Orange County

Candidates for Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board talk equity, teacher retention and more

Incumbent Rani Dasi (from left) and challengers Andrew Davidson, Jillian La Serna, Ashton Powell and Deon Temne are running for four Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board seats.
Incumbent Rani Dasi (from left) and challengers Andrew Davidson, Jillian La Serna, Ashton Powell and Deon Temne are running for four Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board seats. Contributed

Voters will elect four members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board in the Nov. 5 municipal election.

Incumbent board member Rani Dasi and four challengers — former school board member Andrew Davidson, Jillian La Serna, Ashton Powell and Deon Temne — are seeking a four-year term on the board. They will be elected by everyone in the city schools district.

Current board members Pat Heinrich, Jean Hamilton and James Barrett chose not to run for re-election this year. Barrett instead launched a campaign for N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Two additional candidates — Carmen Heurta-Bapat and Louis Tortora — will appear on the ballot but have withdrawn from the race.

Early voting starts on Wednesday, Oct. 16. Get more details about each candidate at tinyurl.com/y6enlfd9.

Here’s what we recently asked the five school board candidates:

Is the school board doing enough to ensure students of all races, incomes and abilities are able to succeed?

Rani Dasi: We must redesign core systems to create success for all students by eliminating institutional structures and practices that hamper student learning. Specifically:

Advocate for increased teacher compensation and supports

Increase recruitment/retention of teachers of color

Build a welcoming climate which engages families/students of color

Implement culturally inclusive rigorous curriculum to meet a wide range of student abilities

Build community support to address race issues

Strengthen accountability systems, communicating progress on success metrics and check points for interventions

Andrew Davidson: We need to do more. I would work to eliminate suspensions for all infractions except for bringing a gun to school; invest in our Data Science capabilities; defend and support AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate program; focus on third-grade reading proficiency; expand gifted opportunities for students beyond LEAP.

Jillian La Serna: No. There continues to be an opportunity gap, and as long as it exists, there is more to be done. Leading a school that exceeded growth in both reading and math last school year, I know how to take steps to ensure all students are growing and succeeding.

Ashton Powell: No. The achievement gap is a manifestation of society at large, not just how our district approaches its diverse students. We need to do a better job ensuring that students can see themselves reflected in the classroom in both the curriculum and their teachers. The board must also do more to ensure that the voices of families, teachers, and staff are able to contribute to decisions before they are voted upon.

Deon Temne: No. I hope to help EVERY child meet their full potential by building bridges between our board room and those most impacted by our achievement gap. I want to build trust and facilitate more collaborative problem-solving between the board and the community. I’d advocate for implicit bias and restorative training for staff to address disproportionate discipline rates. I’d also encourage us to focus on opportunity gaps rather than only measuring deficiencies in our students.

Is the school board doing enough to keep buildings maintained and repaired?

Rani Dasi: No. The board is doing what is possible within funding constraints. In North Carolina, capital costs are the responsibility of local (county) government. The school board does not receive enough funding annually to maintain current school buildings. Additionally, there is a backlog of about $350 million of repairs needed to renovate existing facilities and create appropriate learning spaces.

Andrew Davidson: The district is hamstrung by a lack of funding at the state level. We are left with making priority-based decisions to maintain old buildings, and it won’t get better until the state prioritizes more funding for capital improvements.

Jillian La Serna: No. Infrastructure and aging buildings continue to be a challenge for our district. We need to ensure that we are contracting with high-quality custodial services or hiring our own employees to ensure excellence in cleanliness at the schools. We also need to pay competitive wages to our maintenance department employees to recruit and maintain our team. We also need to continue creating a long-term facilities plan to ensure that building updates are an ongoing component of budget expenses.

Ashton Powell: No. There aren’t enough funds available in our budget allocation to address the repair and renovation needs of the district. We won’t be able to address this on our own, which means the board must do a better job engaging other elected officials in North Carolina. It is essential that we form coalitions across North Carolina to end the obscene waste produced by improperly funding the maintenance and repair of our infrastructure.

Deon Temne: Yes. Many of our schools are more than 50 years old. We have to be strategic about where and when to invest. The district has a 10-year capital investment plan. The renovation of Chapel Hill High is a great example of this plan already at work.

Can the school board do more to hire and retain quality teachers?

Rani Dasi: Yes.

Advocate for state and local programs which support education pipeline growth (ex. Teaching Fellows program)

Advocate for increased teacher compensation (salary and benefits) and supports

Create community building opportunities with teachers across the district

Strengthen processes to gain teacher perspective on decisions and policies including survey to understand and address barriers to retention

Provide training for staff on issues related to race to improve school climates

Minimize teacher non-instruction work to enable focus on instruction

Andrew Davidson: Our long-range plan is focused on recruitment but not on retention. I would work to revise our strategic plan to include language to focus on retention that is based around teacher training and professional development.

Jillian La Serna: Yes. We can continue building partnerships with local universities to attract diverse, quality teachers to our district. Once hired, closely monitoring and being responsive to the Teacher Working Conditions Survey will help ensure a positive work environment in our schools. Additionally, teacher empowerment is a key component of teacher retention. Finally, ensuring our administrators are trained in identifying and responding to microaggressions will help to support and retain diverse, quality teachers.

