The leader of the Chatham County Board of Education, Gary Leonard, is facing a challenge for his District 5 seat. The veteran chairperson has held the position since he was appointed in 2010, while his opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Tim Moore, is a political newcomer.
Their platforms are reflections of those experiences, with Leonard seeking to build on progress within the school system and Moore insisting on an agenda he says will lead to better student performance.
Moore, like conservative school board candidates nationwide, has used “parents first” rhetoric as the staple of his platform. He wants more parent oversight and input in school curriculum and to allow for more parental involvement at all levels of the education system. He says his focus is primarily on academic achievement — higher test scores in reading, math and science — rather than social and emotional learning.
Meanwhile, Leonard wants to focus on filling in the gaps. His focus in the next term would be improving teacher retention and recruitment and allocating resources to struggling schools, and said he wants to leverage his relationships in the community to make all stakeholders feel welcome within the system.
Each candidate was provided two questionnaires by the News + Record. The first asked general questions about candidates and their goals; the second asked office-specific policy questions. Moore responded to only the second questionnaire.
Leonard prides himself on his involvement and investment in Chatham County, and as a lifetime resident, says his knowledge of and familiarity with the area makes him a better candidate. He said that’s especially true of his district, the southwesternmost portion of the county and the largest geographic school board district.
His community involvement extends beyond the board, as an attendee of Bennett Baptist Church, a member of South Chatham Lions Club and past chairperson of the Chatham County Recreation Advisory Board. Leonard is also a former educator and coach in CCS.
“I feel that my experience as a teacher, coach and athletic director gives me the insight to work with our Administration to continue to move Chatham County Schools forward,” Leonard said.
His involvement and longevity on the school board recently earned Leonard the endorsement of the Chatham County Association of Educators, the local teachers union. CCAE also endorsed Del Turner and Jane Allen Wilson.
Moore, on the other hand, hasn’t made much known about his community involvement in Chatham. He works in healthcare logistics at Siemens in Chatham. He’s worked at several other major firms in engineering and logistics roles including UPS, Lenovo and Microsoft. Prior to his corporate experiences, Moore was in the U.S. Army for eight years.
He and his wife have five children, four of whom are adopted. Despite his “parents first” platform, none of those children are currently enrolled in CCS . Moore does have a granddaughter currently enrolled at Chatham Charter.
Moore told the News + Record he’s lived in Chatham County for 15 years. He moved briefly to a house in Randolph County for about a year and a half while work was done on his Chatham residence.
While Chatham County is not one of the 36 N.C. school board elections this cycle that is partisan — meaning candidates file by party affiliation — Moore has positioned himself with a conservative ideology. His campaign slogan is “parents have a right to decide what their children are taught.” The challenger has also said there is too much “social experimentation” occurring in education at the moment.
Moore believes there needs to be a return to core academic disciplines. He has frequently cited statistics showing the United States as an outlier among developing countries when it comes to student performance. He said the goal of education should be preparing students for the workforce, which is why he believes there needs to be a strong focus on academics and the improvement of trade-based education for high school students.
“We should have aggressive goals for grade level completion of 85% or higher,” his campaign website reads. “In addition, we need to develop trade-based training for those not focused on college.”
Leonard agreed about the need for trade-based education, but he said the district already does a good job providing those programs through Career and Technical Education. He said the district needs to incentivize its students to stay in the county to work after graduation, which it has the opportunity to do with the likes of new companies VinFast and Wolfspeed planning massive manufacturing projects here and at least 9,000 new jobs.
Another priority area for both candidates is improving teacher recruitment. When asked what emergency COVID-19 district funds (ESSER) should be spent on, Moore said it should go to teacher recruitment.
Notably, the district has spent some of its ESSER funding on the 4Rs program — retaining, recruiting, recognizing and rewarding. The program includes bonuses of $3,750 for retaining employment and referral bonuses of $300 for employees who recruit new people to join the district. As of August, there are 29 new employees providing names of referrals. A total of $50,000 was allocated to schools to reward employees for the 2021-2022 school year, the News + Record previously reported.
Leonard said he sees increasing teacher vacancies as one of the biggest challenges facing the county, especially amid projected growth. He predicts it will become increasingly difficult to compete with neighboring, wealthier districts despite these incentive programs. To combat the appeal of more urban areas, Leonard is a proponent of the Teach Chatham program — where CCS students are provided free pathways to study education, then come back and teach in the district.
“Teach Chatham will hopefully entice some of our current students to want to go into teaching and come back and teach in our schools,” Leonard said. “We must provide an environment for our staff that continues to make CCS a great place to work.”
Both candidates believe parents play an important role in education, but differ on how that role should be leveraged in the classroom. Leonard said students do better when parents are engaged in their child’s education, but that doesn’t mean they should have input in the curriculum,
“The curriculum in North Carolina is approved and set forth by the State Board of Education and DPI, and our school system follows that curriculum,” Leonard said. “Teachers and staff should look at each child as an individual that needs individualized support to help them to meet their potential regardless of any social issues.”
Moore says Leonard and the rest of the current school board members don’t go far enough to engage with parents. He believes there is a transparency problem.
“This board does not encourage nor is it responsive to parents’ concerns nor does it involve parents in designing improvement plans or providing transparency,” Moore said.
To amend this, Moore proposes all class material be sent to parents for approval; state policy allows parents to opt their children out of objectionable material. Moore also recommends the creation of a “Parent Board” which would include three to five parents from each school. This board would “advise on educational material and provide guidance on getting parental involvement and focus on how we collectively improve educational excellence.”
Leonard, however, said he believes the district is inclusive and transparent with all community stakeholders. He said there have been ample opportunities for people to get involved with education including community listening sessions and focus groups.
“I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’m consistently out in the community and I try to be as approachable as possible,” Leonard previously told the News + Record. “I try to find answers to everyone’s questions. I feel like I try to be as transparent as I can be.”
Early voting for the Chatham County Board of Education is now open and lasts through Nov. 5. The general midterm election is on Nov. 8. To find your polling location, visit vt.ncsbe.gov/PPLkup.
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