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School board candidates talk diversity, superintendent search, consolidation

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Two candidates for the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education spoke to listeners virtually Thursday as part of a forum.

The event, hosted by the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP, featured incumbent Alisha Byrd-Clark, who is running for reelection to the Salisbury area seat, and Kathy McDuffie Sanborn, candidate for the East area seat. Their competition, Brian Hightower and Johnathan Barbee, did not participate.

The event was moderated by South Main Book Store owner Alissa Redmond, who asked the candidates what they are looking for in a new superintendent. Current superintendent Lynn Moody is retiring at the end of the year.

Byrd-Clark said Moody has done a good job steering the district in the right direction, but she is interested in a new superintendent invested in aligning with the community.

“I’m looking for someone who already has a plan in place regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, and is ready to implement that,” Byrd-Clark said.

Byrd-Clark said she wants someone who wants to bring in diversity among district faculty and staff that better represents the student population. She lauded the recent appointment of Jessica Rivas as principal at Hanford-Dole Elementary School. Rivas is the first Hispanic principal at Hanford-Dole, and Byrd-Clark said Rivas is someone Hispanic students can look to to feel like they are represented.

Sanborn agreed with Byrd-Clark and said she thinks, as the community becomes more diverse, the district needs to align with that diversity from the classroom to central office leaders.

Sanborn said she believes there is a time and season for every leader. Moody has taken the district where she was intended to, Sanborn said.

“I think now it’s the time for a new leader to come in and take us to that next level,” Sanborn said. “And that next level needs to be aligned with renewal, but I don’t want to pigeonhole someone in to saying that they have to follow Dr. Moody’s footsteps. I think we build off of that, but I think we need to be able to let that new leader be innovative and creative.”

Sanborn responded to a follow-up question about diversity and inclusion by saying she thinks classroom teachers and administration need to have a hunger for meeting diversity needs in the community.

She gave special mention to using renewal to look at a child’s unique passions and abilities so the district can meet the needs of students and build off of strengths.

“We tend to, in public education, and I think sometimes society as a whole, we look more at people’s weaknesses or their needs instead of their strengths,” Sanborn said, adding every child should have the opportunity to choose what they want to do based on their strengths and interests.

Byrd-Clark pointed to a controversy raised at the Monday night meeting of the Board of Education over literacy service Newsela. The website has a banner on the service website that stated “Black Lives Matter,” and Byrd-Clark pointed out two board members objected to contracting with the service.

Those board members, Dean Hunter and Travis Allen, claimed to take issue with other parts of the service, though Allen did address the banner specifically.

“Right now we have to just have those hardcore conversations in our classrooms and allow teachers to learn the different cultures and histories of our students,” Byrd-Clark said. “Until we address that situation, we don’t know what the next thee or four years are going to look like from that standpoint.”

Byrd-Clark said students have a right to know and be taught about their heritage, and teachers need to understand so they can have those conversations in classrooms.

A major issue for the board for years is school closure and consolidation. The district will consider closing Faith and Enochville elementary schools in October and is facing an expanding pool of empty seats with a declining student population and some students choosing virtual school.

The district would stand to save at least $500,000 per year by closing a school and funnel more resources into the smaller number of facilities.

Enochville and Faith were tapped for closure because of poor scores on a chart that ranked schools based on capacity, enrollment, utility cost, capital needs and age of the facility.

Byrd-Clark said the community needs to understand why the board is considering closures.

“We have a lot of schools that are beyond repair,” Byrd-Clark said, adding schools are supposed to be safe havens for students and many are not up-to-par.

She gave the example of Henderson Independent School, for which district administration is drafting a closure study, and attending an award assembly along with Hunter.

“We had more buckets than we had chairs because the roof was leaking,” Byrd-Clark said. “Who wants their child in that type of environment?”

Byrd-Clark also noted the several-thousand students enrolled in Summit Virtual Academy, and those parents do not seem caught up in brick and mortar.

“Those empty seats are not going to be filled any time soon,” Byrd-Clark said.

Sanborn agreed with Byrd-Clark and said running schools at low capacity pulls money from other places.

“One of the other things that really concerns me is the safety of those buildings,” Sanborn said. “Years ago, I worked in a school in a different county that was built in the early 1900s, and it looks very similar to some of our older schools. And I will never forget that the fire marshal told us we had less than 15 seconds to evacuate six classrooms of seventh and eighth graders because that building would go up like a pack of matches. I don’t want that to happen to any of our schools or any of our students.”

Sanborn said issues like buckets on the floor of buildings tells students the district does not care enough to provide appropriate buildings.

“We have got to look at the wide picture,” Sanborn said.

Redmond’s next question addressed social and emotional wellbeing of students.

Sanborn noted trauma can be an environment, socioeconomic status and even physical health. She said staff need to be trained to handle children dealing with trauma so they can understand and help students.

Byrd-Clark said students carry unnecessary weight on their shoulders and pointed to the success of the program Capturing Kids’ Hearts in a number of district schools, which helps teachers build healthy relationships with students.

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