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Republican School Board candidates serve up red meat on education

Republican School Board candidates Blair Craven, Burt Harris, Josh Houston and Michael Absher participated in a candidate forum on Aug. 18. Republican School Board candidates Blair Craven, Burt Harris, Josh Houston and Michael Absher participated in a candidate forum on Aug. 18.

Four Republican candidates served up hearty helpings of conservative ideology on education issues this month in a Henderson County School Board forum that excluded four unaffiliated candidates who are also on the Nov. 8 ballot.

From Common Core (all opposed) to HB2 (mostly in favor) to federal mandates (pass up $10 million in funding), three Republican challengers plus incumbent Josh Houston laid out their conservative bona fides before a sparse crowd of 28 people at the Opportunity House. Republican Party Chair Glen Englram defended the party’s decision to exclude the unaffiliated candidates, saying GOP voters needed to hear from registered Republicans.
Moderated by Stan Shelley, the forum also covered local control, fiscal transparency, charter school funding and the decision by the Board of Commissioners that overruled the School Board recommendation on the future of Hendersonville High School.

Here are the questions and answers:

How can we as a board maintain more autonomy from federal control?

Burt Harris: “Don’t take the money.”

Josh Houston: “On the board I pushed back against federal mandates the best that I could. I voted on mandated meal price increase, I voted alone on changing the scoring system from the state. If you have to, don’t take the money. We were in a situation talking about HB2. You’re always threatened with losing the money. At some point you have to stand up. “

Michael Absher: The biggest problem I have is they also give a lot of mandates that they don’t provide a way to fund them. Whether you tie some of the funding with those mandates there’s also mandates that have no funding with them that you still have to comply with. So on a county level we’re paying for that.

Blair Craven: He said it great, ‘don’t take the money,’ but I don’t think it’s that simple. Nothing’s ever that simple. It’s important for us to talk to Chuck McGrady and Chuck Edwards up through the state level on to the federal level and push our agenda and make sure that we are what we believe is happening. But there has to be some type of pushback, starting right here.”

Right now North Carolina protects privacy and safety of children using gender specific facilities in schools. If the lawsuit of the Department of Justice against North Carolina prevails would you as a school board member advocate strongly to continue gender specific facilities in Henderson County schools at the risk of federal funding being withheld or would you allow the federal government to bully the board into going against your values and beliefs.

Houston: “it didn’t make the public meeting but I had a resolution in support of HB2 that we were prepared to pass in June, because that’s what I believe. HB2 should be the law, should be the law in every state and I’m willing to stand up. we have a resolution ready. We were legally shut down by the Fourth Circuit but if it comes down to it we’ll do what we have to do.”

Absher: “My belief is that a bathroom should be for a boy, should be boys in it. if it’s the girls bathroom it should be girls.”

Craven: This was never an issue before Charlotte decided to make it an issue. But I think before that schools did a great job of one-off situations and if there is a one-off situations schools can handle it as they see fit, and if that does require taking federal dollars then that’s what we have to do.”

Harris: “HB2 is a solution in search of a problem. We don’t need HB2. It would offend the common sense of 99 percent of the population. We can be fair to the students whose privacy would be invaded, we have several situations in the schools currently, medical situations, that are being handled properly and quietly by school principals. If there’s a problem all you have to do is give the right kid a key to a single-use bathroom. So, the federal government once again can keep its money. This is all going to wind up at the Supreme Court anyway.”

Houston (granted the opportunity to respond further): “Speaking from the board, we have handled that situation. But what the Fourth Circuit’s done is take that away. It took away the ability to do so privately for the safety and security of that child and all children.”

What is your opinion of hiring more school nurses?

Absher: We have a great collaboration with Blue Ridge community Health Services. They’re looking at expanding the school-based health centers. So eventually, part of their plan is to have a nurse at all the schools with a school-based health center. I think it would be great to have more nurses but who’s going to pay for that?”

Craven: I think it would be nice to have a nurse in each of the schools. My son has come home with his fair share of scraped knees from the money bars and has been taken care of quite well at Bruce Drysdale. … I think we have a decent system in place now. everything can always be improved.

Harris: “The salary for a starting nurse is around $55,000 to $60,000. We have 23 schools so you can do the arithmetic. I don’t think it’s affordable and I don’t think it’s necessary. I was a physician and the husband of a nurse who was a school nurse for a brief period. Many if not most of the inquires that a nurse would get could be handled over the phone by a resource person and I don’t really think we need to hire 23 nurses.”

Houston: “In a perfect world it would be great. I just don’t think that’s going to be in the budget anytime soon without help from some sort of partnership. If we could find a foundation or something to pay for this, we could do it but right now it would be difficult.”

Are you for or against Common Core?

