The Smoky Mountain News covered the race for the Waynesville district last week and this week features the candidates running for the Beaverdam District — Magnolia Brown, Danny Miller, Tausha Forney, Randy McDowell and current board members David Burnette and Ronnie Clark.
The Smoky Mountain News: What is your connection to Haywood County Schools and why are you running for Haywood School Board?
Chuck Francis: I want to continue with the hard work and dedication of our school system. They have become a top school system throughout the state and I would like to continue that progress toward becoming number one. I have a long history with HCS, I’ve been on the board now for 20 years, the chairman now for 16. I started out because I had three kids in the school system, and now they’re grown and I’m starting all over again with the grandkids as they enter the school system.
David Burnette: I attended Bethel Elementary, Bethel Junior High and Pisgah Senior High, and graduated in 1978. My wife Teressa attended Patton Elementary, North Canton Elementary, Canton Junior High and Pisgah High, graduated in 1980. Both of our Children Byron Burnette and Bianca Burnette attended HCS. Byron graduated from Pisgah in 2005, Bianca graduated from Pisgah in 2012. Our grandson Landon Burnette is in kindergarten at Clyde Elementary. I am currently a member of the Haywood County School Board. I also serve on the building and grounds Committee. Our son Byron works for HCS as the principal at Clyde Elementary.
I am running for the Haywood County School Board to continue to serve the citizens of Haywood County. I enjoy serving on the School board. It is an honor and privilege to serve as a Board Member. My only agenda is to help make our schools the best that they can be. My goal is that every student gets the best education possible. It is also important that all staff have the best place to work and provide for their families.
Ronnie Clark: I am currently on the School Board. I was elected in 2016 and serve as Chairman of the Finance Committee and on the Special Issues Committee. I raised 4 boys who went through our School System and graduated Pisgah High School. I am also a graduate of Pisgah High School and a native of Haywood County.
Tausha Forney: I was born and raised in Haywood County so I came through HCS. I went to Junaluska Elementary and graduated from Tuscola in 1998. That was my earlier connection, and now my connection is through the children I work with at the Pigeon Community Center. We have an afterschool program so I see them every day. I see what their parents go through, I see the disconnect or the struggles they have getting information. I also am connected because we talk to the teachers there so I see their struggles, I see their disconnects, I know what they need also. I decided to run because I feel like I can help connect those folks and connect people to the things they need through the school board, because I see the school board as an opportunity to serve the community. I believe that’s what the school board is in place for, is to make sure the community gets what they want from the education system in their county.
Magnolia B Thomas: Well my husband lived all his life in Haywood County, except when he was away in the Army, he went to Vietnam. My brother, or son, was five years old when mom died. So, he started out my brother, ended up my son. He’s a graduate of HCS. I’m running for Haywood County School Board to support success in the diversity of our faculty and other adults in the HCS. We have a number of Black students. When I grew up, I had teachers I could look up to that were my own race. I think it’s important for Black and white students to both see that there are Black adults who can help them wherever they go along the way.
My first teaching job was at Erwin High School in Buncombe County. I was on a faculty of around 80 teachers and I was the only Black teacher the kids had from kindergarten through ninth grade. I taught chemistry. I got my teaching certificate, my B.S. degree from Elizabeth City State in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. I got two master’s from Western Carolina University, one in education and one in administration. I also got my Ed.S. from WCU.
Danny Miller: I’m a product of the school system, both of my children attended school here, and I have five grandchildren grades first through seven in this school system. I worked in the system for 22 years, the last 14 as an elementary and high school principal. The reason I’m running is I feel like I can bring a unique perspective to the board, having those experiences. Now is the time that people need to step up and make themselves available.
Randy McDowell: I graduated from Pisgah High School, and all my kids graduated from Pisgah. I’m running for the school board to enact some kind of change to get equal rights for all kids, not just minority kids, but all kids regardless of race or social status. Get some diversity training, some sort of mentoring program set up because Haywood County needs a change. We’ve sat silently here for years and years without a voice and I think we need a voice in what goes on in our school system.
How well do you think Haywood County Schools has responded to the Coronavirus Pandemic? If applicable, what would you have liked to have seen done differently?
Chuck Francis: I think given the limitations we’ve been given, by folks over us, we’ve done as well as we could. I think that the governor’s office has limited us on what we can and cannot do, for good or bad. But we’ve responded with what we were given. The closing in March was not our decision, we didn’t have a vote or make any decision on that. I think we probably lost an opportunity for another month or two of instruction in person since we’re such a remote county compared to other parts of the state. We could have watched the numbers in Haywood County and if they started to creep up then we could have closed the schools down, but we weren’t given that option. However, the governor did give us an option on reopening the schools which I thought was odd.