Ashton Powell:Yes. Far too many teachers are being hired by other states and neighboring North Carolina school districts. While increased salary and benefits would help us attract and maintain our teachers, there are additional ways to make our district appealing. By strengthening the voice of the faculty in the decision-making processes surrounding topics such as curricular and professional development, we can make our district a more appealing place for them to work. Being a model of shared governance will make our district stand out in North Carolina.

Deon Temne: Yes. I would advocate for the district to chase excellence through diversity:

Targeted Recruitment: partner with local universities to recruit and coordinate diverse student teacher placements.

Early Career Support: provide incentives and support for new teachers who may enter the field from non-traditional paths.

Leadership Development: offer ongoing professional development and implicit bias training to administrators to ensure they are best prepared to support diverse teachers and students.

Are there budget cuts that you would recommend?

Rani Dasi: NO. The district is undergoing a budget review process including an assessment of the return on investment on programs. As this work is concluded, we will have more information to support prioritizing programs or cuts as necessary.

Andrew Davidson: Our district has had to face so many funding uncertainties from the state level, and a fight every year for continuation funding from the county commissioners. It’s hard enough for our leaders to plan with no state budget in place, I can’t imagine making cuts in this environment.

Jillian La Serna: No. At this time, I can’t say there are any specific cuts I would recommend. If elected, I would ask for an overview of the district budget and work to ensure that our budget aligns with the district mission and commitment to equity.

Ashton Powell: Yes. There are inefficiencies in our district that we need to end, not just to free up resources, but because it is right to do. The direct and indirect costs of adjudicating ISS (in-school suspension) and OSS (out-of-school suspension) in the district must be addressed. Not only are these behaviorally ineffective, they are a fiscal drain on the district. Most importantly, suspensions are not applied equitably, making them morally dubious. Ending most ISS and OSS would provide both budgetary and ethical benefits.

Deon Temne: Not yet. As a new board member, there will be much to learn about how our budget works. However I do know it’s important to direct our funding to the line items that most directly impact the quality of education we can offer our students. Per pupil spending, deferred maintenance funding, additional teacher support and equity training would be some of the items I’d expect to be prioritized.

Are there areas where you would like to see the district spend more money?

Rani Dasi:

Teacher compensation, salary and benefits such as paid maternity/paternity leave

Facility renovation: Addressing significant needs at our oldest schools

Mental health supports: strengthening collaboration (or formalizing connections) with local social service agencies.

Andrew Davidson: Having served on the board from 2013 to 2017, I know first-hand that our data science capabilities are stuck in the 20th century — we are left addressing students’ needs at the end of the year, rather than in a timely manner. I won’t vote to approve a budget unless it includes an investment in our Data Science practice.

Jillian La Serna: Yes. as a district, I think we should be offering extended learning opportunities for all students.

Ashton Powell: Yes. Our district is not prepared to support the significant mental health issues facing many of our students. Some of these issues arise from an unnecessarily competitive school environment, while others reflect challenges outside the classroom. Irrespective of the etiology, we need to allocate more resources towards supporting student mental health.

Deon Temne: Yes. As a board member, I would support more investment in our teachers. If we are going to recruit and retain quality teachers, they need a livable wage and classroom support that allows for differentiated and small group instruction. I’d also push for additional funding for equity training for all staff. And it is also critical that we continue to fund the capital improvement plan to ensure we are appropriately investing in our aging facilities.

What is the school district’s biggest challenge and how would you address it?

Rani Dasi: Teacher recruitment and retention. See answer to question No. 3 above

Andrew Davidson: The achievement gap is our biggest challenge. You can’t address it with a single approach — it takes a multitude of responses. In some cases, it’s defending existing programs and initiatives, like supporting blended classrooms at the high school level. It’s supporting AVID and BRMA (Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program). It’s targeting minority students for AP classes at the high school level. It’s using data to target vulnerable students in a timely manner.

Jillian La Serna: The opportunity gap continues to be the most pressing challenge for the school district. Research has shown strategies we know to be effective in addressing this gap. Extended learning opportunities during the school year as well as in the summer make a significant impact. Also, a close examination of our current curriculum and placement practices is needed to ensure we are offering a rigorous and challenging curriculum to all students both during the day and in extracurricular activities.

Ashton Powell: CHCCS is a relatively well funded district with a culture of respecting education and a political composition one might expect would produce equitable outcomes. Despite all of this, we fail a significant proportion of our students by not sufficiently including their communities in decision-making processes. This exacerbates inequities present outside of our schools. We must strengthen shared governance amongst our diverse stake holders, otherwise our ambitions of equity will continue to fail.

Deon Temne: Our district is great at meeting the needs of those who fall within the bell curve, but we have more trouble meeting the needs of those deemed “different”: children of color, special-needs children, immigrants, low-income students, etc. I’d advocate to broaden pipelines for gifted identification so demographics in our gifted and A.P. classes mirror demographics in the district. I’d also work with SNAC (Special Needs Advisory Council) to advocate for inclusive learning environments for exceptional children who are academically capable. And I’d include more diverse community and student voices in ongoing collaborative problem-solving to identify transformative and culturally relevant solutions to our greatest challenges.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.
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