School board incumbents face reelection

by Miriah Hamrick
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Eight hopefuls have staked a claim on four open New Hanover County Board of Education spots.

All three incumbents seeking reelection have served on the board for at least 20 years. For some new names joining the race, offering a breath of fresh air motivated the decision to run.

“A good democracy, and a good board of any kind, is going to be invigorated with new ideas and perspectives. I thank people for their service but it’s time for some new energy,” said Democratic candidate Tom Gale during an April 14 phone interview.

Board member Ed Higgins said his experience is an asset.

“I am proud of what this board has done. We have raised the graduation rate to over 80 percent. When I first came on the board, it was in the high 60s,” Higgins said during an April 15 phone interview, adding that SAT and ACT scores are above the state average.

The November bond referendum currently being negotiated by the school board and the county commission was a top concern for contenders. 

The school board has established $280 million of need, currently under review by the county commission, to fund construction of a new elementary school in the Porters Neck area and improvements to Wrightsville Beach, John J. Blair and College Park Elementary schools plus others. 

All current board members pledged support for the bond. Board chairman Don Hayes said the board has been working on the bond for several years and he wants to see it to completion.

Republican candidate and former New Hanover County manager Bruce Shell said he supports the bond but thinks the public needs more information to make the decision.

“The real challenge is going to be communicating with the public how important it is. … If they understand, they’re more willing to pay for it,” Shell said during an April 10 phone interview.

Shell noted his experience working with 25 budgets as county manager uniquely qualifies him to understand financial needs of the school system.

Funding and budgeting was an important issue for Gale, especially the impact of continued budget cuts.

“It’s rotting our education system from inside out,” Gale said, suggesting more communication with county and state government to establish need and secure resources.

Emma Saunders, a fellow Democratic candidate, also called for more cooperation with state and county government.

“I would love to see the board collaborate with the county commissioners and at the state level … to support teachers to be the best they can be for the children,” Saunders said during an April 15 phone interview.

Support for teachers was a need echoed by other candidates, including Democratic candidate and current social studies teacher Chris Meek.

“We have legislators who are not teachers, who have not served in our school system, creating policy that directly affects our system,” Meek said during an April 10 phone interview.

Higgins said he has spent time talking to teachers to determine how classrooms are impacted by recent legislation. One of Higgins’ top priorities is securing a raise for teachers.

“We need someone to stand up for teachers. They’ve got one small pay raise since 2008,” Higgins said during an April 15 phone interview.

Hayes said the school board has actively supported teachers, while at the same time trying to understand the legislature’s motivation.

“You get into the legislative end as far as salaries and tenure. … I do talk to the legislature. I’ve had part-time jobs as a teacher. I understand what they’re going through,” Hayes said during an April 11 phone interview.

Janice Cavenaugh, board member since 1987, said keeping teachers happy is always important, as is boosting student achievement. 

“The most important issue that we always have is student achievement. Our test scores have been going up year to year,” Cavenaugh said during an April 10 phone interview.

Republican candidate Jim Brumit said a strong record of student achievement will attract new industry to the community.

“One of the things businesses look at when they want to relocate is the school system. It’s very important we look ahead and get the very best school system money can provide,” Brumit said during an April 11 phone interview.

Saunders, Meek and Gale will automatically proceed to the general election, where they will compete against the top three Republican candidates from the primary.

email miriah@luminanews.com


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