opportunities make all the difference in realizing each child’s potential, and securing them a rewarding and successful future. I would work to support and implement a plan that mandates equity training at all levels of our district, which is both hands on and grounded in real world classroom settings. I have taken similar courses myself and know their fundamental value. Understanding why and how the achievement gap has arisen is the first step to solving it. I will also ensure that the School District utilizes evidence-based trainings with a proven track record and that the necessary data is collected by the District to monitor the impact of this training.
I would also work to highlight the value of Pre K services. We know from extensive academic research that such services not only assist in closing the achievement gap but also provide a boost in social and behavioral interactions and long-term success. My professional experience has given me an intimate understanding of the complexities of the early childhood funding system that starts children on their educational path. If we really want to make a difference the School Board must become a major partner in community-wide initiatives that are providing support for 0-3 services. Evidence-based programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership, Early Head Start, and the Family Success Alliance are innovative ways to prepare both children and parents for school success. Creating more partnerships similar to Smart Start and NC Pre K would allow our School District to maximize limited funds for a very important cause. Early literacy programs can help to bridge the 30 million word gap that exists between children from low income and high income households – research shows that by age three children from low income households have heard 30 million fewer words than their more privileged counterparts, which means when they start school they are already significantly behind. Thankfully, we live in a resource-rich community and increased collaboration with our libraries and our local universities could help us bridge this gap and ensure that all children in the District ready for school.
It is also important to continue providing similar support services to students as they progress through the school system. We have a highly mobile student population and students with critical needs can enter District schools at every level. Mentoring programs, and initiatives like Parent University, can help to provide this support. I would also like to applaud the Superintendent’s initiative to provide additional academic support to students in High School who have demonstrated the ability to perform in AP classes but need help in unlocking that potential.
11) Schools in the 21st century face the task of educating an increasingly diverse student population. What about your background has prepared you to lead a 21st-century school system, knowing the unique challenges students from different backgrounds face in the schools?
Our School District is incredibly diverse. Ensuring that the education we provide has a global outlook is vitally important – it will also widen the horizons of every student that passes through our schools. I have worked internationally in the Balkans and the Middle East with the Peace Corps, Physicians for Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. I have worked with Native American communities in New Mexico. More recently at the Orange Country Partnership for Young Children I worked with Burmese/Karen refugees living in the district to establish a community farm, which now supplies produce to a number of local restaurants. I am very comfortable in multicultural environments, and believe profoundly in the value of inter-cultural exchange.
As a Peace Corps volunteer you are expected to act as change agent working toward sustainable outcomes and to bring a global focus to local ideas. This experience has stayed with me, informing my personal and professional life. I have seen the transformational impact of new practices and new technologies. I have also seen what children can accomplish - no matter the challenges they are facing - with support and encouragement. I have also seen what happens to communities that turn their back on innovation and fail to invest in the future. We live in a global world and we face global challenges, and if elected to the School Board I will work to make sure that every student has access to the technology and tools that they will need to lay the foundation for a successful 21st century career.
12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
The key to building a vibrant, equitable, well-funded and successful School District is encouraging and maintaining parent engagement. Encouraging voter turnout is a vital part of this process. The Indy plays a crucial role in getting people out to vote and I would like to thank you for your dedication to our District’s children.