Ten vie for Haywood school board seats

With shrinking budgets, cries for higher teacher salaries and the struggle to keep test scores high while working with limited funds for resources such as textbooks and technology, local school districts have had their share of challenges this year. Four seats are open in this year’s race for Haywood County School Board, and those opportunities brought out a field of six challengers to face the four incumbents running for re-election. 

Nearly every candidate mentioned teacher salaries as a deficiency that should be remedied, and most of the incumbents said it might be time to revisit the funding formula, now more than a decade old, that determines how much county money supplements state funding, which makes up the majority of the school district’s budget. Other popular issues included the need for more community involvement with forming board policy, spurring volunteerism in the schools and increased college and career training opportunities. 

Voters will have the chance to pick one candidate from each district on the ballot this November. Though candidates have to live in their respective districts in order to run there, voters can vote for candidates in all Haywood County districts. 

The school board race is nonpartisan. However, The Smoky Mountain News decided to list candidates’ parties when the local political parties decided to hold separate debates for their respective candidates. 

 

Bethel district

Jeremy Davis, R

Jeremy Davis, 41, is a military weapons contractor and owner of Western Carolina Tactical, as well as the father of three girls in Bethel schools. His daughters are in the third, sixth and eighth grades, and he spends a good bit of time volunteering in the schools.

He’s a graduate of Pisgah High School and holds an associate’s degree of criminal justice protective services from Haywood Community College.

“I’d like to be the teacher and the community’s friend and help out any way that I can,” Davis said. “I see what the schools are like and what they need, and I try to help out on a financial level.” 

If elected, Davis said, he’d be a proponent of teaching local history and culture in schools and working to make teaching to a test less of a necessity for teachers. Of course, those decisions are largely dictated from a higher level than the local school board, but Davis wants to address them. 

“We gotta start somewhere, and I’m a real loud voice for advocating for those things,” he said. 

He also wants to be a voice on the board that’s in touch with what’s happening in the schools on a day-to-day basis. He isn’t sure that’s the case with the makeup now. 

“In all fairness, I don’t know all the other members of the school board,” Davis said. “I just know we’ve had issues in Bethel that have taken the school board by surprise that local people are aggravated about.”

Issues such as a cultural diversity program last December in which students learned about practices of various world cultures and religions from a program through the University of North Carolina Asheville.  

“We have 780 [religions] that are nationally recognized religions in this country. Only one [Islam] advocates for violence,” Davis said. “That happens to be the one that was selected. We have issue with that.”

As a school board member, Davis said, he’d plan to be responsive to the community and act as a liaison between voters and administrators when it comes to forming policy. 

“When it’s all said and done, the school board representative works for the community and their role will be dictated to them as a representative by the community,” Davis said. 

Larry Henson, D 

Larry Henson, 51, has served on the school board for four years while also operating his business, Henson Tree Service. He and his wife have three adult children, all of whom, like their parents, graduated from Haywood County Schools, and he has four grandchildren, one of whom is a first-grader at Bethel Elementary School. 

“My main concern is getting Haywood County Schools the best that they can be,” Henson said of his reason for seeking reelection. “We have some great administrators at this point that have done a good job with the budget, as many budget cuts as we’ve had over the years, and great school board members as far as that goes. They’ve really worked hard to conserve as much money as they could.”

The primary role of a school board member, Henson said, is to oversee those efforts and approve policies that allow them to move forward. 

“We pretty much oversee the administration, make sure they’re following proper procedures and policies and then let them administer it,” Henson said. 

If re-elected, Henson’s priorities would be to work toward getting all Haywood schools in the top 5 percent for test scores and expanding dual enrollment opportunities for high school students, both for college and trade preparation. 

“I’d love to see our dual enrollment with the Haywood Community College get moving and be able for as many students as would like to do that,” Henson said. 

He’d also want to revisit the funding formula, which dictates how much county funding the school system receives, and improve communication between the school board and county commissioners. 

