Name as it appears on the ballot: Ashley Wheeler
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: ashleywheelerforoc.org
Occupation & employer: registered nurse, Duke University Health System
Years lived in the area: 35 years
1. In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the school board do differently or better over the course of your term?
Earlier this year, I stood outside of a school board meeting with parents and students who were concerned about the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that was emerging around banning certain books. In that moment, I realized that the progressive community needed more people to step up to run, and I knew that I could offer a fresh perspective as an outsider with very relevant skills. I am learning an incredible amount about the complexity of the issues facing our teachers, administrators, staff, students, and families. There are no easy answers, but I am a very curious person who seeks first to understand.
I am steadfast in my commitment to equity. I do not see equity as a zero-sum game and I firmly believe that the path to student excellence is through creating an equitable educational system. I am excited that our district has a new strategic plan that incorporates equity, but its implementation will be critical. I will use skills developed through my professional work implementing healthcare plans, policies, and procedures as well as revisiting and reevaluating those procedures to ensure implementation of the new strategic plan is successful. Continuous improvement methods that are being applied now in schools have been developed from decades of work to achieve excellence in healthcare systems, which means I am familiar with these particular methods and their application.
Finally, I am relationship-driven. The challenges our school community has faced in the last few years – and the challenges we will face in the future – require relationship building. This takes time, requires trust, communication, and vulnerability. I am committed to building relationships and creating inclusive communities for all of our students, teachers, staff, and families.
2. Given the direction of the school district, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
I believe things are on the right course. It is impressive to me that our board has navigated an incredibly challenging pandemic while still advancing a new 5 year strategic plan. Part of the strategic plan has included an audit of literacy curricula and a revision of professional development to better meet the needs of students and reduce achievement gaps. Many of the board votes have been unanimous, despite the challenges and division in our community. I would like to continue the momentum toward unity. Disruptions can be really challenging for schools and districts to overcome and I know that change takes time. What I will prioritize in my first few months is building relationships and hearing from constituents, including teachers, students and families, to hear what is and isn’t working from their perspective. I will also prioritize communication. I do think communication is important for building trust, and I think we can always improve on the ways we communicate and have a clear message for parents, aligned across our schools.
3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?
We have profound infrastructure needs that far exceed our budget. We will have to prioritize and develop a short-term plan to address the facility needs that are impacting students and staff on a daily basis (classroom safety, bathrooms, cafeteria, etc.). We can do this while continuously advocating, and encouraging parents to advocate, at the state level for appropriate funding for our district (as specified in the court-order Leandro plan).
Just like many counties in the state and nationwide, we face a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. It is an incredibly challenging time to be a teacher or staff member in our public school system. We know that filling open positions, bolstering teacher morale, respecting teachers’ autonomy, protecting their time, and supporting professional development can help our teachers receive the time, support, and training they need and desire to work more effectively.
The third issue is trust. The last few years have taken a toll on our community. There is a lot of division, and it is doing a disservice to our entire school community. Through my work as a nurse in the ER, I am skilled at meeting people in their most challenging moments. I am proficient at identifying core needs and values while finding common ground. There will be a learning curve of how the school system works, but my experience in the complex world of the health care system has taught me that at the end of the day we don’t get anywhere without trusting relationships. I commit to building trust with our school board, teachers, and families. Receiving the endorsements of Equality NC PAC, the Orange County Association of Educators, and the Progressive Democrats of Orange County meant a great deal to me because it is a reflection of the trust I have established with community members and educators already – a trust I intend to continually earn in the years to come.
4. Describe something you think the school board should have prioritized differently in the current budget. Do you think the budget supports students from lower income families as well as from wealthy families? Does the budget meet the district’s infrastructure needs?
All budget questions are very challenging. It is hard to do so much with so little. I feel like our board has done a great job of supporting diverse needs during the pandemic and making sure that communities had access to what they needed (such as broadband, hotspots, laptops, meals, etc.) In my view, the current board has had to make incredibly difficult decisions and I support the priorities reflected in the current budget. That includes renaming of schools as one in a series of steps to dismantle white supremacy, which was essentially paid for through a modest carryover amount that would not be available for recurring costs such as salaries. The question of whether budget allocations are equitable is critical, and to my knowledge, that close look is planned for the upcoming year. One important step OCS has taken toward equity is hiring to make sure that there is at least 1 bilingual staff member in the main office of every school, and expanding language and translation services.
