Name as it appears on the ballot: Tom Benton
Full legal name, if different: Thomas C. Benton
Date of birth: 01-24-1951
Campaign website: tombentonforschoolboard.com
Occupation & employer: Retired principal, leadership trainer and coach for NC New Schools, NC State, and NC Principals and Asst. Principals Assoc.
1. What do you see as the most important issues facing the Wake County school system? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?
It is really difficult to narrow all of our needs down to just three but here goes:
Always number 1—As a Board member, I will keep a keen focus on what and how we truly accomplish providing a high quality education for every child in Wake County regardless of where he or she lives. All other "goals" are simply ways to get to this goal and we should as a Board model this focus in our discussions and work so that we can hold professionals at all levels accountable to this goal.
Goal 2—We have got to keep better care of our staff—teachers, principals, custodians, office help, etc. We can never achieve Goal 1 unless we keep better care of the people whom we count on to provide the services to our children. We have got to find ways to better compensate our staffs and to guarantee positive working environments. We also have work at providing a true professional learning community that is built around mutual trust, respect, and collaboration. We have to make sure that our teachers and principals feel that they have a voice in what, why, and how we do things.
Goal 3—Provide equity across the system in resources—human and financial. Wake has done a good job of following treating every school equal in our system. Most allocations are formula driven so that each school is treated equally. However, schools have different needs based on the students assigned. We have to recognize this and find new ways to distribute our resources. It could be using weighted formulas, program based budgeting, or some other way but we simply have to do a better job of recognizing this and do something about it. In addition, Board members will need to be much more active in advocating for additional resources at the state and local levels. Public school leaders cannot accept the current attitudes that are driving funding at the state and local levels. It is incumbent upon us to be much more active in this area.
2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the issues you've identified? Please be as specific as possible in relating past accomplishments to current goals.
My 40 years of educational experience will help me guide the many challenges faced by our school system during a time of budget reductions, new curriculum standards and the push for more academic rigor. As we develop polices and processes that work for our children, teachers and principals, I will always keep our children as the primary focus, not political views of issues. I started as a high school social studies teacher in Wake County, and then became Principal of Topsail Jr.-Sr. High School. I was selected as Pender County's Principal of the Year in 1984 and then returned to Wake County as principal of Zebulon High School. In 1994 I opened Durant Rd. Middle Year Round and was named Wake County Middle School Principal of the Year and the North Carolina Middle School's Regional Principal of the Year in 2002 and 2005. I retired as Principal of Durant Rd. Middle School in 2005. Since retiring, I have worked with the Leadership Group of the Carolinas, North Carolina New Schools, and many LEAs statewide as a leadership facilitator/turnaround coach. I will use my work in the planning and opening of two Early Colleges, a NewTech high school, and my experience as a leadership coach at one of the most progressive cooperative and innovative high schools to help us open the first Vocational Tech High School and to effectively expand our Early College Programs. I am currently a facilitator/trainer in the Distinguished Leadership Program for principals and the coordinator of the Future Ready Leadership training for assistant principals. I work with NCSU's Northeastern Leadership Academy and have served as an adjunct professor in Gardner-Webb University's masters in middle school teaching program. I am current with the issues facing our administrative leaders and our teachers and these rich experiences will help me work to improve the schools from the Principal and Assistant Principal to the individual classroom level. I understand excellence in teaching, good leadership and good instruction design; I want this for every school in District One and throughout the Wake County school system. This will be my goal every day I serve on the Wake County School Board.
In addition, I have served as an appointee on the BOE since February, 2013. This has given me the opportunity to learn how the Board functions and to build relationships with BOE members, Central Office Staff, and the citizens of District One.
3. IndyWeek's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle and North Carolina. Please point to a specific position in your platform that would, if achieved, help further that goal.
The issue of equity of programs, resources and services across the district is a major focus of mine. I am determined to see that Wake truly provides a quality education to all students regardless of where they live or what school they attend. We have just gotten the results of the curriculum audits for schools in the Knightdale area. It clearly showed that resources are lacking in many of the schools. It also showed a predominance of inexperienced teachers compared to other parts of the county. I have already asked our staff to form a taskforce consisting of school, business, and civic leaders to address the issues brought forward.
4. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.
The principled stand that is not going to be popular with many is asking for more resources from the county commissioners. This is due to several factors, but the most significant one is the continuing shrinkage of funding from the state for public education. The following quote is from a "Budge Brief" published by Thom Tillis, Speaker of the House, on August 7, 2013: "In other states, education is fundedprimarilyby local governments — with property taxes and bonds — and not with state dollars, as we do in North Carolina. The fact remains that our county and city governments could choose to spend more on educating our children, but they don't." If Mr. Tillis's comment reflects the direction that the General Assembly is heading, then county government will have to step up its contributions immensely. This will be an extremely unpopular move since North Carolina has a long history of a "state-supported" school system and it is included in our state constitution. It will also be difficult to convince local citizens of the need for another tax increase on top of one for the bond issue if it passes. I sincerely hope we do not have to go down this road.
