Will Atherton—Orange County Board of Education | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week

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Will Atherton—Orange County Board of Education



1.      In your view, what are the three most pressing issues facing Orange County schools? If elected, what will you do to address these issues?

1.  Providing a safe environment for students and staff.

We must implement restricted access on all exterior doors at our schools so that visitors cannot enter without being screened/identified. We should strive to build a positive school environment, where students feel connected and responsible and bullying behavior is addressed quickly. We must continue our collaborative relationship with the Sheriff and his officers to strengthen the SRO programs currently in all our schools. A confidential school safety study was completed several years ago and I want to work with the board to fully implement those recommendations.  We need to look at short term and long-term budget items giving us time to work with the county and state for funding. Most of the above items depend on local funding (e.g. SRO’s are supported by both the Sheriff’s office and OCS).

I do not support arming teachers.

2.  Strengthening college and vocational pathways for students, such that those interested in pursuing continued academic studies and those interested in technical and career pathways can successfully and competitively enter the workforce with appropriate skills.

Currently our district graduation rates overall are 89.1% for 2016-2017.  There is a strong push on students as early as middle school to prepare for college.   I strongly feel that students need time to understand their own talents, interests and strengths first – and then further explore possible career pathways. Also, we need to establish a program to work with local businesses that would provide students with opportunities for work experiences, and likely could serve as an incentive to stay in school: you commit to us, we will commit to you.  I have spoken to multiple local small business owners that would be interested in collaborating in an internship or journeyman type of program for high school students.

3. Provide equitable academic and extracurricular opportunities for all students along with a diverse teaching staff that reflects our student populations.

In order to do this, we must first ensure that our students, teachers and staff have a safe, secure learning environment. Further, each child in our district must be provided with the tools to learn and succeed.

We must have the support of our community to achieve success with our students.  We need to encourage school volunteers and partners, not only among parents and grandparents, but with local businesses, non-profits, churches, etc. There are so many talents available in our community and so many needs to meet to assist students. This is a great chance to come together with one purpose – to help our children and, by doing so, assure a vibrant, successful school system.

We need to address our staff diversity as well to match the student population. Currently we have a student population of 55.76% white, 23.41% Hispanic/Latino, 14.40% Black and 4.91% Multiracial, 1.26% Asian, .23% American Indian and .04% Pacific Islander.   While our teacher Demographics are 87.9% White, 7.8% Black, 2.4% Hispanic/Latino, 1.5% two or more races, 0.4% Asian and 0% for Native American and Pacific Islander. Classroom diversity will promote student growth and help with reflection. Learning of diverse backgrounds and ideas play an essential role in career preparation.  This also gives children access to teachers of different backgrounds and races who can serve as mentors, trusted advisors, confidants, role models and heroes.

We need to strengthen early identification programs for minority students in our AIG (Academically or Intellectually Gifted) programs starting in elementary through high school. Currently we have 73% White, 12% Hispanic, 8% Black, 6% multiracial, 1% Asian in AIG programs. We need to focus more emphasis and support in identifying minorities in grades K-5 using multiple identification tools to remove barriers.  

Finally, I want to also mention that I am very concerned about competitive salaries for our teachers. North Carolina currently ranks around 41st in the US for teacher pay. It is ironic that in what is arguably one of the most important professions for our success as a country – through the education of our children – continues to fall behind in terms of compensation. We must do all we can to make teacher salaries competitive with other professions in order to recruit the best and brightest candidates to educate our children.

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective Board of Education member? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

Although I have not held political office, I have served the community in a number of leadership positions.  I was elected to the non-profit PCI-SIG Board of Directors (www.pcisig.com) for two terms where I served on the executive committee which directed the PCI-SIG consortium.  This group is made up of over 800+ high technology companies worldwide with multimillion-dollar budgets.  I have served as a member of the Orange County Schools Technology Advisory Committee, and was appointed by the Orange County Commissioners to the Sports Plex Advisory Committee. In addition, I have been an active PTA member and classroom volunteer at Pathways Elementary, Hillsborough Elementary, C.W. Stanford Middle School and Orange High School.  I have also served on the HYAA Baseball & Softball Commission and have coached several baseball and softball teams. I am currently President of the Churton Grove Homeowners Association, where I have served on the Board of Directors for over 12 years.

I earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronic Technology with a minor in Mathematics (1997) at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana; and completed my Master’s degree in Network Engineering (2003) from North Carolina State University.  Currently, I am Executive Director of Infrastructure Architecture & Technology Strategy at The Clorox Company. My responsibilities include planning and analyzing IT technology and the implementation of those technologies; managing employees as we look for ways to develop sound financial and business strategies to expand the company worldwide; working collaboratively with partners and vendors; and developing internationals business partnerships in China, India, Africa to name a few. Prior to this position, I was a Distinguished Engineer and Chief System Architect at Lenovo and Distinguished Engineer and Chief System Test Engineer at IBM where I worked with large international teams, and traveled worldwide meeting and understanding the international markets and cultures that drive them.

I feel that this combination of educational and professional experiences provides me with a unique skill set for the Orange County Board of Education as we face the challenges of preparing our students to compete in a 21st century workforce, and as we continue to evaluate how well we are doing in our preparation. The board must vigilantly analyze curriculum and programming, expenditures, technology acquisition and human resource recruitment and retention, and I feel that my life experiences have provided an excellent background from which to contribute positively to those tasks.

3. If you are a challenger, what decisions, if any, has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are the incumbent, what in your voting record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?

It’s not that I think the incumbent has voted in a way with which I disagree, but rather that I think we should have more transparency on issues and the budget process. Currently you have to look on the school board site to know what the budget looks like and what is being proposed. I think we need to use our communications systems, like PTA(s) to inform parents, teachers, staff and extended family of agenda items and topics on which we need input.  This would include using the OCS phone system to notify parents, teachers, staff and extended family of upcoming discussions and decisions.

Beyond that I feel that I have a wealth of personal and professional experiences that would be of benefit in making sound strategic decisions for our schools.

4. Research, including a new report from the NC Justice Center, suggests that North Carolina’s schools are becoming more segregated by race and economic status. What do you think is driving this trend, and do you think this is an issue Orange County schools need to address? Please explain your answer.

The majority members of the state legislature have made available more non-traditional public school opportunities for NC students. As a result, we’ve seen a shift in enrollment of mostly white students toward charter schools, home schools, virtual schools, and student vouchers.

For example, Orange County currently has about 12% of its students enrolled in charter schools, while Durham and Person Schools are well over 20%. We are no longer the only educational show in town and we have to learn to successfully compete with non-traditional options. This means we must provide a superior education for our students in this highly competitive environment. We need to establish a trusting partnership with parents to assure the best quality education possible for their children.

By focusing on an excellent education for all children and working hand in hand with parents, we can successfully address this trend.

5. What effects do you believe the popularity of charter schools is having on the school system? Is it exacerbating segregation or draining resources from neighborhood schools, as some critics contend?

As I stated above, charter schools have had a definite impact on the enrollment and budget of traditional public schools as a result of decreased diversity, decreased available funding, and decreased enrollment. Charter schools often don’t offer transportation which means that parents need to be able to transport their own children, something that is difficult for a lot of families. This means that families with limited financial resources would likely have more difficulty providing their own transportation to school - and conversely families with more financial flexibility would be more likely be able to overcome this hurdle.

Again, we must be able to compete in this new educational paradigm by providing and disseminating the great programs we offer, and better market our schools so that parents and children want to be in Orange County Schools - as their “First Choice for Families.”

6. In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, what do you think should be done to make schools safer? Do you see preventing such shootings as a “school safety” issue?

I believe we have a lot of work to do to make our schools safer - and I’ve listed it as one of my top concerns in Question 1.  Yes, I absolutely see preventing such shootings as a school safety issue – but school safety is not addressed in a vacuum, safety infiltrates every aspect of the school’s daily routine. Whether it is securing all exterior doors so that visitors must be checked in and approved before entering the school building; or whether it is focusing on a positive learning and social environment for students; or whether it is building collaborative, trusting relationships with our law enforcement officials and school resource officers; or whether it is prioritizing safety recommendations in the budget, we must do all that is possible to provide a safe learning environment for our children .

7. In a similar vein, do you support the placement of school resource officers in Durham schools? If so, what do you think their role should be? If not, what do you propose as an alternative?

I fully support previous action on the part of the Orange County School Board and the Sheriff of Orange County to provide resource officers in all of the elementary schools, in addition to those already in place at the middle and high schools. Their role is well defined in the MOU between the schools system and the Office of the Sheriff.