I would love to see future budget conversations take a more participatory budgeting approach. This helps everyone feel heard and valued and seeks a broader degree of input. There are numerous models of participatory budgeting, even just down the road in Greensboro, and I think we can learn a lot by looking at those practices. This is something that another candidate for board, Sarah Smylie, has also mentioned as a possibility for our school board. I whole-heartedly support that.
The district’s budget does not meet our infrastructure needs. Our local infrastructure budget is woefully inadequate to cover the repairs and improvements needed across our schools. In the absence of a solution that involves federal and state funding for infrastructure, I am encouraged that the Orange County BOCC and the two school districts have created a task force focused on prioritizing and funding infrastructure needs. I will continue this work if I am elected.
5) What is your understanding of what Critical Race Theory is? Is CRT currently taught in K-12 public schools? What are your thoughts on House Bill 324, the bill Gov. Cooper vetoed because he said it “pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education?” Would you support such a bill?
Critical race theory (CRT) is an advanced theoretical framework that originated in the field of graduate level legal studies. The essence of CRT is that race is a socially constructed, and that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies. It is not being taught in our K-12 public schools. There is a misconception that any teaching that turns a critical eye to systems and policies and asks us to self-reflect and understand how we live, move, and grow in different systems as CRT. That is highly problematic. I would not support any such bill as House Bill 324 and I am thankful the governor vetoed it. We are in a time of teacher burnout and retention challenges. Targeting their teaching, infiltrating teacher groups, creating reporting systems – all that does is create an unwelcoming and hostile environment for our teachers. We have far bigger concerns in our school district than to be distracted by a debate about a curriculum that isn’t being used in the schools.
6) Does the General Assembly have a constitutional obligation to comply with the state Supreme Court order in the Leandro case to fully fund public schools and give every child in North Carolina a sound basic education?
Yes, I believe that the General Assembly has a constitutional obligation to comply and ensure that all children in the state have access to a sound, basic education. The NC Supreme Court decision affirms this obligation.
7) Do you agree with the school board’s unanimous decision this winter to support decisions made at the school and administrative levels to keep the books Gender Queer, Lawnboy, and Out of Darkness on the shelves in school classrooms/libraries? Please explain your answer.
I wholeheartedly support the school board’s decision because I trust the librarians and educators who are part of the Media and Technology Advisory Committee to uphold the interests of all students. That committee’s review of these reading materials affirmed that each of these books is literature that is a valuable part of our high school libraries’ collections. I also trust the policy we have established for hearing and responding to parental concerns. Parents absolutely have a right to input over what their children read, but no parent has the right to make that determination for the children of others. It would be wonderful to think that every child went home to an open, accepting family who were prepared to guide them on their adolescent journey. But we know that that is not the case. And we know from research that access to information and recognition of identities is a key to keeping young people safe and helping them feel supported. Some of our students will only find recognition and support in a book. Others will only learn how to understand life experiences different from their own through books. I will not take that away from them.
8) Orange County’s Board of Education has passed some of the most progressive policies in the state around strengthening racial equity and providing a safe, inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students to learn. Do you support these policies? Please explain why/why not.
I support these policies fully and it is a key part of why I am running. We should be incredibly proud of our bold policies. I would seek to strengthen and improve the measures of safe and inclusive environments so that we can understand how the policies are being implemented, what is working and what isn’t, and how we can improve upon them. I also think these policies are critical for our teacher retention challenges. We can recruit diverse candidates, but if we do not have inclusive environments that welcome them and honor their expertise as educators and champions of students, we will lose them. Teacher turnover comes at a very high cost to the district. I see these policies as a critical part of improving our work environment for teachers. I want to make sure that they are being implemented effectively, and make improvements where needed. It is my support of these policies that has earned me the endorsements of Equality NC PAC, Orange County Association of Educators, and the Progressive Democrats of Orange County.
