Neighborhood schools. Student rights. Safe drinking water. Gun violence and school safety. A myriad of issues continue to weigh heavy on New Hanover County School leaders, teachers, students, and families. Therefore, we focused on voter issues regarding the NHCS Board of Education.
Eight candidates, four Democrats and four Republicans are vying for four seats in 2018. encore sent the same questions to all candidates. This week we introduce Democratic candidate Judy Justice.
encore (e): What was the moment—realization, situation, instance—you decided to run for school board?
Judy Justice (JJ): Three years ago, I returned home to Wilmington to retire after a 25-year-plus career in public education here and in other parts of the state. All through the ’90s I had taught at Laney High School and when I left in 1999 the district was “moving forward” after a decade of constant improvement. I was shocked and heartbroken to see the state of our schools when I returned. So many kids were failing (35 percent), at least seven of our schools were identified by the state as performing as “F” or “D” schools, our schools had become re-segregated, my friends in education were demoralized because of the negative way they and the students were being treated and many were leaving the profession or area. It appeared that we were going back in time to the mid-20th century. I realized that because of my professional knowledge and insider knowledge of the New Hanover County Schools district, that I could make a huge change for the positive if I was on the school board. That is when I decided to run.
e: According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a total of 283 mass shooting incidents have occurred as of October 14 across the United States (nine were in NC). What can and should schools do to prevent shootings in NHC?
JJ: NHCS has stepped up and added more SRO officers and fine-tuned their school safety plans to meet this increasing threat. As someone who has helped create safety plans and implemented them I can say that I am impressed with the school systems response. More can be done though. We can provide funding, it is there but being spent in areas such as excessive school administration, for training for staff to identify and work with troubled students. We can hire more guidance counselors and social workers (wraparound services) to work with troubled students. As a school board we should personally lobby for the legislature to provide stronger gun laws that address the problem of felons and the mentally ill who can currently obtain weapons. We also need to lobby the legislature to reinstate many of those important guidance counselor and social worker positions that they have cut over the last eight years while cutting money to local education units.
e: Do you believe teachers should be trained and armed with a weapon in the classroom?
JJ: Absolutely not. Teachers are educators, not law enforcement. There are so many things that can go wrong with weapons in a classroom or anywhere else in a school besides under the control of a trained law enforcement officer—it could take over a page to describe just several of the scenarios. As a school administrator I have had to wrestle weapons out of student’s hands before, which is a very scary experience. Even with training there is way too much risk of other students or staff getting shot unintentionally.
e: Per the current state of the Cape Fear River and drinking water (GenX, hog waste, coal ash spills), how can and should NHC schools ensure students have access to clean and safe drinking water?
JJ: I will work to make sure all the schools have reverse-osmosis stations in them, so that all the students will be drinking safe water during the school day. This can be paid for using a number of sources. I would see no problem with the district’s high-paid legal employees, who are on staff anyway, to go ahead and sue Chemours for reimbursement for the devices. There are also public health grants that should cover the costs. We have an abundance of high-paid central office administration staff, more than most districts, that could actually use their underutilized services to apply for and receive these grants.
e: How are NHC schools supporting or not supporting LGBTQ students, their safety and health, within the schools?
JJ: This is one area that I will need to investigate when I am elected to the board. I have heard dozens of complaints of inappropriate sexual behaviors and harassments that go unaddressed, or covered up by the district’s school administration and by extension the current school board, from all areas of the population. We need to support the rights of all students and as a candidate, I am getting daily complaints from parents and students that this is not happening in our schools.
e: Where do you stand on school redistricting and neighborhood schools?
JJ: Our district should be using successful redistricting models that have been proven to work nationwide. Our community needs to have a voice in the process and also have access to information on why and how we are redistricting. “Neighborhood schools” is misnomer in our small geographic area. We should all be part of neighborly schools that support the quality education of all our students. We currently have schools that are two to three hundred students overcapacity and others that have two hundred empty seats. That is an example of a school district with a failed student assignment policy.
According to the majority of education research and practice, the best way to achieve quality schools across a district is to implement economic integration with no school having more than 45 percent of their students on food assistance. According to studies done on this plan lower-income students’ overall learning increases while middle- and high-income students develop leadership, creativity and critical thinking skills above what they would otherwise. With our small county, this can be achieved with very little extra bus time or much disruption of our current school assignments. The district has access to some amazing computer programs that will assist in the plan. The current redistricting plan devised by the board was created by central office staff with no community input based on a large number of very vague guidelines proposed by the current board. They did not use the computer programs very effectively because of the poor criteria provided by the board. This needs to be redone with community input using proven redistricting plans. When Wake County implemented this plan 20 years ago minority test scores jumped by 41 points and district wide they increased by 10 points. It is now considered a national model of success.
e: What are plans or direct actions you want to take to raise teacher pay in NHC?