Craven: “Against. That’s an easy one. My son is in fourth grade now so last year was the first year he actually took the end-of-grade testing. And seeing the students and how anxious they were taking these tests, I know of one student who physically vomited from being so nervous. I don’t ever remember that in school. I was never that nervous to go to school. I think a lot of it is we have to teach to the test. If we can do anything we can to get rid of Common Core, absolutely.”

Harris: “Common Core started as a simple list of what graduating seniors ought to know. It was in response to the business community that recent graduates that they hired couldn’t read a manual and couldn’t do business arithmetic. As a list of what students ought to know it was fine. The problem started when the federal government tried to do it in a curriculum, again with grants. … I don’t go for Race to the Top, I don’t go for No Student Left Behind but I do go for a list of basic competencies.”

Houston: “Against. Education is a states rights issue, we need to get it back to the local level, state level, however we do that.”

Absher: “I’ll be sounding like a broken record here. Totally against Common Core and totally agree that local level school boards need more power.”

What is your highest priority and what can the school boards to impact the quality of education in the classroom?

Harris: “Computers, computers, computers. The whole world runs on computers. We are one of the minorities of school districts in the United States that are not using computers in the classroom. The School Board has a plan that will more or less put computers into the hands of the students. The trouble is it’s a four-year plan, which means we’re going to have a whole generation from students that are not going to benefit from this. I jokingly said one day that we’ll have a new Hendersonville High School building before everybody in the building has a computer.”

Houston: “I want to continue to fight for transparency. I have brought some votes on my own that would have happened behind closed doors that involve your tax dollars in salaries. I have brought out a motion to make us easier to communicate with ... through email. On the computer issue, I agree with Dr. Harris but we’re trying. We asked for computers in all the high schools two years ago and did not receive the funding. Now we’re asking for basically a four-year plan of 25 percent year until we’ve got them all completed.”

Absher: “I would say my biggest goals would be transparency. We’ve got staff that have been changed from certain positions to other positions that are keeping their salary. I know there are certain legalities that our hands are tied but I think the general public should know about that. … Technology’s always changing. Definitely we need to work on that because there’s kids that can’t even get a computer at home so when they’re at school that’s basically the only time that they can use a computer. I want to build up the respect and morale of teachers to allow them to express themselves without being felt threatened by the central office staff that they can’t communicate to the School Board. I’d love to increase the safety and security of our schools and increasing mental health awareness n our schools because times are changing. There’s more and more problems every day.”

Craven: “I’m going to piggyback on these guys a little bit, and yes, the No. 1 issue is fiscal transparency. Josh has done a pretty good job but help elect some more of us and I think he could do a much better job. Next is just not rubberstamping issues. Next is HHS and the $50 million we have going on up the street. The Board of Commissioners have to find the best way to use the Stillwell Building, how much is that going to cost the county? and of course Edneyville Elementary School as well. That school is desperately in need of replacement. Technology is a huge issue in the 21st century. We should have computers there for their use.”

The Legislature did not pass the fair funding for public charter schools bill, which would force county School Board to send to funding charter schools on a per pupil basis for each student enrolled. Currently 25 percent of the funding per child can still be kept by the school district. What is your position?

Absher: Chose to pass. “I’ll have to learn more about that.”

Craven: “When you talk about the funding aspect, there are a lot of fixed costs associated with having a public school … so it foes become a bit of an issue. Having 25 percent of the cost go towards the hard cost of maintaining the grounds for the school system I think is critical.”

Harris: “Charter schools are actually contributing quite a bit in many localities. Fortunately, Hendersonville isn’t one of those localities because the place where charter schools have made the most impact is in places where public schools are underperforming. … I think that the way it’s currently constituted is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t have to change.”

Houston: “Some of that bill did include money that’s raised by the school. If it’s raised by the school and not part of tax dollars, it should stay with the school. But I do believe money should follow the child.”

How do you see partisan politics at work in the School Board race?

Craven: “Although it’s a nonpartisan race, there has always been a partisan shift to it. There’s a big stink about who is here and not here today. I don’t think (making the Henderson County School Board race officially partisan) is a bad idea at all. You want to know what the general values are of the people you’re electing.”

Harris: “There are 113 public school districts in the state of North Carolina. Twenty-three of them have partisan elections.” Quoting a Republican legislator, Harris said, “Partisan elections give the voter a much better feel for who he is voting for and what the philosophy may be.”

Houston: “It’s very convenient to call it nonpartisan in my opinion. It’s very convenient when you control it for a hundred years from the left through the education bureaucracy and continue to say that it’s nonpartisan … It’s very convenient to switch to unaffiliated after running (as a Democrat) against a senator who’s been very effective for our county.”

Absher: “Part of my stance is my personal view is I’m not for party partisanism but it is there and it has been for the past few School Board elections. I think the general public does have the right to know who stands for their beliefs. … It’s the same thing with judges. We know who our conservative judges are, we know who our liberal judges are.”