9) Do you support the Orange County School District’s Gender Support guidelines that create a protocol for students who are transitioning or want to?
I fully support the Gender Support Guidelines. These are evidence-based guidelines that are designed to meet the needs of LGBTQIA+ youth. The Trevor Project National Youth Survey presents devastating statistics regarding the challenges our LGBTQIA+ youth face. These Gender Support Guidelines are designed to help mitigate these challenges and prioritize the health and safety of our students. They are not designed to hide information from parents. The guidelines explicitly state that parents are to be worked with unless it appears unsafe to do so. Again, the core of these policies is the protection, safety, and support of students.
10) Do police officers (School Resource Officers) have a role in schools? Do you agree with the way the current board is trying to address the role of SROs in Orange County Schools?
I believe there is a role in schools for SROs, so long as the focus of officers is on maintaining a safe environment for students (rather than policing student behavior), and clear policy is in place to ensure that educators/administrators address discipline issues. SROs are only effective when they build relationships with students, earn trust, and act with integrity. At the same time, we know that the presence of SROs has the potential to create a less welcoming environment for students, and a disproportionate negative impact on Black and brown students and students with disabilities. Therefore, I would advocate for SROs to participate in anti-bias and equity training designed specifically to support SROs in understanding the role they can play in disrupting the school to prison pipeline.
11) Research has shown an achievement gap for Orange County Schools students based on race and socioeconomic status. What specific policies would you support or what actions would you take to help close the gap so that race and socioeconomic status don’t persist as predictive factors?
This is where we can leverage two critical components of decision making: looking at our own extensive data, and hearing directly from our families. Achievement gaps are often revealed in the numbers but they are influenced by the entire school environment. I support the policies the board has enacted around recognizing that Black Lives Matter, renaming schools, overhauling our literacy curriculum, and focusing on recruiting teachers of color so that the racial composition of our teachers reflects that of our students. I plan on continuing to examine the data through a lens of race and class while also meeting regularly with students, teachers, and families to understand their everyday experiences in our system. The data only tells one part of the story. Working in collaboration with the communities of color who have been advocating for equity work in the district for years at this point is critical. I am prepared to follow their lead and work in service of their efforts.
12) How can the school board better assist students who lack broadband access?
It’s critical that the board continue to collaborate with the County Commissioners and our local NCGA members to make use of the opportunity to build out broadband in rural areas of our county. In the meantime, the board must continue to provide hot spots to students.
13) Is the district currently doing enough to assist disabled students? What more could it do?
The pandemic has been so hard in so many ways, and I have heard that remote learning may have been hardest on disabled students. I have heard this especially from families of elementary school children. I know the district took important steps to engage families in the IEP process virtually, and I am committed to learning more from students, families and our exceptional children educators.
14) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
Eighteen years ago, I voluntarily entered a plea for a DWI in Durham, North Carolina. I deeply regret this mistake and I regret having put anyone at risk. This is public record and I consciously decided to not have it expunged. I disclosed this misdemeanor to my nursing school, the North Carolina Board of Nursing, and to the health system that hired me as a registered nurse. Subsequently, I have been a valued employee and an upstanding citizen. I follow the law and I conduct myself with kindness, honesty, compassion, and strength. I have carried this regret with me every day since, but I am also grateful for the lessons I learned along the way. I am grateful for the perspective I have gained, for the way I have grown in understanding, and for the powerful connection I can experience with people in the grasp of the imperfect moments in life. It is these lessons that I will bring with me to the Board. I am not running for office simply to win. I am putting my authentic self forward, having been formed by the sum total of my decisions, and declaring that I have the capacity and the desire to serve my community. I refuse to let any discomfort keep me from what I think is extremely crucial service to the students of OCS, the educators of OCS, and the community at large. I refuse to sit back and watch as destructive forces seek to push marginalized and powerless people out of their rightful place in our society. It is happening every day in this nation. There is a concerted effort to narrow opportunities and protections for a large part of our student population. Someone had to stand up for justice, for mercy, and for equality. I am an imperfect person, but here I stand, willing to fight and protect.