JJ: As a board we need to lobby the state legislature to increase their allotment. We also need to look at redoing the local staff supplements so that teachers and other staff receive more equitable and larger supplement from our general funds. Currently teachers only get a 12-percent supplement while you have some secretaries in central office receiving as much as a 50-percent salary supplement while married to district administrators that make 60-percent salary supplements. In fact, that situation needs to be closely looked at since the current board approved a rule that very few if other districts in the state allow which has led to this type of nepotism and cronyism. The general fund money intended for salaries needs to be spent at the classroom level, not at the district administrative level. I have read the entire 88-page school budget and it is all there for the public to see but few know what to look for. The salaries of all school employees are also public and I found the salary information listed yearly by the state. It was very revealing and is an excellent source for discovering the nepotism and cronyism rampant in certain parts of our school leadership.
e: Where do you see New Hanover County schools in five years? Ten years?
JJ: In five years, I would like to see a district on its way to providing quality education to all the students of our district with few failing and those that are receiving district support to overcome their challenges. I want to see a district where the community is involved, has a voice and is a vital part of the daily activities of our schools. I want to see a district that provides our students with the type of education that will help them lead successful lives in the complex world of the 21st. An education that provides a wealth of variety in its programs to meet the many varied needs of all our students. I also want to see our staff, teachers, TAs, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, office workers, etc., all feel comfortable working together as an education community that is listened too valued and respected by the school leadership. I want to see a district that embraces transparency and accountably for all staff members and for board members. I want the same in 10 years and because we have great students, great staff, great resources and a great community our school system should flourish and thrive under the right leadership.
e: What is the future of the arts in New Hanover County schools?
JJ: It should be given more emphasis, possibly by developing a magnet program around the arts. My daughter attended the Durham School of the Arts when I was working in that district and the offered outstanding programs. Academically the school was also the highest performing in their district. Wilmington is a community that is rich in artistic talent both professionally and academically. My goal is, with the help of our local legislators and other school board members to lessen the amount of time devoted to test taking in our schools so that our students will have more opportunities to experience the arts in our schools at all levels, elementary, middle and high. We also need to spend less in other areas, such as four full time athletic trainers who do not teach classes and instead use that money to hire more teachers of the various arts. While athletics are very important there is a disproportionate amount of money that goes to a select few athletic programs in NHCS while other programs, like the arts, are neglected across the board.
e: Do you have experience working in the classroom or directly with students in some way?
JJ: Yes. I was a certified teacher and school administrator for 25 years. I was in the classroom here in NHCS teaching civics and US History among other subjects from 1990 to 1999. After receiving my Masters in school administration, I worked in other districts as an assistant principal, principal and central office administrator. I also have worked locally running programs after school programs for at-risk kids’ part time since I retired from being a full-time educator.
e: Is there any particular issue most concerning to you currently that we haven’t covered? Please, explain.
JJ: There have been many allegations of sexual assaults, racial and sexual discrimination, favoritism, inappropriate behavior by certain staff members, nepotisms, cronyism and other violations of school rules and state and federal laws that have been ignored or covered for up a decade, according to multiple sources including the media. Many teachers, parents and other staff have told me of many incidents of retaliation against children or staff when they have tried to speak out and seek justice for these students. I am very, very concerned about the cover-ups from NHCS administration and the school boards role in these coverups over the last decade or more. Just last year alone two staff members were charged with multiple sexual assaults against students, one upwards of 40 charges. During the investigations by local media and by reports from parents of students involved, allegedly the districts administrative staff were told of these problems and have covered up or mishandled the investigations. It appears many students would not have experienced these assaults if the schools had investigated properly. Then they appear to have covered up these events from getting out. Also, it is not just these situations. I have easily located dozens of news articles that have reported on some of the outrageous behaviors by the district’s administration and by extension the school board that approves of their behavior. This has led to low morale, many good staff members leaving our district or education in general and a large number of parents pulling their students out to attend charter schools, private schools or start home schooling. At this time the new Hanover County School system has the third highest amount of Civil Rights complaints for the 2017-18 school year reported to the federal and state governments. The two highest are Wake County and Charlotte Mecklenburg, which if you consider the populations of the three districts puts us at number one per capita. It is time the New Hanover County School Board demanded transparency and accountability of our district and school’s administration. That is why we need to elect all new members to our board, since the current board is a major part of the problem.