Chatham school board candidates prioritize COVID-19, redistricting plans

Posted 10/2/20

In Chatham County, the school district is governed by a non-partisan board with five members. This year, two of the Chatham County Schools Board of Education’s five seats will be up for …

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Chatham school board candidates prioritize COVID-19, redistricting plans

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In Chatham County, the school district is governed by a non-partisan board with five members. This year, two of the Chatham County Schools Board of Education’s five seats will be up for re-election, with incumbents Melissa Hlavac (Dist. 1) and David Hamm (Dist. 2) facing opposition.

Over the last six months, the board’s decisions regarding the district’s plan for returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic have been controversial among Chatham parents and residents, along with their school attendance zone decision for the new Seaforth High School. Chatham residents have made it clear — during public input sessions as board meetings and over social media platforms — that these decisions are important, particularly during an election year. It’s not a surprise then that the majority of candidates on this year’s ballot for Chatham’s Board of Education seats have made discussing COVID-19 plans and redistricting processes a priority for their platforms.

District 1

In District 1, Hlavac, who has served on the board since 2016, has championed equity issues at CCS during her tenure. A first-generation American, she said her “Hispanic background coupled with my education shaped the woman” she is today.

Hlavac also works as an associate dean of MBA programs at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. If re-elected, two of her main objectives would be to reduce the student achievement gap to address equity and raise the school state rankings, as well as to improve the quality of and safety in county school buildings and facilities.

“I’m seeking re-election to continue the momentum that the board has had over the past four years,” Hlavac wrote in her questionnaire response. “Given my background, I see issues through a kaleidoscope of lenses: equity, excellence, safety, parental and business. We’ve made progress on a plethora of critical issues including educator pay, new schools, achievement gaps, and equity. While as board members we might not always agree, we respect one another and collaborate effectively to make progress on behalf of the students/educators in the county — a fragmented board is one that does not advance.”

During the board’s discussions regarding COVID-19 plans, Hlavac has been firm in her position of prioritizing student and parent safety above all else. A parent of CCS students herself, she has acknowledged the difficulty of remote learning for families, while also calling on the board to maintain consistency in their decision-making. At the board’s last meeting, she voted in favor of extending Plan C through the semester, which ends Jan. 15. That decision passed 4-1.

“It’s not easy, there are advantages and disadvantages,” Hlavac said at that meeting. “At the same token, there’s certainly safety to take into consideration. There are many families who have gotten the knack on how they’re conducting education and I think about what that change will look like at this point in the year.”

She faces Timothy Winters, who works as an engineer and has two children in Chatham County Schools. If elected, Winters’ main objectives would be to work with county leaders to obtain a larger share of incremental county revenue for education, implement maximum class sizes of 18 students in K-5 classes, and in math, science and English classes for students in 6th through 8th grade.

A parent himself, Winters prioritized the importance of incorporating the points-of-view of parents to make decisions with urgency.

“In recent years, our schools have shown improvement in student proficiency and growth metrics,” he wrote in his questionnaire response. “While these are significant achievements, we also need to realize that these improvements are not coming fast enough for many Chatham students.”

Winters acknowledged the board was put in a difficult position, affirming its decision to start the school year with nine weeks of remote learning, but criticizing their decision-making process — one which he characterized as “disorganized” and “painful to watch.”

“Now that my children have started remote learning, it’s clear that teachers have worked hard to make a bad situation work,” Winters said. “Better guidance from the school board could have reduced uncertainty and anxiety for parents, students, and educators.”

Also on the ballot in Dist. 1 is Ryan Armstrong, who works as an operation manager at Intrepid-Bid. He also criticized the board’s process of reaching a decision — saying it “lacked communication and preparedness.” In his News + Record questionnaire response, Armstrong proposed a hybrid learning plan, which would alternate between in-person and remote learning for students, with Wednesdays as a sterilization day. His primary goals if elected include developing a “better road map” for growth and expansion in the district and bringing more middle school sports and (Career and Technical Education) CTE programs to the county.

“I am a candidate that will be visible and accessible,” Armstrong said. “I believe in transparency and that everyone has a voice and that voice needs to be heard. So, when you cast your ballot, look at the name and not the affiliation. I am candidate that will represent all the schools, just not the one in my district.”

District 2

In District 2, David Hamm, a retired educator in Chatham, has served on the board since 2008 — winning the last two terms without opposition. If re-elected, his two primary goals are to lower the county’s teacher attrition rate and continue to increase the local pay supplement by 1% annually. He also will prioritize making high speed broadband accessible to all county residents, a need he said has been highlighted by COVID-19 and remote learning.

“As a current member of the CCS BOE for 12 years, I want to continue our accomplishments in academics, personnel, and community relationships,” Hamm said. “I am committed to CCS. I have been consistent with CCS. I have 40-plus years of experience with CCS. And, I am reliable and dependable for CCS.”

Hamm has consistently prioritized the safety of teachers and students in the board’s discussions on COVID-19 learning plans. At all three of the board’s meetings passing motions related to the coronavirus, Hamm has made the motion for remote learning — first with the board’s July 16 decision to start with four weeks of remote learning, then with the board’s Aug.10 decision to extend that period to nine weeks and finally at the board’s meeting last Wednesday, which extended remote learning through Jan. 15.

“There’s one word to sum up the strategy of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic: SAFETY! We must continue to monitor the daily progress of critical numbers that govern the decisions on working back to our ‘normal way’ of life,” Hamm wrote in his questionnaire response. “A too drastic approach to ‘normalcy’ will be devastating. The State’s pro-active but cautious approach through the leadership of the Department of Health has been balanced. Working with our local Department of Health has been a vital resource for the CCS in making critical decisions.”

He faces Dennis Lewis, who works as the director at the N.C. Defense Technology Transition Office and as a defense industry consultant for the Economic Development Partnership of N.C. If elected, he hopes to “be the voice of the parents” by re-assessing the Seaforth attendance zone decision and put strategies in place to plan ahead for the “next contingency.”

“I am seeking this office to do my part to ensure that future Americans enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities I have had,” Lewis wrote. “Education of our youth is essential to America’s tomorrow.”

A proponent for getting students back in school building, Lewis criticized the board’s communication of the reasoning behind their decision with the district, raising questions around which factors were considered, how students can access school services under remote learning and how the nine-week standard was reached.

“Public answers to these questions would have given me more confidence in the decision,” he said.

Up to this point, board members have named student and teacher safety as their main reasoning for remaining under a remote learning plan, also referencing results from a faculty survey that showed only 30% of CCS employees felt ready to return to in-person learning (41% indicated they did not feel comfortable, while 30% said they were unsure). Until their decision last week, board members have taken a cautious approach to making decisions about learning plans. From the beginning of their discussions, members emphasized wanting to prioritize letting CCS families know of decisions — and making those consistently — as quickly as possible.

“Of course, this is definitely a difficult process and decision to make,” board chairperson Gary Leonard said to start the Sept. 23 meeting. “We appreciate all of those who’ve been working with us.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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