“I think we need to sit down and communicate more with the county commissioners and look at it,” he said of the funding formula. “We’ve got to do what’s best for the kids.”

Craig Messer, R

At 24, Craig Messer is a good bit younger than other candidates on the ballot, but he sees his candidacy for school board as a chance for the younger generation to help shape the school district’s direction. 

“I’m running because I want to make a difference, and I think it’s time for the younger generation to step up and take a stand,” he said. “I care about kids. I’ve always worked with children, ever since I was upper high school.” 

Messer is a graduate of Pisgah High School and holds associate’s degrees from Haywood Community College and East Tennessee State University. Currently, he works in the afterschool program at Junaluska Elementary School. He has a sister in seventh grade at Bethel Middle School, his brother is a Pisgah graduate and his mother works at Pisgah. 

If elected, Messer would want to work with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office to do more drug abuse prevention education and would also promote programs to help teachers combat bullying. He’d also want to support agriculture and job readiness programs. 

“They push college so much and some kids are just not ready for college or not fit for college. There are jobs out there ready to be had,” Messer said. “I would like to get more business classes in the high schools as well and get them to understand how they can own and operate their own business.”

He’d also like to see homework policies become more universal. His work at Junaluska, he said, has shown him that some teachers assign an hour’s worth of homework each night while others will only send home half a worksheet. He thinks consistency would be better. 

Of the current school board, Messer said, there’s some room for improvement. 

“I don’t think that our school board members listen. I don’t think they get enough information about what’s truly going on,” he said. “I’ve seen the videos [of meetings], and they just go through it and vote yes on everything. I don’t think there’s enough investigation into what we need.”

If he joined the school board, Messer said, that wouldn’t be the case. 

“If I’m elected, I’m going to try my best to bring those proposals up to try to get them voted on, but the staff needs our support,” Messer said. “If they bring something up that they think is important, then we should investigate it and make a decision on it.”

 

Clyde

Wende Goode, D

Wende Goode is running for the Clyde seat. The 43-year-old is the mother of two boys — a sixth-grader at Canton Middle School and a kindergartener at Clyde Elementary School —  and wears a number of hats in addition to that of stay-at-home mom. She serves on the Parent Teacher Organization at Clyde, volunteering weekly at the school, and works part-time as community outreach coordinator for her church, Vine of the Mountains. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington. 

“I’ve always been involved in what’s going on in my kids’ public education, so I want to give voice on a board where decisions are being made, a parent’s voice,” Goode said. 

A policy priority for Goode would be to adjust the school calendar so that snow days are built into it. That way, parents and school employees wouldn’t be thrown for a loop every time it snows. She’d like to look at calculating school time in minutes versus hours and adding minutes to the day ahead of time. 

“My idea is to add those minutes at the beginning of the school year,” she said. “That way when we have a snow day we can say, ‘OK, it’s a snow day and we’ve already taken care of it.’”

From looking at tests scores and talking to current school administrators, Goode said, the district seems to be going in a good direction. If elected, she’d plan to review policies, suggest changes if needed and look for as many ways as possible to stretch the budget. She’d also look to reach out to the community to get their ideas. 

“Communicating with the people that elected them into office would be a thing that we need to be doing,” Goode said of the school board. “More forums where we can get ideas from the public and parents and teachers who are there on the front lines.”

Jimmy Rogers, D

A 14-year member of the school board, Jimmy Rogers is a graduate of Pisgah High School and Appalachian State University and owner of Haywood Tractor Company. Rogers, 55, and his wife have two children, both Pisgah grads. 

“The main reason I’m running is because I really feel like our system is good and it’s grown, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done and I feel like I could have valuable input to continue on the right path,” Rogers said. 

If re-elected, Rogers would want to keep working toward making Haywood County’s schools safer, updating facilities and technologies and fostering an open-door environment of parental involvement and communication. But he’d also be looking to address the teacher pay issue. 

“My priority right now is how are we going to continue to hire and retain quality teachers,” Rogers said. 