But of course, it’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback.
David Burnette: I think HCS has responded extremely well to the pandemic. COVID-19 is unchartered waters for everyone. The entire staff has gone above and beyond the call of duty to adapt to the changes. They have continued to educate our students remotely and are now working to return to in person education. Our staff served meals to our students in our communities during the whole pandemic. They served food for pick up all summer and thus far this fall. I thank every staff member for their hard work and dedication throughout this pandemic.
Ronnie Clark: I think we responded very well to this unexpected and unique situation. Everyone in the school system has worked very hard to make the best of this situation. The School Board met 23 times (mostly on Google Meet) from March until August to keep up with the changes the state and federal government made each week. During this time, the school system served over a million meals to feed the children of Haywood County and our teachers taught virtually to keep the children on track.
Tausha Forney: I think that they have done a great job offering families choices, and not mandating “every child must do this.” I think that is an excellent start. I would like to see more information in Spanish. I know our Spanish families are so far behind in a couple of areas. First, getting information because the school doesn’t release it in Spanish. Also, as far as schooling at home, a lot of our Spanish-speaking families, the parents don’t read and write English like the children do, so there is no help for the kids doing homework at home. So that is a huge thing, because most of those kids are already in ESL (English as a second language). It tempers the way they’re learning, and it frustrates them and their parents more than it really should. I know everybody has a huge level of frustration right now but, I think theirs is just compounded by the fact that it’s just kind of inaccessible to them. I would like to see that dealt with immediately.
Magnolia B. Thomas: Well I know that what they have done so far is keep students away from school for a while. Which is a good thing. We don’t need to be gathering in groups and going out. I don’t have anything right now that I can say that they should have done differently, I think they’re doing an excellent job.
Danny Miller: Having been in the system, I think it’s a major accomplishment that they were able to put a device in the home of every student, along with some hotspots for those kids that didn’t have internet access. I do feel though that wasn’t 100 percent successful because we’ve worked with some of our grandchildren here, and it was sketchy at best. I don’t think that’s a school system issue though, I think our community is going to have to step up and make broadband internet more available in our county. We’ve really put our children, unintentionally, in a disadvantageous position by not having that available to them. There are so many ways to use that in education now if it’s available. But I think the school system did a great job getting devices to them and I think they’ve come up with a really great plan to get the younger students in the building every day. They need to be there, they are not computer savvy and ready to use those devices to learn from. However, the older students are, so a mix of distance and face-to-face learning can work for them.
Randy McDowell: I think they responded very well. In my personal opinion I don’t think we should have gone back to school yet, not because of what the school system is doing, but because of what people in this county are doing. Everybody’s not wearing masks. I drive the E.C. school bus for Haywood county and I see so often parents will send their kids to school sick, and I’m afraid this is going to happen with this COVID-19. But as far as preparation for COVID-19, I think the school system is doing a very good job.
Did you agree with the punishment given to Dr. Nolte earlier this year regarding his Facebook post? Why or why not? What impact did that decision have on you deciding to run?
Chuck Francis: Because this is a personnel issue and I am a current member of the board, I can’t really answer this question. But, in a broad sense I think it was an unfortunate situation at best. On the other hand, it gave us an opportunity to look from within individually and as a school system. It’s given us an opportunity to look at bias and bullying in our schools from a different perspective than we have previously.
David Burnette: I think the school board handled the situation with Dr. Nolte correctly. An investigation took place to examine the whole of the body of work of Dr. Nolte’s tenure with Haywood County Schools. The investigation found no pattern of bias or racism. In fact, it is fair to say that Dr. Nolte’s career with Haywood County Schools has been one of exemplary service and community-mindedness. Furthermore, Dr. Nolte upon recognizing the post was hurtful to others, removed the post and quickly apologized. In our world today, the highest mark of the character is to recognize a mistake, apologize and seek forgiveness. This decision had no impact on my decision to run for the school board. I had already committed to run for another term.
Ronnie Clark: I did not vote on his punishment due to having back surgery on that day. The punishment was within the School Board policy for an event that disrupts the school system. I want to continue to have the opportunity to help our students and that is why I am running for re-election. However, this event helped bring to my awareness other race issues within our school system. I have talked to School Board Chairman Chuck Francis for authorization to start a diversity committee (may eventually be called something else) after the election, if I am re-elected. I have already asked some members of our community to participate in this diversity committee so we can discuss issues that our minority children are dealing with and come up with realistic, doable solutions.
