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Jackson candidates weigh in on education issues

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

They’ve said they want to strengthen the economy. They’ve said they want to help bring in higher paying jobs. They agree that doing it will require local schoolchildren to get the best education possible.

But when it comes to helping pay for that education, candidates in Jackson County’s commissioners race are divided over whether increasing teacher’s salary supplements is the best way to go.

Two years ago Jackson County commissioners passed a resolution enacting a 2 percent salary supplement for all certified school system personnel, from teachers to guidance counselors. Teachers salaries are paid by the state, but counties have the option of adding on a supplement to boost pay.

Jackson’s decision to add a supplement echoed a recent statewide trend to bolster teacher pay, and attempted to bring Jackson County closer in line with neighbors Haywood and Buncombe — Haywood offers a 3.5 percent supplement, with a promise to increase by half percent each year, and Buncombe offers a solid 10 percent supplement.

Commissioner Joe Cowan, 72, a teacher at the Hub School of Alternatives and an incumbent running for re-election in District 3, was one of five commissioners who voted unanimously to pass the resolution.

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Shortly after Jackson County enacted a 2 percent supplement, Macon County followed.

Supplements help attract and retain good teachers, supporters say. Higher supplements in neighboring counties may draw teachers away — a short drive making up for better pay. It’s a way for county commissioners to have a direct affect on the classroom.

“I think supplements are certainly one of the things that county commissioners can do,” said Sue Nations, Jackson County Schools superintendent.

The school board has endorsed a request from the North Carolina Association of Educators to add teacher’s assistants to the list of those eligible to receive supplements, Nations said.

Overall candidates supported salary supplements. District 4’s Nathan Moss has made the issue the crux of his campaign platform.

“I think that is a great idea,” said Moss, 30, a self-employed farmer and pastor who also serves on the Jackson County School Board. “Anything the commissioners can do to encourage young teachers to come to Jackson County and stay is great.”

It’s the coming to Jackson County and staying part that also appeals to District 1’s William Shelton, 43, a self-employed farmer.

“I support it because I think we need to be on par with the state so that we can attract and retain good teachers,” Shelton said. “We need, at the very least, to look at what other counties in our area are doing.”

Darrell Fox, 43, Executive Director of Webster Enterprises and a District 3 candidate, concurred.

“I always think our teachers are underpaid,” he said. “I’m for the subsidies, I definitely would not cut them — raise them if possible.”

District 2’s Miguel Baerga, 54, a retired counselor from the Department of Agriculture, said that it is only fair for teachers to earn a respectable wage.

“Someone going to school and getting their bachelors or masters degrees should be given the opportunity to have at least a half way decent salary to start off with,” Baerga said.

Better pay and good benefits would enhance teacher’s ability to do their job, Baerga said, recommending a sort of package deal that would reward staying on with a school system for a number of years. The proposal is similar to one the North Carolina Association of Educators has discussed.

Funding for supplements should not come from county tax dollars, rather the county could look toward local businesses and industries to give to education, Baerga said.

Tom Massie, 49, western field representative for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and a candidate in District 2, has focused on improvements that would help lower class size — something that superintendent Nations said the school system needs.

“We need to address the capital improvement needs of the public schools,” Massie said.

Also, more can be done to bolster education outside of the classroom such as improving local libraries. Renovating old buildings for county use could help defer the cost of new construction.

“No kid’s education ever suffered because they were well read,” Massie said.

District 2’s Keith Parris, 41, First Lieutenant at Balsam/Willets/Ochre Volunteer Fire Department and owner of Balsam Automotive, said he was totally in support of increased salary supplements, as teachers are the lifelines to today’s youth.

“I think they deserve it, I’m for it,” he said. “I really don’t think they get paid enough as it it.”

Ben Clawson, 35, a shift supervisor for Haywood County Emergency Medical Services and a candidate in District 3, lauded the job local teachers are doing.

“I think our teachers deserve a lot more than what they’re getting,” he said.

In addition to upping the salary supplement, Clawson said he would like to focus on improving education in the south end of the county, particularly Blue Ridge School and emphasizing technology.

“It’s no secret that’s the way the future’s going is with technology,” he said.

However, in terms of capital projects, the county may need to look at slowing things down.

“We’ve really got to sit down with the school board and prioritize those and see what we need to do first,” Clawson said.

Clawson wasn’t the only candidate to approach the issue with caution.

“I don’t know how to answer that because I don’t know how much money we’re going to be working with,” said Raymond Bunn, 44, owner of Bunn’s Guns and a candidate in District 1.

Bunn said that he wants to do more for education than just build new buildings, emphasizing quality over quantity; but felt limited by budgetary concerns.

“As long as money’s being spent to improve the quality of them kids’ education, but I don’t believe in just throwing money at something,” he said.

Mark Jones, 46, general manager of High Hampton Inn and a candidate in District 4, also kept the county budget in mind.

“I would be foolish to say no,” Jones said of his willingness to support a supplement. “But when you say yes to raising that, that means money’s got to come from somewhere.”

However, Jones, who taught Hospitality Tourism at Blue Ridge School for a year, said that education is important to him.

District 2’s Bob Ginn, 59, a retired Verizon worker and chairman of the Jackson County Planning Board, agreed.

“I would like to do everything the budget would allow us to do for the school system,” Ginn said.

However, Ginn cautioned that teacher’s already have a better salary and benefits package than many.

“We live in an area where people don’t have pensions. It’s hard to ask people to subsidize one that does,” Ginn said.

Although county commissioners do not have a major hand in the management of the school system — a task left to the school board that also is elected — a working partnership between the two entities is advantageous to all, Nations said.

“I think if you’ve got those positive relationships between those two boards, everybody comes out a winner,” she said.

If the county board understands exactly how commissioners can make a difference in education, it may be a little easier for the school system to angle for its share come budget time.

“Everyone is going there to advocate for their slice of the pie,” Nations said.

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