Election 2020: East area school board candidates talk issues in 2020 race

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 13, 2020

SALISBURY — Two newcomers are competing for the east area seat on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education.

Former East Rowan High School head baseball coach Brian Hightower and former RSS administrator Kathy McDuffie Sanborn are both seeking the seat currently held by incumbent Josh Wagner, who is not running for a third term.

Hightower, 49, now teaches physical education at East Iredell Elementary School and announced his candidacy before the filing period. Hightower is known for his successful run at the helm of East Rowan’s baseball team and his controversial 2019 ousting as coach.

Sanborn, 61, retired in 2013 as the district’s director of education and started her own business in 2014. She returned to the district in temporary posts as interim principal for Salisbury High School, North Rowan Middle School, Overton Elementary School and administrator at Koontz Elementary. She also was interim exceptional children director twice.

The East area seat that Hightower and Sanborn are seeking cover the following schools: East Rowan High, Erwin Middle, Granite Quarry Elementary, Morgan Elementary, Rockwell Elementary and Shive Elementary. The winning candidate in the Nov. 3 election will receive a four-year term on the school board. While the person represents a specified district, all voters who live in Rowan County and outside of the Kannapolis City Schools district get to vote in the Hightower-Sanborn race.

School consolidation

Hightower is not in favor of consolidation, with a catch.

He said there are several small communities in the east area and the schools are important to them. Hightower said he would be interested in meeting with east area leaders to collaborate on a consolidation plan, but he would vote against consolidation if the community opposed it.

Hightower said he wants to work with small communities to accommodate their unique needs. If there is no consolidation plan, the district needs to make existing schools work with its budget.

“We didn’t do it the right way the first time,” Hightower said.


Sanborn does not oppose consolidation.

“I think we do have to look at consolidation because we can’t continue to support the aged buildings,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn said the buildings could pose safety issues to students and staff as well as tie up money that could be used better in other places.

“Beyond looking at the studies that have been done, I believe we need to talk to our parents, our community leaders, our school staff before we make final consolidation decisions. I do think it’s got to be on the table.”

Opening schools

Hightower said he supports schools being open for more in-person instruction.

He said schools are doing the best they can to give students a quality education under the circumstances and he would be in favor of opening schools four days a week with Wednesdays still reserved for cleaning and teacher work days if county metrics remain steady. Hightower said he would not oppose returning to all remote learning if COVID-19 numbers deteriorate over the course of the fall semester.

“I really feel like the school system has done a great job dealing with what they have,” Hightower said, referencing benefits of the one-to-one device policy when public schools were ordered to close in March.

“They’re running themselves ragged, but they’re doing a great job,” Hightower said. “You can’t say enough about how we’ve been able to adapt.”

Hightower said he is doubtful about a vaccine for COVID-19 being made available soon and that he’s concerned about the coming cold weather and flu season.

Sanborn said each family should be able to decide how their child attends school during COVID-19.

Sanborn has two children learning in-person in other counties. She said families have been given choices to enroll virtually or in-person with blended learning.

“I think every family has to look at the benefits and the risks, and then make the decision that is best for their child,” Sanborn said.

In a perfect world with lower numbers and contained spread of COVID-19, Sanborn said she would like all students to have the option to return to full-time instruction because that would be best for most students.

Sanborn wants to keep Summit Academy available as a virtual option for families who think that return is not what’s best for their child.

Competency-based education

Hightower said he thinks competency-based education is a good idea, but not currently realistic.

Hightower said teachers are always working with the kids that are struggling. He said the model could provide some benefits for K-5 students if the district invests in more people because everyone enters kindergarten at different levels.

“They need help, because it’s not realistic sometimes to think that one teacher can take 22 different learning levels and be able to get them all on the same page,” Hightower said.

Hightower said the district may need to hold a student back a grade level to put them in a position to be successful.

“I look at it as nothing different than a college student taking five years to complete four years of college,” Hightower said. “It really shouldn’t be frowned upon.”

Hightower said students need to be prepared for the real world and college professors will not cater to their way of learning.

Sanborn is in favor of competency-based education.

“I think there’s a lot of benefits with competency-based education,” Sanborn said, adding it allows students to work on their strengths and need to move toward mastery at their own pace.

She said some students may need a slowed pace while others need an accelerated pace to prevent boredom. She said it could help with student engagement, different learning styles and is more aligned with real-world experiences that vary between students.

“I believe that competency-based could be a benefit for our students, but again we have to do more research, we have to make sure that we understand it as a district, as how it’s going to be implemented and how best to support our students with this type of education.”

Sanborn said staff has to have the capacity, skill level and understanding of competency-based education to implement it. She said families and students need to understand it as well.

“There’s got to be some expectations built in,” Sanborn said.


Hightower wants the district’s renewal status to go away.

While he doesn’t describe himself as a fan of standardized testing, Hightower said he thinks they set a good standard for how districts are graded. They also affect who wants to move here, Hightower said. A district with poor test results is not attractive to people who may want to move here. The same is true for businesses, he said, which leads to economic impacts.

“Let’s do what everybody else in the state is and let’s compete,” Hightower said. “I don’t like standardized tests. There’s no doubt I don’t like them, but that’s the way they grade you and those test scores are important no matter what anybody says.”

Baseball is still a major part of Hightower’s life, and he drew a comparison between eliminating standardized testing and playing baseball without keeping score.

Hightower says he does not think anything positive has come out of renewal.

“I was at East Rowan before Dr. Moody got in here, and we were blowing test scores out of the water,” Hightower said.

RSS Superintendent Lynn Moody, who is retiring, is a vocal opponent to standardized testing. The district is using its renewal status to explore alternate ways of assessing students and plans to roll out a pilot with short, specially designed tests called “verifiers” that show whether a student has mastered a concept and is ready to move to the next level in a subject.

Standardized tests were waived by the federal government this spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So there are no test results for the district from last semester.

Sanborn likes the flexibility renewal gives the district to make local decisions and she noted the advantages of the district being able to set its own calendar.

“Calendar and schedule has been a nightmare for years,” Sanborn said, “even when I was director of high schools, with high school students not finishing the first semester and having exams until late January. So that kind of flexibility is a strength.”

For most districts, the state sets the earliest possible start date in mid-August each year. Some districts can receive a waiver to start a week early if they show a need to do so. The waivers are commonly given to districts in mountainous parts of the state with more adverse winter weather.

While RSS can set its own calendar, it opted to start on Aug. 17 like most other districts in the state this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It started early in 2019.

Sanborn said she wants RSS to continue to operate as a district, with district-wide expectations and oversight in place, instead of a collection of schools heading in different directions.

“We can get there different ways, but we still need to have that same focus,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn said the county is a relatively mobile community. If one child moved between two elementary schools without continuity, that student could lose ground during the switch.

Each school has created its own renewal plan about how it intends to use the freedoms and the district created a “directional system” that revolves around interpersonal skills, academic skills and unique life goals.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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