Orange’s new superintendent has controversial past

Sep. 13, 2013 @ 05:32 PM

The newly named superintendent of the Orange County Schools, Gerri Martin, was at the center of a storm involving the separation of church and state as superintendent of the McDowell County Schools.

Earlier this year, a group of citizens presented a petition to the McDowell County Board of Education in Marion demanding that it dismiss Martin because, they said, she had forced a 6-year-old girl to remove the word God from a poem that she was going to recite at a Veteran’s Day event.

According to an article in The McDowell News, more than 1,100 people signed the petition. The poem was about the girl’s grandfather, who served in the Vietnam War, and it said, “He prayed to God for peace. He prayed to God for strength,” according to the article.

“It is time to stand up and protest and stand for our rights before we lose them as Christians and before the Constitution is abolished!” one woman wrote on a church Web site about the controversy.

Another woman wrote: “I would love to know what to do. I’m tired of sitting back and having all our religious freedoms taken away from us because of a few people. It’s time Christians take a stand. Will someone please let me know what to do to make my voice heard.”

The McDowell County board did not dismiss Martin. Instead, the board’s attorney wrote a 14-page policy that spells out how students, teachers, staff and others may practice their personal religious beliefs at schools without forcing them on others.

Martin said she did not seek the job with the Orange County Schools because of the controversy. “Oh no, not at all,” she said.

“It was definitely a controversial issue any time you’re working with the separation of church and state, when there’s not an understanding of what that means,” she said. “It was a great opportunity for this community to be educated on the legal ramifications of the Constitution.”

Steve Halkiotis, vice chair of the Orange County Board of Education, said the Orange County board considered the controversy but said it was minor issue.

“I think Dr. Martin is a true professional,” he said. “She desires to do what is right and she follows the laws of the United States and the Constitution of the United States and the laws and the Constitution of North Carolina.”

Halkiotis said he only spoke for himself but said that he thought she handled the issue correctly.

“I think she will do a wonderful job for the Orange County school system,” he said.

Martin had studied Orange County’s schools’ assessments and offered some ideas for improvement during her interviews, Halkiotis said.

“The woman is bilingual. She’s smart,” he said.

Orange County School Board member Anne Medenblik said she believed that Martin followed the law in regards to the separation of church and state issue in McDowell County.

While deciding on a new superintendent, the board relied on a community survey that said the new superintendent should have strong human relations and people skills, be an effective advocate for resources and have the ability to get stakeholders to work together to help children, Medenblik said.

“I think this board believes she was a good fit for our community,” she said.

Another criticism made by some in McDowell County was that there was a high turnover of teachers and administrators while Martin was superintendent.

Much of that was due to retirement, said Martin, who took over as superintendent in July 2012. In 2013, 34 teachers retired. In 2012, 28 teachers retired and in 2011, 31 teachers retired, she said.

Two school system administrators retired in the past year after 31 years and 34 years of service, she said. Another left to take a similar position at the community college, and a fourth left to take a job with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, she said.

“You can judge for yourself,” Martin said.

Martin said that she applied for the Orange County job because she believes the school system is the envy of other school districts since it is a high performing district.

“Certainly, the location in the state is desirable, and there are several folks there that I’ve worked with over the years,” she said. “I know the quality of work that they do.”

The move was partly professional and partly personal, she said. Her husband is a chef, and they owned a restaurant in Surry County that recently closed after 22 years. He’ll be looking for employment, and she believes he will have good job opportunities in Orange County, plus her cousin and sister live in the Triangle, she said.

McDowell County’s chairman of the board of education, Terry English, declined to comment in an email, saying he was a dairy farmer and had work to do in the fields.