Tausha Forney: I know that the school board did what they thought was best for a couple of reasons, I know that Dr. Nolte is under contract. I know that it would have cost the school system money to change that contract and I know that is not something that HCS can afford right now. However, I also know that the decisions that were made rippled through the community and people that didn’t have a lot of faith in the school system protecting their children because of difference, was exacerbated. Those folks felt like they had been ignored already, so when the decisions to deal with Nolte were made as they were, it kind of made it clear that their children weren’t cared for, that their voice wasn’t heard, that they wouldn’t be protected. So that pushed me to run for school board because I heard that, I heard folks say those things to me. I felt like I could step in that place and be their voice on the school board and make sure they’re heard going forward. That was my deciding factor.
Magnolia B. Thomas: I had an interview with Dr. Nolte five years before I retired, and he seemed like a decent person. But I read his notice on Facebook and I think that started things. From what I’ve heard he has decided to have diversity training for Haywood County Schools personnel, so that is a good thing, we need that. From what I gather he is trying to do the right thing and I hope it works for him.
As far as my decision to run, I was in a meeting with the NAACP, and they were saying there were no black candidates for the Haywood County School Board. That struck me, I sat there thinking to myself about how much experience and knowledge I have in education, 38 years worth, and thought maybe I should run. I think I have expertise in education. I was an educator at the high school level, I was an assistant principal and a principal in Buncombe County.
Danny Miller: I’ve given that question a lot of thought, and I feel like since I’m not privy to all the information that went into the decision it would be inappropriate to second guess what the board did. I just don’t know what information they based their decision on, so I think it would be unfair to kind of Monday morning quarterback them by saying what they should have done. And it has nothing to do with why I’m running at all.
Randy McDowell: I don’t think he got a punishment. I think he got a two-week vacation. As long as he holds good to the things he promises to do this school year, then I’m good with the things that happened. I think it brought forth what was going on around here. I’ve been wanting to run for school board for three or four years because of some incidents that I’ve found out about that I didn’t agree with regarding personnel. This right here just kind of pushed me over the edge. I think it was time for somebody to jump in. In order to enact change you have to get outside your comfort zone and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m trying to enact some kind of change. People of Haywood County don’t think we have a problem, but there is definitely a problem in the HCS system.
What is the number one thing you want voters to know, before heading to the voting booth, about why they should vote for you?
Chuck Francis: Given the trying times that we’re going through right now, experience is going to be key. The chairmanship is one that leads the board and allows and encourages discussion on all issues. I think I’ve done a good job of allowing board members to express their individual ideas and opinions and then as a board, as a group, to come to a consensus.
David Burnette: I am dedicated to providing every child the best education possible.
Ronnie Clark: As a parent, I know our children need a strong future. I will use my business education, work experience, and School Board experience to keep our students successful. As the chair of the School Board finance committee we have given all the teachers and staff a raise.
Tausha Forney: The number one thing that I want people to know is that I am part of this community, I am this community. My family has been here for generations. We are important to the history of this community. I want to make sure that everybody in the community is heard. That folks are taken care of, that folks feel like they have agency over their education, that kids are safe, and feel safe going to school, that teachers know somebody is there to listen and help them out. I just want folks to know that I am here for the community, and just to make sure that the students are heard.
Magnolia B. Thomas: That I am for education. I’ve been in education for 38 years. I have a lot to offer, in terms of personnel, subject matter etc. Every year the state sends an outline of courses to be taught. But they don’t send the details, and I think talking to other board members about the details of what needs to be taught in our schools would be important. Whatever I can do to help.
Danny Miller: Well I think I’ve had successful experience as a teacher, coach and principal in grades pre-k through high school. I love the process, I love school staff and students. I’ve always operated from the position that every adversity comes with an opportunity to improve. And I feel like those experiences can make me an asset to that improvement.
Randy McDowell: Well, kids aren’t just a part of my life, kids are my life. I’ve been a youth league basketball coach in Haywood County for 45 years. I’m part of the Canton Michelin Network, I work with the Backpack association, I’ve been a youth choir director, I’m in the men’s booster club at my church. I personally think I am the best person for this job because I always put kids first. Kids are my number one priority in everything I do.
Meet the candidates
• Age: 60
• From: Canton
• Occupation: President and CEO Telco Community Credit Union
• Age: 52
• From: Canton
• Occupation: Shift Manager Evergreen Packaging
• Age: 40
• From: Waynesville
• Occupation: Program Director Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center
Magnolia B. Thomas
• Age: 74
• From: Bethel, Pitt County, NC
• Occupation: retired Teacher, Principal and Assistant Principal
• Age: 62
• From: Haywood County
• Occupation: retired Teacher, Coach, Principal and Assistant Principal
• Age: 64
• From: Haywood County
• Occupation: retired from Evergreen Packaging, currently E.C. school bus driver for Haywood County Schools
Chuck Francis (chairman)
• Age: 64
• From: Haywood County
• Occupation: Agricultural sales