Part of that is money. Rogers thinks it’s time to revisit the funding formula and see if it needs to be “tweaked.” 

“The funding formula has been good but it does need to be revisited,” he said. “Times have changed.”

As to the overall direction of the school system, Rogers said, it’s pointed the right way but dealing with some “hurdles,” challenges such as new testing requirements and larger class sizes.

“In a way, yes, you can say we’re moving maybe a little slower than we would like to see, but we’re being successful at what we’re doing,” he said. 

On his philosophy of the job of a board member, though, listening is the important part.

“Board members were elected by the people of the county to be a voice for them in public schools, and I feel like we always need to be good listeners,” he said. 

Candie H. Sellers, D

Currently director of elementary and intermediate education for Buncombe County Schools, Candie H. Sellers taught for 10 years in Haywood County before taking her first job in Buncombe, where she has been for 16 years. She and her husband have three nieces and a nephew in Haywood schools, and Sellers remains connected to the system from her years there as a teacher and her personal life in Clyde. 

“I feel it’s extremely important that people serve on the school board that understand the school system, and I’m extremely concerned about the future of our public schools,” Sellers said. 

If elected, her primary goal would be to advocate for increased state funding — especially for teacher salaries, as Sellers does not believe the recently passed increase was sufficient — and to look for other funding sources to make sure that teachers have all the resources they need to do their job. 

“A lot of teachers have no choice but to leave, to go to another state to teach, or even another county,” Sellers said. “In the long run I would love to see another supplement for educators in Haywood County, and when I say educators I mean everybody from the administrators at the central office to the custodians.”

Judging from their data, Haywood County seems to be going in the right direction with its school system, Sellers said. But she would like to serve as a voice for increasing education funding and collaborating with the community to move the district forward. 

“In order for Haywood County to thrive, their school systems have to thrive, so I would want to continue with the great things Haywood County schools are doing and also make sure we bring new, innovative ideas before the board and the stakeholders,”’ she said. 

 

Crabtree-Ironduff

Bob Morris, R

Bob Morris has served on the school board for three years as a representative of the Crabtree-Ironduff district. He’s a graduate of Tuscola High School and Western Carolina University, and he owns Blue Ridge Glass. Morris, 50, is married and the father of two daughters, one of whom graduated from Tuscola and North Carolina State University, while the other is a sophomore at Tuscola.

“I want to continue to push for as many opportunities for the kids of Haywood County as I can — early enrollment, dual enrollment,” Morris said. 

Dual enrollment programs are already in place, but Morris would like to continue expanding them, increasing the number of programs available as well as opportunities for both college-bound students and those looking to learn a trade. 

Of the current board, Morris said that it’s “active” and “very good.”

“We’ve got a board that can have some disagreements and still move forward with what’s best for our kids,” he said. 

However, Morris would like to see some work done on the funding formula that determines how much county funding comes to the schools. He doesn’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the relationship between the school board and the county commissioners, but he does believe that the funding formula isn’t serving the purpose it once did. 

“We’ve had buildings that are falling down and in need of repair, and again like anything else we can’t ask for everything, but I don’t know whether the funding formula’s been successful or not,” Morris said, adding, “If we’re going to keep Haywood County competitive we’re going to have to come up with more ways of funding the school system.” 

As a school board member, Morris said, he wants the community to be involved in defining that direction. 

“The purpose of the school board is setting policy and direction,” Morris said. “We’re the link between the citizens and the school administration, so you have to sort of take what the citizens are telling you and make it work with what the state of North Carolina is telling you and what the administration is telling you.”

Bobby Rogers, D

Bobby Rogers, 49, is the senior pastor at Dellwood Baptist Church, the father of two and married to a third-grade teacher at Jonathan Valley Elementary School. His 22-year-old son is a graduate of Tuscola and University of Tennessee, and his daughter is a junior at Tuscola.

He’s a Tuscola grad himself and served three years in the U.S. Army before attending various seminaries, eventually earning a master’s of theology. His first job out of the army was with the school system, working with children with special needs and coaching football and wrestling. 

