Candidates for Jackson school board address capital needs

Clockwise from upper left: Wes Jamison, Rainy Brake, Clint Irons and Gayle Woody. Clockwise from upper left: Wes Jamison, Rainy Brake, Clint Irons and Gayle Woody. Donated photos

This election season, there are four candidates vying for two seats on the Jackson County Board of Education. With Chairman Elizabeth Cooper choosing not to seek reelection, the board will have at least one new member after votes are in.

 In district one, Gayle Woody is up against Rainy Brake for the seat currently held by Cooper. In district three, incumbent Wes Jamison is facing challenger Clint Irons. Jackson County is unique in that it holds elections for school board during the primary election.

This year, commissioners introduced a resolution to move school board elections to the fall, while keeping the board non-partisan. However, the resolution was approved after the primary ballot process had already been implemented. The school board will be on the General Election ballot in 2026, but for now, it remains on the primary ballot.

District One

Gayle Woody is a retired teacher who spent almost 25 years teaching in Jackson County Schools. Woody served one term as a county commissioner; she volunteers at United Christian Ministries and has served on the Smoky Mountain Pregnancy Care Center Board, as well as the Arts Council. Woody’s husband also worked in Jackson County Schools, and her two children were educated in that system.

“I decided to run because, being a retired teacher, I was concerned about the criticism and negative response to teachers,” Woody said. “I know how hard teachers work and I feel that it’s best for our children if we support teachers to do their job.”

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Rainy Brake currently teaches Cherokee language at Western Carolina University and has also taught at the elementary level.

“I believe that my obligation to advocate for my students does not stop at the classroom door,” said Brake. “I believe that every citizen has a responsibility to help their community and I believe that my background in education can be beneficial to the citizens of Jackson County.”

If elected to the board, Brake’s top priority is to create an atmosphere of open dialogue for parents. She wants to see forums with two-way communication to address parents’ concerns. 

“I believe that school board members should maintain clear and constant communication with school leadership, teachers and staff to ensure that they have the resources and support they need,” said Brake. “Our students need a rich and varied curriculum that challenges and inspires them, and we have so many wonderful resources within Jackson County that can be beneficial to crafting the best educational experience possible.”

If elected to the board, Woody’s top priority is to support teachers in any way she can.

“One of those would be to make sure they get the supply money they need,” said Woody. “Jackson County has money. We have a very healthy fund balance, and we need to make sure that teachers get what they need.”

Another priority for Woody is to encourage open communication between the school board, teachers, staff and parents.

Woody said she is in favor of a traditional middle school for Jackson County, “but not to the exclusion of meeting other desperate needs in Jackson County.”

According to Woody, those other needs include a new cafeteria and kitchen at Fairview School, as well as additional classroom space; a regulation track, ADA access and bathrooms for Smoky Mountain High School Athletics; and Blue Ridge School gym and performance space.

“I have experience working with some of our state legilators because of my work as a commissioner, and it’s going to take some state money, some grants and work with our county commissioners to get these things done, because all facilities are funded through the county commission,” said Woody. “I have a good record of engaging community support. It’s going to take that as well.”

Brake recognizes that a traditional middle school has been identified as one of the top priorities for the school board in the coming years but is not committed to supporting it.

“As a representative, I believe it is my job to listen to constituents and their concerns and ideas, rather than coming in with my own preconceived notions,” said Brake. “At this point, I believe we are still at a stage where all stakeholders should be heard and believe that members of the board of education should ensure accessible, well-advertised and open forums to allow that dialogue throughout the community.”

Both candidates agree that the top issue facing JCPS today are facilities needs.

District Three

Wes Jamison is the current representative for district three on the Jackson County Board of Education. He grew up in Jackson County, attended Scotts Creek Elementary School and graduated from Smoky Mountain High School. He went on to N.C. state University to study structural engineering and has now worked with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for 21 years. His children currently attend JCPS.

Jamison was first elected to the school board in 2016 and was reelected in 2020. If elected again, this will be his third term on the board. In addition to his time on the school board, Jamison has served as a board member for Mountain Projects for the past six years and has been a youth sports coach.

“I’m running for school board to ensure that the kids in Jackson County get the best education possible,” said Jamison. “So, when they’re applying to college, or entering a welding program, or going into the workforce, they’re able to rise above the competition. I want to be there making sure our schools are continuing to improve, and that as a county, we are becoming more competitive with the pay that our school employees are receiving so we can keep them there.”

Clint Irons is a small business owner, running a repair shop on Skyland Drive for the past 10 years. He has coached little league baseball and middle school basketball. His wife is a schoolteacher and both of his children attend JCPS and are active in school sports and other activities.

Irons says he is looking for change on the board.

“I think there needs to be changes made; some things are being overlooked,” said Irons.

His top priority, if elected to the board, will be to build community support for schools. This is one of the biggest challenges Irons sees currently facing JCPS.

“Teachers need much more support and help,” Irons said. “Right now, I feel that JCPS has lost their involvement with the students' families and the community. They need to get more interactive, which I think would help build a better outlook towards the system.”

Irons is in favor of a traditional middle school for the county.

“[A traditional middle school] will increase student’s interaction and help build better friend bases before they get to high school,” said Irons.

The biggest challenges Jamison sees facing JCPS are the cost of real estate in the area versus the amount the school system can pay its employees, finding bus drivers and the facilities needs.

“It’s hard to fill a position when the salary won’t afford you rent,” said Jamison. “Our current facilities are being utilized to the max. Rooms are having to be converted and used for things they weren’t intended for.”

If elected for another term, Jamison’s priorities include continued communication with the county commission to ensure capital improvement projects get the funding they require and continuing to find ways to make school employee’s salaries more competitive with surrounding counties.

Jamison has been in favor of a traditional middle for Jackson County during his tenure on the board and will continue to support that endeavor if reelected. He noted that the middle school has been identified as a priority for the school system and that it will require a commitment from the county commission to fund it.

“We have to find a piece of land big enough to put it on and the project has to be funded,” said Jamison. “I personally don’t see any of these improvements to our school system as being a tax burden. When we give our kids better facilities to learn in, more opportunities for CTE and STEM classes, and start bringing them together at this middle school age where their teachers can collaborate and the kids can develop relationships with each other earlier and begin to learn from each other, we will see a return on our investment.”

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