The Candidates Respond: Orange County School Board

Five candidates are running for the Orange County Board of Education in the upcoming election on March 15th. Unlike the several primary election items on the ballot, the school board race is a nonpartisan general election. The winners will take office in June.

  • Full 4-year term (3 seats): Stephen H. Halkiotis, Tony McKnight, Matthew Roberts
  • Unexpired 2-year term (1 seat): John D. Hamilton, Michael H. Hood

OrangePolitics asked the candidates to answer five questions. The responses from four of the candidates are provided below. Candidate Matthew Roberts did not respond.

  • What explains the “achievement gap” in Orange County Schools, and what should the board and the administration do to close the gap? [Jump to responses.]
  • Data indicate that school resource officers make arrests for minor incidents that could easily be handled by school staff. What reforms would you support to protect students from the consequences of criminal charges and criminal records? [Jump to responses.]
  • How would you characterize the relationship between the school board and the county commissioners? In what ways could this relationship be improved? [Jump to responses.]
  • What should board members and administrators have done to support students and staff in response to a small number of complaints about a teacher’s decision to read King and King to his students to address anti-LGBTQ bullying in his classroom? [Jump to responses.]
  • How would you propose to balance taxation and funding between Orange County’s two school districts? [Jump to responses.]

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What explains the “achievement gap” in Orange County Schools, and what should the board and the administration do to close the gap?

Stephen H. Halkiotis: The “achievement gap” in Orange County Schools is a result of the same socioeconomic disadvantages that are to be found in all schools systems in North Carolina and across all of the United States of America. Numerous studies over the years cite disparities in households that have lower incomes versus high income households, disparities in the educational level of white, black, and Hispanic parents, high levels of unemployment, poverty, early childhood education opportunities(public versus private), and others factors all impact the ability levels of children entering public kindergarten classes.

Public school kindergarten teachers are constantly being challenged to meet the dissimilar needs of their new students from those who are actually reading to those who haven’t been exposed to the alphabet. Orange County Schools have placed a strong emphasis on literacy efforts during the past 40 years that I have been associated with the school system and early intervention is necessary. The diminishment of the “More at Four” program by conservative state legislators further exacerbates the situation for incoming kindergarten students.

Three new initiatives at Central Elementary(71.83% free and reduced lunch), Efland Cheeks Elementary(67.61% free and reduced lunch), and New Hope Elementary(62.48% fee and reduced lunch) highlight some of the most recent initiatives to “raise achievement and close the gap.” Central Elementary is revamping its STEM(Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program with the aid of three new teaching positions, a new Math interventionist, additional appropriate/leveled reading materials, and the assistance of a Behavior Specialist. The Central staff is being given additional resources to meet the challenges of the achievement gap.

Efland Cheeks Elementary and their “Eagles Fly Program” not only includes five new teaching positions, but also provides “Childcare Staff for Adult ESL Classes.” Students at Efland Cheeks are learning how to become leaders through “critical thinking and supporting each other” in their day to day activities. The approach is to create and establish a new ”mindset” in students that 20 years from now they will remember that special teacher(s) who truly impacted their lives.

New Hope Elementary is embarking on their new “Superhero in Me” program where there is  an emphasis on “The Power of Yet.” This exciting initiative doesn’t dwell on socioeconomic status  as  “an excuse for success or failure” but rather attempts to instill in students a “can do it” attitude. The concept of working hard and that it takes work and time to achieve meaningful things emphasizes “patience and belief in one’s self.” New Hope also received four new teaching positions with assistance for childcare staff for evening Adult ESL classes.

I am fully supportive of these initiatives and am excited to be part of a school system that is supportive of new undertakings by teachers and administrators aimed at lifting up all children to help them achieve their maximum potential during these critically important formative years.

John D. Hamilton: There is not one explanation for the perceived “achievement gap” nor does the “gap” exist in all locations/schools.  Rather, there are historical factors, different students and student aspiration pools, societal issues such as socioeconomic disparities, local school teacher emphases, and different parental influences. So, there is not one thing that will close the perceived.  The Board has, I assume, initiated multiple interventions and until I learn more about what has already been done and shown to work/not work, I do not have an opinion as to next steps.

Michael H. Hood: The “achievement gap” in Orange County Schools is the persistent disparity in student performance defined by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and gender.  The “achievement gap” has existed for decades and can only be addressed by the school board continuing to address to families the importance of education to break this continuing cycle.