“I think we can collaborate to make Haywood County a very competitive 21st-century school system. There’s really not room for politics,” Rogers said. “It really should be focused on the children. That’s really why I’m running for the office is we’ve got to get that focus.”

If elected, Rogers’ priority would be to start holding forums to get people representing all sectors of the community on board with the school system’s mission. He’d then look to collaborate with those people to come up with a collective vision for moving the school system forward. 

“We are a government of we the people, and we’ve got to discern what is the best way to go about educating our children so they’ve got a competitive advantage,” Rogers said. 

From those conversations, he’d look to create a set of indicators to measure how well the school system is doing locally and stay on track with the community’s vision. 

“You try to implement policy that puts you in the direction of the goals that you set, goals that are attainable and measurable,” Rogers said. 

Though he added the caveat that he doesn’t serve on the current board and so doesn’t see what the day-to-day is like, he said that he does believe the school board could stand to be more unified. 

“I think there is a need for unity on the board,” he said. “Ultimately unity’s going to come around to our children.”

 

Fines Creek

John Duckett, D

A lifelong Fines Creek resident, Duckett, 70, is now retired from careers in chemistry and business, still keeping busy by farming Christmas trees, beef cattle, hay and quail eggs. 

“I feel that I could somehow contribute now that I’ve got some time,” Duckett said. “I’m certainly interested in the children and getting a good education. I know it was certainly responsible for me being able to continue living in this area.”

Duckett graduated from WCU with a chemistry degree and earned a master’s degree in the subject from Clemson University, later returning to WCU for a degree in business administration. He’s worked as a chemist and a salesman and finished out his working years as vice president of Haywood Vocational Opportunities in Waynesville. Duckett and his wife have two adult children and three grandchildren. 

He sees a tightening budget as the primary obstacle facing the school system and would look to leverage volunteer support in the community to fill some of those gaps, especially with experiential learning. 

“I would like to see the people in the community get more involved with the schools, and there’s certainly a lot of talent among people like myself that are retired or have more time that could do special projects and volunteer their time,” Duckett said.

As an example, he mentioned a project at Riverbend Elementary in which volunteers are working with students to create a garden and learn about how things grow. 

In his capacity as an outside observer, Duckett said, Haywood schools seem to be going in a positive direction, but if elected he’d plan to analyze the situation and go from there when thinking about suggesting changes.

“I’m running from a positive position,” Duckett said. “I want to strengthen. I’m not interested in upsetting or changing, making any radical changes. Certainly without further knowledge and what have you.”

One thing, though, he’s already sure of. 

“It just goes back to community involvement,” he said. 

Steven Kirkpatrick, D 

With 12 years on the school board under his belt, Steven Kirkpatrick is 39 years old and the father of two students at Riverbend Elementary School, a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader. He works for AT&T as a splicer. 

“I like what I do, and I have been on there for 12 years and I’ve got sort of like an investment in the school system,” he said. “I’ve got some kids at Riverbend that’s going to be going through the school system, so I feel like right now there’s a better need for experience to be on the board, and I have that experience.”

Kirkpatrick agrees with other candidates that increasing base teacher pay needs to be a priority, but he also wants to emphasize improved school security as a goal. 

“I think that’s one of the main things right now is making sure that our schools are safe, and I would like to work to see if we can get some more school resource officers on a fulltime basis at some of the outlying schools,” he said. 

Kirkpatrick believes that the funding formula is something that could use some reconsideration, but he’s not ready to make any statements about whether the amount should be more or less. 

“It’s something good because then we’re not having to plead and borrow from the county,” he said. “The funding formula is something we might need to look into to see if it is up to date with state standards.”

Of his role as a school board member, Kirkpatrick said, he’s there mainly to set policy at the county level to come into compliance with changes at the state level, as well as to mediate between the citizens of Haywood County and the school system. 

“As a whole, the school system’s going good,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s going in the direction it needs to be and we’re really clicking as a school system right now.”

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