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The 10 candidates for the Brunswick County Board of Education discussed issues ranging from policies to performance during Thursday night’s candidate forum.
Candidates from Districts 1, 2 and 4 gathered to introduce themselves, explain their reasons for seeking candidacy, and participate in a question and answer session.
Running for District 1 are: Ray Gilbert, incumbent, Republican; Tracey Danka, Republican; Bud Thorsen, Republican; John Jones, Democrat; and Inger Marlowe, Democrat.
Gilbert, who has served on the board since 2004, said if elected, his main priority over the next four years would be to reduce the dropout rate. The way to do it is build a vocational high school, he said.
“I’m looking forward to the day when Brunswick County has a world-class vocational high school,” Gilbert said. “The season is now, because we have too many kids dropping out of school, and that vocational track is one way of keeping them in school.”
Danka said she decided to run due to a personal experience. She removed her children from Brunswick County Schools after a disciplinary incident regarding her son. Danka explained how her questions and concerns went unanswered and unattended to, and board members should take a more active role in reported situations.
“The policy that’s in place, it doesn’t work,” she said. “You go to the teacher. You go to the principal. You try to talk to the school board, the superintendent denies you. As a school board member, you need to step up and at least try to answer the taxpayers’ questions. We have a right as a taxpayer and as a parent to know these situations are being dealt with.”
Thorsen served on the board from 1994-2004, and said education is his main priority, and has a “vision” each child in the system would receive the best education possible. Supporting the teachers by setting policies and standards is also a priority.
“Educators, I assure you would have the materials, supplies, and the support from your administration,” he said.
Jones is a lifelong educator, having served as superintendent in Montgomery and Scotland counties and even as interim superintendent in Brunswick County. Raising test scores would be his main priority as a board member, and Jones offered several ideas that may help.
“I feel if we don’t get the students the basics, we’re doing them an injustice,” he said. “We need to have a well-rounded cultural arts program.”
Marlowe has children in the school system and is a student herself at Brunswick Community College. By talking with her fellow students and parents, operating safe, drug-free schools is the top priority for Brunswick County, she said.
“If we don’t have children in a safe environment, they don’t learn,” Marlowe said. “Safety and having a drug-free school is very important.”
The race in District 2 is between Christy Judah, a Democrat, and Catherine Cooke, a Republican.
Judah is a retired educator after serving 30 years as a counselor and teacher. She spent 18 years working in Brunswick County Schools as a counselor. Reducing the dropout rate is her main priority, she said. Increasing vocational course offerings and developing individualized career plans are just some of the ways to help students stay on track.
“I believe in educating the whole child—body, mind, and spirit,” she said. “It’s essential that academic and behavioral expectations are enforced.”
Cooke, a mother of four, has volunteered in the county schools for 11 years and has been involved with Communities in Schools and the Parent Advisory Council. Wanting to be a liaison between the administration and the parents is a personal priority, she said.
“The main reason I’m running is a lot of parents feel intimidated scared to go to the teachers. I want to be the voice of the parent who cannot get the gumption and be an advocate for them,” she said.
District 4 incumbent Shirley Babson, Republican, faces two Democrats—Harry Martin and Tom Simmons.
Babson has served on the board for 16 years, seven of them as chairwoman. She began her involvement with the schools as a PTA member, teacher assistant and substitute teacher. Like Gilbert, Babson said a vocational high school would be a priority over the next four years.
Martin, a retired educator having served as principal at Virginia Williamson Elementary, said he is seeking election because he “still has a lot to offer.” His top priority if elected would be focusing on improving test scores.
“Math scores have not been very good,’ he said. “[The board needs to focus on] getting math and science scores up to national average.”
Simmons retired after 34 years in education and now runs the STARBASE program, a hands-on math and science program targeted toward at-risk elementary school children. Programs such as STARBASE is what schools need to reduce dropout rates, Simmons said.
“It’s time for a change, put programs in schools to lower [the dropout] rate, put programs in to lower the drug and violence rate,” Simmons said.
Closing the gap between minority and non-minority students is also a way to reduce the rate, Simmons said.
“We are losing hundreds of kids because of that gap,” he said.
Q & A with the candidates
The candidates were asked several questions and each had the opportunity to provide an answer, but when asked, “What letter grade would you assign to current superintendent?” many candidates opted to pass.
Cooke, Jones, Judah, Marlowe, Simmons, and Thorsen chose to give Superintendent Katie McGee an incomplete, each noting they did not have enough information. Babson chose not to give a grade but said while she and McGee “do disagree many times,” she has seen improvement throughout the schools.
Martin said McGee “tries really hard,” and gave her a B.
Gilbert and Danka both gave McGee an F from a parent’s perspective. As a board member, Danka gave McGee an incomplete. Gilbert gave a D-.
“It’s good to have a cheerleader, but it’s good to have a coach,” he said. “I’m not afraid to say we need a change.”
The candidates gave differing opinions when asked if foreign language should be a core subject. Babson, Danka, Judah, Martin, Simmons all supported the concept. Thorsen said he was in favor but said the students should “speak better English first.”
Jones and Marlowe said the schools should all teach Spanish. Cooke said she was not in favor of foreign language being a core subject but supported it as an option.
“I think we need to concentrate more on the basics,” she said.
Gilbert said he was an “English first candidate,” and said requiring foreign language was not going to raise test scores. He said if offered, foreign language should be available to students in grades 6-12 only.
When asked about ideas to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers, most of the candidates agreed money and the beach community are the obvious solutions.
“Money talks. Stipends talk. If you want to get qualified people, you need to pay them what they’re worth,” Judah said.
“Bring them to the beach; everybody loves the beach,” Cooke said about recruiting to the area.
Thorsen agreed, and said going to colleges and letting people see the area and the schools would help recruitment.
Simmons suggested alternative ways to recruit such as partnering with utility companies and possibly waiving first month bills.
‘That’s thinking out of the box,” he said.
Jones said at one of his former schools, teachers formed a committee to help teachers work towards obtaining an administrative position.
“We grew our own,” he said.
Martin said there are employees in the system that would like to move up.
“We have assistant principals serving would make excellent principals," he said
“We do have great teachers and should be promoting within,” Danka said. “We should be paying our teachers more. They’re educating our children.”
“If you’re not paying them, they are not going to stay,” Marlowe added.
Gilbert said helping employees work towards promotions is a better alternative than money.
“It seems like money has always been the answer to education,” Gilbert said. “Most of the people I know in Brunswick County Schools work for reasons other than pay. It’s the love of what they do. Why are we keeping them as assistant principals if they desire to be principals?”
Babson said the school’s recent job fair brought in many hopeful candidates and even extended offers to several teachers. In her opinion, the school system is on the right track.
“How do we have highly qualified employees and highly qualified teachers? We already do and we do have many programs in place to encourage people to come to the county,” Babson said. “We don’t have any problem having people come to BCO. We don’t have a very big turnover so I think that tells you we’re doing something right.”
Primary elections take place from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 6. Registered voters are only allowed to vote for candidates of their declared party.
Kathryn Jacewicz is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or at firstname.lastname@example.org