Tony McKnight: Disparities in learning between racial and ethnic groups, and improving achievement in the areas of literacy and mathematics for all students. We can address these issues in the following ways:  Analysis and collection of data in areas that gaps exist. Continued emphasis on our Pre-K and Kindergarten programs. Identifying students that are struggling at the early stages, and putting in place intervention strategies to assist in their learning. Continuous recruitment and retaining diverse, and highly qualified teachers that are dedicated to learning experiences, and growth of all Orange County students. We must continue to expand and create challenging, rigorous curriculum offerings for our students, and continued collaboration with our community stakeholders.

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Data indicate that school resource officers make arrests for minor incidents that could easily be handled by school staff. What reforms would you support to protect students from the consequences of criminal charges and criminal records?

Stephen H. Halkiotis: From the onset of the School Resource Officer program in the Orange County School System there has been a deliberate and well thought out “Memorandum of Understanding” on protocols to be followed both by the resource officers from the Orange County Sheriffs Department and administrators/staff of the assigned school. The Resource Officers are all BLET(Basic Law Enforcement Training) certified and are professional representatives of Sheriff Charles Blackwood. They are specifically trained to serve in their school role and are not just another assistant principal to serve the principal.

The ultimate goal of the resource officer is to protect students and staff from any real threat that may come onto the campus during the school day and also during athletic events and other functions where significant crowds may be in attendance. While the program is state mandated at the middle school and high school level, several years ago I along with the entire board voted to extend the program to the elementary level. By using retired Deputies the Sheriff  is able to provide this valuable safety resource without the added cost of benefits etc…  that would be considered for non-retirees.  Our parents have been very enthusiastic about the elementary program and have shared many positive stories with school board members. As a result of the high performance expectations instituted by the Sheriff we have not experienced any of the foolish situations of law enforcement acting in a seemingly unacceptable manner that so frequently pops up on the national news. The resource officers are not running around arresting or detaining students or non-students unless there is an obvious violation of state law that is clearly evident. North Carolina Public School Law expects the school system and the principal to ensure the safety of students and staff and the Resource Officer program does precisely that.

John D. Hamilton: Resource officers have, I presume, received training as to their responsibilities and authority.  If the training is felt to be inadequate to address internal conflicts, this needs to be resolved through discussions between the school administration and law enforcement.

Michael H. Hood: The school staff should be allowed to educate the students and not serve a surrogate parents. Students who cannot conform to acceptable behavior standards make that decision for themselves and should be made aware of the consequences of their actions by their parent/parents. No reforms are necessary to protect students from their poor decisions.

Tony McKnight: Train our teachers on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports for at risk students, collaboration and training of our School Resource Officers, Building Administrators and students in peer mediation, and conflict resolution, to build positive relationships to ensure safety for all.

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How would you characterize the relationship between the school board and the county commissioners? In what ways could this relationship be improved?

Stephen H. Halkiotis: We are extremely fortunate to live in Orange County where the Board of County Commissioners has an outstanding record of supporting both of their public systems through strong financial support. The per pupil funding provided by the Board of Commissioners has been the envy of many school systems across North Carolina. I served as an Orange County Commissioner from 1986-2006 and while we were strong supporters of the schools then that strong support continues to this very day. While the Commissioners can’t possibly fund everything some school board members across the county desire, the fact that they allocate half of the county budget to schools is truly a very strong showing of support.

John D. Hamilton: I have no knowledge of the relationship of the Board and County Commissioners.  Certainly every effort should be made to have a professional and harmonious relationship that serves all elements of the Orange County public schools.  I look forward to assisting in achieving that.

Michael H. Hood: Orange County Schools has an excellent relationship with the county commissioners. They have been increasingly responsive to the needs of our system with funding and support for improving the quality of education in our district.

Tony McKnight: The relationship between, Orange County Schools, CCHCS and Orange County Commissioners is very progressive, and collaborative, we are all committed to successful learning experiences, health, and safety of all Orange County students, and staff.

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What should board members and administrators have done to support students and staff in response to a small number of complaints about a teacher’s decision to read King and King to his students to address anti-LGBTQ bullying in his classroom?