The SROs in our system are well trained and interact with the children, teachers and staff, such that children see them daily, socialize with them and know they are a trusted person who will keep them safe.  I have seen them walking around all the schools and know they are visible and attentive to their duties. The world we live in has changed and we must adjust to keep our schools safe, and resource officers are an important part of doing that.

8. In the most recent data, Orange County Public Schools had a graduation rate of 89.1 percent, a little bit lower than Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools’ rate and considerably better than Durham County’s. What steps can the school board take to ensure that more of its students graduate?

In addition to the ideas I presented in Question 1 above with regard to strengthening academic and career/technical educational (CTE) pathways, we should focus on expanding opportunities that interest our high school students. For instance, recently a firefighting training academy, public safety training academy were added at Orange High; and public safety training academy and a law enforcement prep academy were added at Cedar Ridge. Both campuses have experienced high enrollment in the programs and the interest has far exceeded the expectations. Further, we have a wonderful resource with having the Durham Technical and Community College campus right here in Hillsborough, and need to partner with them to explore educational and training partnerships that could help keep our students engaged and on track to graduate. Students often drop out when they are not successful or when they don’t see education as benefiting them — we have to find ways to turn this around and keep them engaged.

9. According to the most recent data, 47 percent of Orange County Public Schools students receive either free or reduced lunch. In your experience, what are some challenges that economically disadvantaged students, in particular, face day-to-day? What steps can the school board take to help these students?

First, we must try to address the whole child if we are going to be able to help our students be successful, and we must recognize that basic home life is difficult for these families.

We are in a county that has the 7th highest property taxes out of 100 in the state (see http://www.ncacc.org/193/Property-Tax-Rate). 15.8% of the population in Orange County live below the poverty line (14% of the children <18 are living in poverty), a number that is higher than the national average of 14.7% (See the following references (http://cms3.revize.com/revize/orangecounty/Social%20Determinants%20Of%20Health_Poverty_Feb2017.pdf) and  USA Data (https://datausa.io/profile/geo/orange-county-nc/#economy)

We need to continue the universal breakfast program currently in place. Last school year we served 227,575 meals through this initiative. This program provides a nutritious breakfast for all students to assure that they can have a good start to their school day with a full stomach. In addition, we need to continue to partner with the various community groups to provide Back-Pack Buddy, which is designed to provide children from needy households with nutritious kid-friendly groceries for the weekend when school lunches and breakfasts aren’t available.

We should assess whether our economically disadvantaged students have the necessary tools to be successful in the classroom, which includes expanding the availability of technology and exploring access to internet providers to rural homes. All students need access to a level playing field when it comes to the basic technology for learning.

10. Last year, Orange County schools earned seven Bs and five Cs under the state’s scoring system. Do you think the current state grading system is fair and truly reflects school quality?

I believe that the state testing and grading system needs to be evaluated and improved.
I hear frequently from teachers that we are way too focused on assessments and tests of our students, in order to score well on the state grading system. While it is critically important for our students to reach educational milestones at certain grade intervals, I am afraid that we have put way too much emphasis on test-taking and other assessments in our efforts to measure proficiency. In fact, the emphasis on testing has consumed the efforts of our teachers rather than allowing them to practice the art of teaching in their classrooms. This has detracted from the opportunity to teach science, social sciences, art and music, etc. when teachers know that the expectations for testing are so high. Although I respect and appreciate the need for testing, and data assessment, we also need to remember that the primary focus of teachers should be TEACHING.

11. What do you think the system could do to keep down suspension rates in Orange County schools?

I think we should expand the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program that focuses on immersive, participatory experience based on forming strong relationships between teachers, students and administrators.  We need to make sure that as behavioral issues arise with students that we are recognizing whether the issue is related to other aspects of the child’s life and, if so, try to address this. I am fully supportive of the restorative justice efforts underway in the school system, where students resolve conflicts on their own in a respectful manner. We need to utilize Partnership Academy, when appropriate, to ensure that the student is getting an education vs missing classroom time.

We also need to make sure we are monitoring the suspension rate to make certain that there is no racial bias.

12. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.

I will work to secure additional funding in order to: make teacher signing bonuses available for recruiting; make affordable housing opportunities available for teachers in collaboration with community partners; and restore the respect that teachers deserve in our society - and once held. I will be a strong advocate for the local and state funding and/or resources needed to make our children safe and successful.

Being on the Board of Education means representing all of the students of Orange County Schools, and providing them with the opportunities to succeed regardless of socioeconomics, race, disability or gender.

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