Men with two different perspectives seek east seat on school board
By Sarah Campbell
The two men competing for the east seat on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education agree on a few things but offer clearly different choices for voters.
Josh Wagner believes the school system has some work to do when it comes to transparency, while incumbent Dr. Jim Emerson disagrees.
"I don't know how much more transparent we could be," Emerson said. "Anybody who wants to know anything can find it online or it's easily accessible. All they have to do is call the public information officer.
"I don't know of any secrets that we're holding back."
But Wagner said the district can do more.
"Unfortunately, they took several steps backward last year by voting against publishing administrator pay," he said. "Transparency is what allows trust to be built between the board and the taxpayers of the county."
The candidates also have different opinions about the possibility of the expansion of charter schools within the county.
"I believe that the board should be supportive of any idea or institution that has proven successful," Wagner said. "Unfortunately, I feel that our current board ignores any option that is not a traditional public school model."
Emerson said although charter schools offer another choice for parents, he doesn't want to encourage their growth.
"I want to protect the integrity of public education, and when I see any funds taken from the regular schools I don't like it," he said.
But Emerson said he'd be interested in turning the Rowan-Salisbury system into a charter school system because such schools do not have the same stringent accountability standards as typical public schools.
"They do not have to accept certain students, they do not have to provide transportation," he said. "I don't want to see public schools become a place only for the disenfranchised, those who are unmotivated or those students with special needs."
Tackling the budget
Emerson said his primary goal when balancing the budget is ensuring the classroom is not affected.
"The most important thing that we can do is make sure we do the best we can with the monies that we have for the students," he said.
Emerson said school officials have done a good job in the past identifying cuts that would have minimal impact on students.
Wagner said the board needs to take a closer look at the budget to cut waste.
"We can't continue to spend money as if it is unlimited," he said. "Any expense that is not directly tied to student success should be a possible cut."
Work with commissioners
The candidates agree the school board needs a better working relationship with the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
"The commissioners are not my priority - the students are," Wagner said. "However, I must have an open mind and a dedication to the students when working with the commissioners.
"I feel that many current board members allow their biases to cloud their judgment and stifle cooperation with the commissioners."
Emerson said the relationship between the boards right now isn't good and that needs to change.
"I think it's antagonistic and most of that stemmed from the education center," he said.
Prior to his joining the board eight years ago, Emerson said the school board and commissioners used to hold casual meetings. That's something he'd like to see happen again.
"They sat down and explained their positions, and we explained ours. I think it helps build some understanding," he said. "We certainly don't want to be at odds because they control a whole lot of our budget.
"I would rather us have a good, solid working relationship."
Emerson and Wagner agree the school system needs to continue looking for ways to connect with students who may not feel school has much to offer them.
"We have to find ways to attract and keep the attention of the students so that they'll stay in school," Emerson said. "That's why we need to add clubs and after school activities to keep kids interested.
"I'm telling you, every kid that's a dropout is not intellectually deficient."
Emerson said the school system should also continue to hire and maintain the best and brightest teachers.
"Sometimes all it takes is one bad teacher for students to drop out," he said.
Wagner said dropouts often stem from situations in which students lose interest in school or don't see the benefit of graduating.
"I think that a comprehensive vocational school or program can provide a clearer direction for many of these students," he said. "If we offer them a career opportunity after graduation, I believe that they will take more ownership of their futures."
If elected, Wagner said he'd like to hold a parent and students forum once a year.
"I believe that if we reach out to parents and truly consider their input, their overall involvement can be improved," he said.
Emerson said he's not sure the school system could ever do enough to get parents involved.
"It's just one of those issues that we must continue to work on," he said. "It has to be done on an individual basis, we have to reach out to them.
"It takes time, energy and effort and I certainly don't think we're doing adequate job, but I'm not in the position at this point to say what else we can do. There are all kinds of ideas out there."
The candidates agree that the school board should solicit more feedback from teachers.
"I believe that teachers' opinions should be sought and used at every possible opportunity," Wagner said. "Furthermore, if teachers will be subject to policies, they must be asked for feedback before a final plan is approved."
Emerson said teachers should have every opportunity possible to provide their views.
"I don't think we need to be making any goals and objective that are, No. 1, unattainable and, No. 2, that teachers don't have any input in," he said. "If you don't have any buy in from the people who have to execute the plan, then you don't really have a plan."
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.