Incumbents Hlavac and Hamm win, current board stays in place

Posted 11/12/20

The faces on the Chatham County Schools Board of Education will stay the same after incumbent candidates Melissa Hlavac and David Hamm comfortably maintained their seats on election night — Hlavac …

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Incumbents Hlavac and Hamm win, current board stays in place

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The faces on the Chatham County Schools Board of Education will stay the same after incumbent candidates Melissa Hlavac and David Hamm comfortably maintained their seats on election night — Hlavac with a 25 percentage-point gap over her closest opponent and Hamm with a 23-point gap from his, according to unofficial results from last Tuesday’s general election.

In Dist. 1, Hlavac won with 56.25% of votes, compared to opponent Ryan Armstrong’s 30.64% and Timothy Winters’ 12.53%. Hamm won with 61.36% of votes for the Dist. 2 seat, with opponent Dennis Lewis receiving 37.96% of votes.

During their campaigns, Hlavac and Hamm each emphasized their ability to provide stability and consistency as experienced board members.

Hamm, a former educator with nearly 40 years logged working in Chatham County Schools, kept the Dist. 2 seat he’s held since 2008, winning his last two terms without opposition. The morning after Election Day, he told the News + Record that the election results matched what he’d expected. As a product of CCS, as a student, employee and board member, Hamm said he felt he’d shown voters he had a valuable perspective to offer as a candidate.

“I’m thankful to all those who voted for me and continue to have confidence in my abilities to help lead CCS,” Hamm said. “I am also thankful that Melissa (Hlavac) won her race and the board stays in place for at least another two years.”

Consisting of five members, the board’s members serve staggered four-year terms. All elections are non-partisan — candidates Armstrong and Lewis chose to run together on the Chatham GOP’s ticket — and take place during the November general election in even-numbered years.

Hlavac has served on the board since 2016 and also works as an associate dean of MBA programs at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. A parent of CCS students herself, she has consistently emphasized both equity and parent concerns during her board tenure. Hlavac, who received 21,517 votes, did not respond to News + Record requests for an interview following her reelection.

“I’m seeking reelection to continue the momentum that the board has had over the past four years,” she wrote in a News + Record questionnaire response in September. “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.”

Armstrong, the runner-up with 11,721 votes, congratulated Hlavac in an email statement to the News + Record, saying he expects she will continue to represent her district well. Prior to Election Day, Armstrong stressed that his campaign was focused on education and not politics, but affirmed that he and Lewis had the right backgrounds for the job.

Armstrong and Winters were both critical of the board’s decisions regarding the coronavirus and in-person instruction throughout their campaigns, with Winters describing its decision-making process as being “painful to watch,” and Armstrong claiming the board “lacked communication and preparedness” at previous meetings.

Armstrong echoed that criticism after his loss.

“I’m concerned that the current board lacks the leadership, and decision making that is required at this level,” he said. “I hope they can turn it around; however, I’m not convinced.”

Winters, who received 4,793 votes, said while he was disappointed with the results, it was reassuring to see someone like Hlavac — who has children in Chatham County Schools — representing Dist. 1. He added that he still views the board’s planning and execution of various learning options during the pandemic as a “major concern” and that he’d like to see more clarity in the board’s communications with parents and school staff.

“I hope the board will work harder to obtain more local funding from our County Commissioners,” Winters said. “Our kids are worth the investment. I also hope the board will place a real focus on reducing classroom sizes and improving literacy in our schools.”

During his campaign for a seat in Dist. 2, Lewis emphasized wanting to serve as “the voice of the parents” if elected, particularly by re-assessing the Seaforth attendance zone decision. Though he is not a career educator or parent of CCS students like other candidates, he previously told the News + Record this would help give him a unique perspective to approach decisions without any “fixed agendas.”

Moving forward, Lewis hopes the board will take more of a “ground-up” approach.

“What I’d like to see them do is to focus more on the basic, fundamental skills that students need to continue progress throughout their life whether they go on to college or not,” he said.

Getting back to the classroom

Over the last seven months, the CCS Board of Education’s decisions regarding the district’s plan for returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic have been controversial — with teachers, parents, students, faculty and staff alike.

The task to transition Chatham County Schools back to in-person learning safely will continue to be a large one for board members. While the election is over, community members are certainly still paying attention to the decisions being made.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who also won re-election last Tuesday, closed North Carolina public schools in March to limit the spread of the coronavirus. On July 14, the governor said that schools would open under the hybrid learning Plan B, stating at the time that individual school systems could opt for the fully remote Plan C option. The CCS Board of Education voted at its July 16 meeting that CCS would start under Plan C for the first four weeks, later extending that time frame to the first nine weeks of the semester.

On Sept. 23, the BOE doubled down on that decision with a 4-1 vote to extend remote learning through the semester, which ends Jan. 15. Less than one week after that decision, the board unanimously decided for Extended Content Standard E.C. students, PreK students and K-2 students to return under Plan B. Last night, the board voted for more students to return under Plan B: students in 3rd-5th grades on Nov. 19 and students in 6th-8th on Dec. 7.

Both Hamm and Hlavac pushed for the return of additional students under Plan B at Monday’s meeting. Hamm originally made a motion for students in grades 3-8 to return Nov. 19, and then dissented when the motion was adjusted to what ended up being passed. While he had made three of the board’s motions for remote learning at previous meetings, he’s emphasized getting students back into the classroom safely, and as soon as possible.

Still, making such a decision is difficult with so many shareholders — and often fiercely divided opinions — involved.

“You know, for every email we get saying that we are the most wonderful people in the world for sending kids back, we get an email saying that we’re the most dangerous people in the world for sending kids back,” he told the News + Record in October. “So you know, that just comes with the territory.”

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

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