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Candidates for school board differ on redistricting ideas

By Sarah Nagem
snagem@salisburypost.com
Dr. Jim Emerson and Eric Trail, who are vying for a seat on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, have some things in common.
For one, they have both chosen careers in education administration.
Before he retired in the early 1990s, Emerson, the incumbent for the eastern district seat on the board, was a high school principal and an area superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Trail is an assistant principal at J.N. Fries Middle School in Cabarrus County.
Both candidates support the school system getting a central office; they each have opinions about how to lower the school system’s dropout rate; both say the Rowan-Salisbury School System is doing a good job of recruiting teachers.
And, apparently, they’re part of a very small group of people who want to serve on the school board. (The other two incumbents up for re-election — Bryce Beard in the Salisbury district and Linda Freeze in the southeast — face no opposition in the November election.)
But the similarities between Emerson and Trail end there.
They have different ideas about redistricting schools, the importance of public opinion and how much the school system should be willing to spend for a central office.
“It can’t be done unless it’s systemwide,” Emerson says of redistricting schools. “Whatever we do will create a domino effect.”
As chairman of the school board, Emerson has appointed a committee of board members to designate “triggers” for redistricting. For instance, if South Rowan High School reaches a certain enrollment, the board would know it’s time to redraw district lines.
Trail, however, says the school board should look at shifting lines for individual schools as they become overcrowded. Otherwise, he says, school leaders will “be constantly redrawing district lines.”
The sagging enrollment at North Rowan High School has been a hot topic among school board members. Supporters of North have pleaded with the board to send more students there.
But Emerson said he does not want to disturb the enrollment at other schools just to boost North’s population.
Redistricting will not automatically ease a school’s problems anyway, Trail said. School leaders need to take a look at issues like discipline and dropout rates, he added.
“When we start addressing those, I think the problems start fixing themselves,” Trail said. “The school becomes a more appealing school.”
In recent separate interviews, Emerson and Trail shared their thoughts on public opinion, and the role it plays — or should play — in school board decisions.
Earlier this year, the school system held public meetings to talk about the possibility of combining Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary schools into one building.
Both schools are housed in old buildings, and Woodleaf has water issues. The thinking was that the school system could save money by constructing one larger school instead of two small schools.
Parents didn’t like the idea, and they let school board members know. In the end, due to parents’ responses, the school system abandoned possible plans to combine the schools.
Emerson said he would not always go along with the popular opinion. He did in this case, though.
“I think we make the right decision for the circumstance,” Emerson said.
Trail said if voters elect him to the board, he will always go along with what parents want. In the case of combining Woodleaf and Cleveland, he said, only turmoil would have come from it.
“I think it would cause a lot of hard feelings,” Trail said.
If a school project like that lacked parents’ support but school leaders moved forward with it anyway, Trail said, students and teachers would struggle.
As for technology in schools, Emerson said access to computers is important. But money is always a factor.
Another factor  is showing aging teachers how to use the technology that many students might already be familiar with. This is, after all,  an age of video games and gadgets geared toward youth.
That’s where staff development comes in.
“You can teach old dogs new tricks,” Emerson said. “I think it’s more of an attitude than a physical impossibility.”
He continues: “Staff development is not the end all. I think what we need to do is attract top-notch (teachers) up front.”
Trail said the school system needs a strategic plan for technology. School leaders should assess the technology needs at each school and then be fair about doling out computers, he said.
Trail questions the school system’s decision to mainly use Macintosh computers, while many businesses use PCs.
“The most up-to-date technology needs to be in all schools,” Trail said.
He also wants teachers to network with each other about using technology to enhance lessons.
“We don’t have to spend millions of dollars to help teachers be effective in the classroom,” he said.

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