5. If these issues haven't been addressed above, would you please comment on:
a) Do you support or oppose the 2013 bond issue for Wake schools that is on the October ballot? Do you think the $810 million bond is adequate to meet school construction needs for the foreseeable future? Is it more than is needed? Or is it not enough, which would necessitate another bond within 2-3 years?
The School Bond is critical to our continuing to provide adequate facilities and equipment for our schools. People need to know that there were over 2 billion dollars' worth of documented needs. This building program does nothing to reduce the percentage of students and teachers housed in mobile classrooms nor renovate all of the buildings needing updating. Twenty-eight facilities were identified as needing major renovations—only six received funding with start- up money for three more in this bond. These needs were identified by staff, explained thoroughly in joint public meetings with the county commissioners, and accepted by all. Enrollment growth figures were provided by county staff, not the school system, and were generally recognized as being conservative. So, yes, there will be the need for additional revenues to continue to build new and renovate old facilities as the county continues to experience one of the highest growth rates in the nation.
b) Annual spending for the Wake schools has dropped below $8,000 per student, which is less than the state average, about $500 less than in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and $5,000 less than in Fairfax County, VA—with which Wake is often compared. In light of this, should the Wake school board be asking for more money from the Wake County Commissioners? If so, how much?
There is a need for the county commissioners and the board of education to reach a consensus agreement on a funding formula based on growth and inflation so there is not the yearly debate on funding. There are many models already available that would provide direction for this. Moving to this will provide an opportunity for the citizens of the county to have input into the value of public education in our county and how it should be supported.
c) As a school board member, what steps would be recommend, if any, to better support our teachers? Ideas might include pay supplements? Hiring more teacher assistants? Adding professional development programs? Or others?
I addressed this somewhat in my Goal 2. To expand somewhat, we have to focus on the 3 Rs for educators—raises, resources, and respect. We have fallen to 46th in the nation in teacher salaries and that will probably sink lower when 2013-14 salary statistics are factored in. We have cut pay for Masters Degrees which not only reflects salary issues, but respect for teachers bettering themselves and practicing what we preach—being life long learners. A goal was set at having all students read on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, but then class size caps were removed and funding for Teachers Assistants taken away. There were many, many actions and lots of comments that delivered a clear message that public educators are neither respected or appreciated.
d) What programs or policies would you recommend to improve students' performance and raise Wake's high school graduation rate, which last year slipped below the state average?
We have already had discussions with staff regarding further analysis of data, programs, resources, instructional strategies, and curriculum to help us all determine what is working or not working effectively. This will enable to assist staff in making sure adequate services, resources, and quality teachers are available to all students.
e) In pursuit of school safety and discipline, the Wake school system has tried zero-tolerance policies, resulting in high out-of-school suspension rates, and spent heavily on paid security officers with arrest powers. Now, some advocate letting armed volunteers help in the schools? What's your view of school safety needs and how to achieve them?
We are just beginning to examine the findings and recommendations of our own safety task force chaired by Sheriff Donnie Harrison. The Governor's taskforce released its findings on September 5. We need to examine all of the recommendations and come up with a comprehensive plan for all schools. There is funding in the bond plan to address some safety issues. In addition, the Policy Committee along with staff has already begun an examination of present policies to try to determine which policies are working and correcting those that are not. We are also in the process of determining alternatives to out of school suspension.
As far as allowing additional personnel with guns on campus, NO creditable agency has recommended this.
f) Diversity in school populations has been a controversial subject in Wake County for years. Do you support or oppose a policy to assure that every school has a diverse student body in terms of family income? Do you support or oppose a numerical goal such as the former one of no school with more than 40 percent of students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program?
I very much support the new student assignment policy that is built around academic achievement, proximity, stability, and efficient use of facilities. The assignment plan speaks to being reasonable in using the assignment plan as the only tool to address diversity due to the fact that we do not have economically diverse populations across the county.
g) Related to diversity, the magnet school program is much debated. Some think every school should have comparable curricular offerings, even if it curbs the magnets' special attractiveness. On the other hand, application rates to the magnet schools are on the decline, suggesting they've been weakened too much. What's your view?
Magnet must have programs that are significantly different in order to attract students out of their neighborhood school. We are needing to make sure that whatever program a school has is a quality program but reserve some programs for the magnet schools.
h) Wake is experimenting with all-male and all-female academies. Is this a good idea? Should it be expaned?
I am awaiting to see data on these schools before making any judgements.
i) With state policies favoring more charter schools, should the Wake school system have its own charter schools? Why or why not? And if your answer is yes, how should they be governed?
Charter schools were originally designed to be "laboratory" schools where new ideas and techniques could be tested and then implemented in public schools if they were successful. They have morphed into almost a separate school system in North Carolina that does not have to provide transportation, meals, special services, and host of other services to parents and students. And, they can always send students back to public schools if they do not meet certain requirements. In some states, charter schools are more like our magnet schools. They have to provide transportation, meals, and reflect the demographics of the communities they serve. I believe we need to investigate these models and see if public and "public charter" schools can work more closely together.