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Column: Local school board elections matter, too

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"I Voted" stickers sit on a table in First Baptist Church in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

School boards have recently become some of the most heated political battlegrounds across the country.

Over the past two years, there have been at least 189 book challenges across North Carolina’s 115 public school districts, reflecting a Republican agenda to regulate how race, gender and sexuality are discussed in classrooms. In March, a bill passed through the N.C. House that would prohibit critical race theory in schools, and in August, the state legislature followed suit with Florida’s recent “Don’t Say Gay” law and passed the "Parents' Bill of Rights," overriding Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto

And while the Republican-controlled state legislature has been dominating the narrative of public education in the state, it’s up to local school boards to implement and enforce these policies. 

This November, 14 candidates are on the ballot for four Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools District Board of Education seats. And though Orange County is a liberal area with like-minded candidates, slight differences in each candidate's platform may make all the difference between the county being able to enact change and falling flat on its education problems.

Niche ranked CHCCS as the No. 1 public school district in North Carolina and within the top four percent of all public school districts in the nation. However, a 2018 study conducted by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis listed the district as having the second-largest achievement gap in the nation. Apart from the achievement gap, the district is currently facing issues with accessible transportation, teacher pay and affordable housing for teachers

A local progressive group, Triangle Blog Blog, sent interview questions — which they formulated with local nonprofit Bridging the Gap and attendees of a community discussion series on reparations and race at the Chapel Hill Public Library — to each Board of Education candidate. Twelve of the 14 candidates responded. 

Candidates argued for a range of policies: Meredith Ballew and Barbara Fedders proposed free year-round breakfast and lunch for all students; Ballew, Fedders, Vickie Feaster Fornville, Jane Gabin and Allison Willis argued for universal pre-K.

Gabin said qualified administrators with a bachelor’s degree should teach at least one class to reduce class sizes. Fedders and Taylor Tally called on the school board to take a more involved leadership role in state public education legislation. Tally was also the lone champion of restorative justice-based discipline. The incumbent Deon Temne was the sole advocate for block scheduling, culturally relevant learning and personalized learning plans.

An interesting divide between candidates was their support, or lack thereof, of the school district publishing data on race-based achievement. Ballew said that “transparency and clarity should always be the goal,” but others such as Fedders argued that this data, largely based on standardized test results, isn’t “a meaningful reflection of either student achievement or the quality of teaching.” 

Fedders said that by making this information available, parents might formulate misleading conclusions and choose to send their children to one school in the district rather than another. She said that “school choice nearly always leads to more segregation” and that it would “compound our significant transportation challenges.” 

Regarding affordable housing, Gabin said she would support unused UNC student dorms and empty office space being repurposed for families. While most candidates avoided shouting out explicit policy plans for affordable teacher housing, each candidate said that it was something they wanted to address. 

Candidate Solomon Gibbson III issued concerns about an affordable housing plan like that of Buncombe County Schools in 2017, which built school employee housing on school-owned land. Gibbson said that while the housing crisis needs to be tackled, there is a risk of “ghettoizing these individuals and families.”

Of course, the Board of Education’s power is limited and has large issues to tackle. So, while the candidates you choose to elect are important, it's imperative to remember that the success of the school board is equally dependent on other municipal elections this year: Town of Chapel Hill mayor, Chapel Hill Town Council and Carrboro Town Council. 

Every child and teacher deserves to feel supported and engaged at school. No matter how small or inconsequential you think your vote may be, don't skip out on the elections. 

@emlculley

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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