Three of the seats on the Orange County Schools Board of Education are up for election this year. With concerns about achievement gaps, school safety and funding, candidates are hoping to provide a path forward for the future of Orange County schools.
In a school district where white third through eighth graders were more than two times more likely to score “Career and College Ready” than Black students, candidates have proposed varied solutions for the root causes of these achievement gaps.
Carrie Doyle said food and housing insecurity can lead to achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status. She said Orange County schools have a high percentage of students enrolled in the free and reduced-price meals program, and Doyle said recently, affordable housing concerns have started to have ripple effects for student success.
“We have kids who are doubled up with families," Doyle said. "We are having kids not living with their primary parents. I just feel like we don't have everyone experiencing a stable place to live and that affects kids’ abilities to focus and succeed in school.”
Doyle also said pre-K is critical to addressing the sources of those achievement gaps, noting that the current waiting list of parents seeking pre-K for their children could fill three additional classrooms of pre-K students.
LaTarndra Strong said unbalanced school district lines can also lead to inequities — when schools are at or over capacity, students face inequities in resources they are able to access. She said overburdening schools creates more Title I schools, where a high percentage of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. She said shifting some of the school boundaries could resolve those issues. She said the Board should work with parents to create a reassignment plan that will address these capacity challenges.
However, Jennie McCray pointed out that the achievement gap is a long-term issue for Orange County schools, and she said the achievement gap is due to a culmination of factors related to socioeconomic status and opportunity gaps.
“The achievement gap is something that's going to close over time,” McCray said. “You can't just wave a wand. It's not bad intentions that have caused the achievement gap. It's not extreme neglect of certain students.”
Bonnie Hauser, who has experience working with charter schools, said she would like to see a more flexible approach to education in which students’ academic and social-emotional development can be supported by their teachers.
“The secret sauce, if you will, is serving every child," Hauser said. "It's not throwing everybody in a classroom and throwing stuff at them. It's really reaching to each child to find their unique learning style and build their confidence as a lifelong learner. And we can't expect that from teachers who are overworked and don't have the resources to do their job.”
Teacher compensation, capital improvements and other crucial priorities are dependent on the budget for Orange County Schools. McCray said she would like to see funding focused on the classroom, where each dollar is able to impact students directly, specifically by hiring more teachers.
“I want to see the hiring in the schools where we need it. The focus needs to be directly to the children,” McCray said.
Hauser said the persistent concerns about funding have started to affect daily life within schools as funding concerns are more likely to affect the classroom and student experience. She said she would like to see more of the fiscal work shift back toward the county level, so individual schools can focus on other priorities.
“I don't want teachers worried about the budget," Hauser said. "I want them worried about kids. I don't want principals worried about budgets. I want them worried about kids. I want the Board to worry about budgets and the superintendent to worry about budgets."
Jennifer Moore said she believes school board members need to be directly engaged in the work going on at the school level — from attending concerts to PTA meetings — so that they are able to make tough decisions about how to best serve the district.
“School board members have the responsibility of knowing what is going on in the schools,” Moore said in an email. “Board members must advocate for the school district and the connection between the community and Orange County Schools.”
If elected, these candidates will be responsible for communicating with the families of more than 7,000 students enrolled across 13 different schools.
Lori Bateman dropped out of the race and incumbent vice chairperson Tony McKnight did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Early voting begins this Thursday and will continue until Feb. 29, with Election Day on March 3.
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