Stephen H. Halkiotis: As a thirty year plus employee of the Orange County School System  and having served as a Social Studies Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal(2 years at C.W.Stanford Junior High School and 15 years at Orange High School) I am very familiar with school board policies, superintendent expectations, and limitations I clearly understood as a classroom teacher and school level administrator. The school board in coordination with the school board attorney and the superintendent and assistance from other partners such as the North Carolina School Board Association all work together to develop policies that will govern the day to day operations of the system. Once the entire board votes in open session to approve a policy then that policy is expected to be followed by all employees. Adherence to applicable federal and state laws, appropriate procedures to be followed by the State Board of Education, Department of Public Education guidelines, and local school board policy all combine to provide a seemingly complex system of laws, rules, regulations, and policies that provide a regulatory framework that public school employees must adhere to.

Being a public school system and not a private or religion based system also means that we have to be respectful and mindful that all parents and all students may not be comfortable in participating in controversial issues that face the greater society. It is my opinion that the teacher in the King and King issue failed to  give parents an opportunity to opt out of his presentation. The issue went to a school based review committee that looked at what happened  and offered an opportunity for other staff members  to weigh in. The teacher then chose to embark on a media campaign and decided to resign his position. With the resignation of the teacher the issue never went forward to either the office of the superintendent or to the entire school board. It is not the proper function of the school board to inject itself into the daily operations of individual schools. The school board is the last level of appeal within the system after all issues have been addressed at all clearly stated and appropriate levels. It was totally inappropriate for the school board to get involved while the discussion was still ongoing at the school level.

In the 2014 case where the former principal of A.L.Stanback Middle School wouldn’t allow students to establish “ A Gay Straight Alliance Club,” it was reported that the principal stated to her faculty that “she was heeding a new system-wide policy from Orange County Schools” in barring the establishment of the GSA.

Both interim Superintendent Del Burns and myself as Chair of the School Board clearly stated to the press that no such policy existed(see Independent Weekly, September 17, 2014 article written by Billy Ball). I clearly stood up for the right of students to establish a “ Gay Straight Alliance Club” at A.L.Stanback Middle. My direct involvement at that juncture was  the fact that the term “system-wide policy” was first used by the principal and what she stated to the faculty wasn’t the truth.

John D. Hamilton: This is obviously a sensitive issue that is best addressed by open, honest and candid discussions among all parties.

Michael H. Hood: I personally, have no problem with the King and King being used in the system; but I do think the book is not appropriate for 3rd grade students. The decisions of the board on this matter are not a public record and as the teacher and assistant principal chose to resign; I consider the matter to be resolved.

Tony McKnight: The board and administration handled this particular matter appropriately. The administration convened committees to review materials, according to board policy.

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5. How would you propose to balance taxation and funding between Orange County’s two school districts?

Stephen H. Halkiotis: Several years ago the voters of the Orange County School District voted “no” to a district tax proposal to provide additional funds to the district. The well established district tax in the Chapel Hill Carrboro school system has been in place for many decades. I don’t covet their extra district tax dollars(approximately $20 million plus) and I just try to focus in on how to maximize our use our federal, state, and generous county commissioner funding to the maximum benefit of our students/parents and the entire educational community.

John D. HamiltonI assume the Board makes recommendations to the Commissioners based on solid evidence.  This, too, must proceed through comprehensive discussions.  As I understand it, the County Commissioners make the final decisions with regard to taxation and funding.

Michael H. Hood: First, the county commissioners fund the two schools systems equally on a per student basis. The Chapel Hill Carrboro City School district voted decades ago to create a special district tax for the school system. Orange County voters have recently voted against a special district tax for the Orange County School district.

Achievement Gap OCS EOC&EOG Black to White 37.1% Lower
    Hispanic to White 29.3% Lower
Achievement Gap CHCCS EOC&EOG Black to White 53.7% Lower
    Hispanic to White 47.4% Lower

It is apparent that the $20+ million in special district taxes has not helped close the achievement gap for the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools. (Data from NCDPI Testing and Accountability)

Tony McKnight: There is no ideal way to balance taxation and funding between disparities of Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools because of both being affected by funding cuts at the state level. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools special district tax does help. Orange County Commissioners have been committed to both districts in funding for our schools. If the proposed bond referendum on the November 2016 ballot passes, it would assist both districts in needed upgrades and repairs of existing facilities.



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