James Barrett | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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James Barrett

Candidate for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools


Name as it appears on the ballot: James Barrett

Full legal name, if different: James Carlie Barrett, Jr.

Date of birth: 03/13/1970

Occupation & employer: Software Engineering Manager, IBM

Campaign website: barrettforschools.com

Email: james@barrettforschools.com

1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools? If elected, what are your top priorities in addressing those issues?

While CHCCS obviously does a good job of educating many students, who achieve at levels higher than the rest of the state, our achievement gaps demonstrate that there are other students who lag behind--students of color and poor students. This situation has existed for many years, but I do not believe we can be considered a great district until we fix this. My top priorities to address this are improved instruction in each and every classroom that will allow every student to grow, and changing the cultural biases which lead to racially disparate outcomes in many areas, such as discipline.

2. If you are not currently serving on the school board, what will you bring to the body that it now lacks? If you are an incumbent, what perspective have you brought that the town still needs?

I bring a unique combination of growing up in this district (attending Seawell, Phillips, Chapel Hill High) along with a mindset of hard analysis of the data in our district to make sure we are changing what needs to change to actually deliver improved results. I don't hesitate to speak up and vote for what I believe is best for students regardless of how the rest of the board views an issue, but I am also very engaged with the community and believe strongly in truly listening to everyone before I decide. I have tried to make myself very available and my opinions very transparent--I'm always available to meet for coffee and conversation, and stay active on social media. I also try to stay involved in the political life of our towns in general, attending as many functions as possible while not neglecting my family too much, to maintain the broadest understanding possible of the community's needs and preferences.

3. In the last four years, what do you feel are the three best accomplishments of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, and why? Conversely, what are three things you would have done differently?

Hiring Dr Forcella is clearly the first best thing--he has brought a fresh perspective and new ideas on how to improve the district, and yet has learned and is guided by the values of this community.

Second, sound fiscal management of EduJobs money allowed the district to support existing programs during the Great Recession much more than other districts. We reach the end of our ability to stretch those dollars next year, but it has been a good thing so far.

The development of the new long-range plan over the past two years has been handled extremely well. From getting more than 200 stakeholders in the room together for an entire day in March 2012 to collaboratively writing the plan with many community groups, this created a document that I fully support. It has the right goals to reflect our community's values and specific steps that will help us achieve those goals; follow-through will now be key.

The two years I've been on the board have been filled with several controversial issues. Although I agree with the outcome of making FPG a dual-language magnet school, we (the board and district administration) needed to handle communication throughout this effort much better than we did. Useful, adequate, respectful, two-way communication with parents and the broader community has long been a weak spot of this district.

On redistricting, I was the sole vote against the process at the start, and one of two votes against the final decision. Although the board has strong agreement on the goals of the redistricting (balanced schools), I do not believe the final outcome was the most optimal solution, and how we achieved this did not allow all solutions to be evaluated in a transparent manner. Communication/genuine listening was again a major problem here; a refusal to make even small tweaks that would have made a big difference to some of the more fragile groups in our community was frustrating and goes against our mission to serve all students as well as possible. The redistricting buses refugee students from Kingswood Apartments all the way across Chapel Hill to Rashkis, and sent downtown Chapel Hill students to Carrboro Elementary, while having students living near Carrboro go to Northside. These differences seem silly to casual observers, but they have major ramifications in students' lives, ones that I continue to hear about from constituents and friends involved in resettling our amazing refugee families--such as how difficult it is for hardworking parents, who often have at most one car, to get across town to be involved in their children's school, which research shows makes a major difference in student success. We are not a big district too busy to care about the individual lives we affect, but we certainly seemed like it with decisions like this. The lessons that should have been learned from the FPG process were not reflected here, and I hope to change that in the next four years.

4. Indy Week's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

My background with Justice United before joining the board gave me skills to listen to the entire community and focus on solutions to issues of social justice instead of just highlighting problems. I continue to participate in making sure that I understand justice issues through Organizing Against Racism (http://oarnc.org) workshops and conversations with the community to understand the impact of our school efforts before I vote in board meetings. I believe the most immediate justice issue facing us now is the disparities in discipline in our schools, and it will continue to be one focus of my efforts in the coming months.

