The New Hanover County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NHC NAACP) hosted a virtual school board candidate forum on August 25 in preparation for the upcoming school board election.
In attendance for the virtual panel were republican candidates Stephanie Kraybill and Pete Wildeboer, as well as Democratic candidates, Chris Meek, Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus. The forum began at 6 p.m. and lasted until 8:30 p.m.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Candance Thompson, who serves as department chair for the UNCW Watson College of Education. Dr. Thompson allowed each candidate two minutes for a brief introduction and then the forum took its place. The candidates were each given 90 seconds to answer the same questions—the order following the candidates’ names alphabetically.
The questions posed throughout the forum were heavily rooted in the upcoming steps the Board of Education will take toward safety during COVID-19 in the New Hanover County public classrooms.
Stephanie Kraybill opened with her introductions. Kraybill has been involved in local and statewide PTA positions for almost 15 years, as well as some substitute teaching positions. Kraybill reviewed her experience as a safety engineer/consultant in an effort to showcase expertise in classroom safety, both in health and socially.
Next, Hugh McManus spoke. McManus has been employed by New Hanover County Schools for over 40 years now. He included that a major point in his campaign would be obtaining internet access for all students during these times of remote-learning by working with local government and internet providers. “Not only is the internet necessary to continue with the virtual classes, probably the internet is going to be a part of every educational and career opportunity,” McManus said. “It is the world at your fingertips.”
Chris Meek took to his introduction quickly addressing the facts. “I honestly did not want to run for school board,” Meek admits. “However, over the last two years, it has been revealed that New Hanover County Schools [are] in desperate need of solid proven leadership.” Chris Meek has worked in the classroom for the past 26 years and has held positions within the seventh region of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).
Democratic candidate and Wilmington native, Stephanie Walker, introduced herself with a quick background of her own experience graduating from New Hanover County Schools, as well as her two children. Walker’s campaign focuses on racial and socioeconomic equity in our school systems. Mrs. Walker currently serves as secretary for the New Hanover County African American History, Heritage and Culture Commission.
Long-time educator Pete Wildeboer worked in education and just recently retired from an 11-year principalship at North Topsail Elementary School. Similar to Walker, all three of Wildeboer’s children have graduated from New Hanover County Schools.
Of the questions posed throughout the forum, the focus of the debate fell mostly toward the current ways local schools are dealing with COVID, as well as the ongoing uncovering of racial inequity within the schools.
“In New Hanover County . . . 83.67% of our AP programs consist of white students,” Meeks shared. “Only 5.67% of students in those programs are Black. We have inequity there. When it comes to longterm suspensions, Black students are 13 times more likely to be suspended than white students, so we have to balance this out. If [students] have [equal] access to programs then they’re less likely to have discipline problems.”
One commenter asked: “When face to face is again possible, how many times each semester will you commit to visiting each school so you can know what’s really going on and make it a relationship instead of a PR move?”
To which Walker wrote in response: “I would LOVE to visit our schools regularly. You learn so much more that way. In my experience, people open up and you can establish great relationships.”
“I think school board members need to be in and out of the schools . . . but I think we need to bring the country commissioners into the school and show them exactly what’s going on in the schools,” Wildeboer added to the topic. “Looking at the differences in the [low and high performing] schools. Showing them what we need financially in each school.”
The second portion of the forum focused on the school board and superintendent’s responsibility with charter schools, and their role to keep students from transferring out of their public schools. One viewer commented, “The question is irrelevant- oversight of the charter schools is not part of the school board’s power.” A different viewer responded to this comment, “You’re right. I don’t understand why it’s being asked.”
While the goal of the forum was to tackle questions posed by the NHC NAACP, many citizens attending the virtual debate shared their own questions, as well as disappointment in others that were “horrifyingly bad, irrelevant, and terribly worded,” as one attendee commented.
Dr. Thompson reminded, “as moderator, I do not vet, nor should they be changed. Like your input, the opportunity to pose questions must be honored, no matter the ‘quality’ of the question.”
All the while viewers begged for answers about the upcoming budget. One parent commented, “I would much rather hear about plans to manage New Hanover County Schools’ budget properly. There were a LOT of budgetary sins committed by the former superintendent, so a new BOE already has its work cut out to earn trust. Get your priorities together.”
All candidates shared similar views: The need for transparency was a huge theme throughout the night. The candidates all also expressed an equal stance on providing training for students and families trying to utilize remote-learning platforms.
The current race for BOE is really in the hands of whoever’s plans benefit the NHC schools, individually, the most. Pete Wildeboer suggested a, “Divide and conquer,” plan for the upcoming board where the seven elected members would be responsible for certain schools to the point they would make regular visits.
Toward the end of the debate, around 7:45 p.m., Reverend Tony McGhee arrived in time to leave his remarks. McGhee noted his campaign wants what is best for students and educators. “[We need] to take care of those taking care of our kids,” McGhee mentioned in his introduction.
But how does BOE “take care of teachers”? Each panelist spoke in agreement that even though BOE has no say over teacher salary, the efflux of teachers moving to areas with better pay is something candidates plan to try and tackle with the help of new Superintendent Charles Foust.
The candidates all gave their concluding statements beginning with Rev. McGhee. His campaign being summarized into that McGhee wants to keep kids in school, giving them equal opportunities to ensure learning is something valued.
“How do we make sure our children are learning how to think,” he concluded.
Chris Meek reiterated his plans for BOE and his desire to really listen to the preexisting complaints by educators, students and parents. “Talk less, listen more,” Meek explained.
Stephanie Walker reminded attendees of her plans to help make NHC schools not only safe but transparent and more equitable. “Education is key to a lot of things in this life,” Walker added.
Pete Wildeboer reminded viewers of his extensive past in the school system and concluded, “I will work tirelessly [laughs], without end, I’ll say, for all of the students … but also supporting teachers, TAs, bus drivers, administrators, [pause] everyone.”
Stephanie Kraybill ended the forum reiterating her push for safety within schools and her lack of fear to search for solutions. “I am a leader, not a micromanager,” Kraybill added.
The panel was viewed by nearly 3,000 individuals and is still available for viewing on the NHC NAACP Facebook page.