5. How do you define yourself politically (i.e. conservative, moderate, liberal, third party, hybrid, etc.) and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I am proud to be a Chapel Hill-raised liberal who thinks through issues carefully and always in light of "the least among us." This shows in my commitment to social justice; I initially ran for the board because I appreciated the work I could do with Justice United, which brings together a wide swath of faith communities in Orange County, and wanted to take it a step further "on the inside." I participated in Moral Monday rallies to protest the destruction of education in North Carolina, and will do my best with a like-minded board to protect our schools as much as possible. I believe a true liberal's goal for education is to see real learning growth every day for all students, enough to close achievement gaps and help all students move ahead, so that everyone has a genuine shot at capturing their piece of the American dream.

6. Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools are thought of as some of the best in the state, but state budget cuts have reduced local school funding by millions. How do you, as a local school board member, work within these confines and retain the quality of local schools?

The ideologically-based attack on public education by our current state leaders ought to be a crime. It will hurt students across the state and in our district as well, especially through reduced resources--fewer adults in the building to lead our students. We are extremely fortunate that the Orange County commissioners have supported most of our needs during this time. I expect we will need to ask them for additional funding next year as well, as the combination of no longer being able to spend from our savings and state cuts already passed in the state biennial budget are not sufficient for our needs. As we deal with cuts, I expect greater flexibility in schools to be one mechanism we need to ensure continued success. I expect to see principals restructuring teacher jobs to support more students within budgets, and I would prefer that we implement such changes to reach more students with our great teachers, and pay them more for that reach. If budgets don't improve, we will reach the point shortly where we simply must be creative to ensure our students get a great education in our district.

7. With state lawmakers increasingly viewing public schools as a means for cutting costs, how would you advocate for school funding at the state level?

Unfortunately, I don't think Chapel Hill/Carrboro voices are the ones being listened to right now in Raleigh. But that does not stop me from making statements: talking with friends and family in districts across the state to pressure their Republican representatives, going to Moral Monday events with my kids, and staying in touch with our new state senator, Val Foushee, a former school board member who I know will listen to us. The budget isn't the only thing on which we need Raleigh's help. We need to ensure that schemes like merit pay are done for the benefit of students, not simply to create competition among teachers. We need more flexibility in our calendar and how we spend the state dollars allocated to us. We must be allowed to remove class rank from transcripts to lessen the obscene pressure on our high schoolers. These are not partisan issues, and we must work well with both sides of the aisle and our Orange County leaders to make progress.

8. With the local population continuing to grow, how would you plan out future school construction in a manner within local schools' budget means?

Our current projections don't quite show an immediate need for new schools (a new middle school will be needed next in 2019). But we do have several schools that have aged significantly and need major repairs/partial replacement. The county can't afford everything that we'd like to build, but I do expect that our community will insist that we prioritize the capital budget for schools to be sufficient to meet our needs. Longer term, beyond the next couple of sites (a new wing on Carrboro High, a middle school beside Morris Grove, and elementary schools at Carolina North and the Greene tract), our other big challenge will be finding sites for new schools in our district. We will need to be creative in how we build to fit into some locations.

9. How do you increase parental involvement in local schools?

It comes down to trust, which Dr Forcella recognizes is enough of an issue to make it part of our "shared beliefs" in our district, a foundational item that we all agree is critical to making progress in our schools. Parents need to trust that their involvement is needed and valued. Teachers need to trust that parents aren't being involved based on some agenda, but are committed to moving forward in the ways the schools want all students to grow. Transparency about our actions as a board and from district administrators, as much as feasible within the bounds of personnel and other laws, plus genuine listening--not just listening for the show of it, or listening but refusing to respond--would be a start. Once that trust is there, we can move to the logistical issues of recruitment/time/space/matching of skills that, while key to making involvement work, are not sufficient if trust isn't there. The board can help build that trust by mirroring it in our work with the schools--trusting in the professionals we've hired to do the right thing, but also filling our role as representatives of the community to hold the schools accountable for student growth--every student every year should have at least a year's worth of growth (and students who are behind need well more than that to catch up).

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