Name as it appears on the ballot: Chris Heagarty
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: Heagarty4Schools.org
Occupation & employer: Executive Director, City of Oaks Foundation
Years lived in the area: 43
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?
I am the Vice Chair of the Board of Education. I’ve served four years on the board and have kept my campaign promises to keep our students safe and healthy, to build new schools to address growth and overcrowding in our area, and to support our teachers and staff through better pay. I am a parent of Wake County Public School students and have helped parents navigate the school system bureaucracy to solve local problems.
In my next term I will continue to work toward academic recovery from classroom time lost during the pandemic as we launch a district wide intensive tutoring program to build fundamental literacy skills for students impacted the most by remote learning, as well as continuing to improve teacher and staff pay to retain and recruit the best teachers for our students, and will continue to stand up to intolerance and bullying that can make kids, and staff, feel excluded and unwelcome in school.
I have the knowledge, the experience, and the temperament needed to collaborate with state and local officials and to advocate for parents and students to address our school needs and keep Wake County schools the best in our state. Now is not the time to risk our schools and our community’s future to those with a narrow political agenda or an axe to grind.
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?
We know that Wake County Schools are producing well-prepared students based on metrics such as how aggressively our graduates are recruited by employers and by colleges, universities, and military academies around the country. Local employers pay our graduates generous salaries entering skilled professionals straight out of high school and colleges offer very generous financial aid packages to bring our graduates to their institutions. This is the result of intentional work over decades to produce students that do not just excel academically, but that are have strong skills in communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, that differentiate them and better prepare them for post K12 success than students from most other school districts.
However, more can be done, and our current board is working to develop a new strategic plan based on community feedback that places even greater emphasis on financial literacy, digital literacy, and even stronger communication and critical thinking skills. While most students will pursue additional educational opportunities, we want to make sure that all students are given the preparation and skills to be functional, productive citizens, with the modern life skills needed to lead successful and fulfilling lives no matter where they go after high school graduation, rather than giving them only the “back to basics” minimum skills set that some advocate.
3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Wake County Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?
I believe the three main issues that the Board needs to address are academic recovery from classroom time lost during the pandemic, recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers and school staff and putting in place school policies and culture that protect students and staff against intolerance and bullying.
In order to accelerate academic recovery from time lost during the pandemic, we must focus efforts on those most deeply impacted by time out of school, our K-5 students who were still in the process of developing literacy skills during the temporary shift to virtual learning. We have mobilized and are training hundreds of volunteers to offer “high dosage” tutoring in our schools for these students through our WakeTogether program.
Improved compensation and working conditions for teachers are the clearest pathways to better teacher recruitment and retention as we experience a national teacher shortage with fewer young men and women pursuing education degrees in college. A desire for better compensation is the most cited reason why teachers leave the profession and if we want to our region to stay competitive with other metro areas, we must provide at least comparable pay and benefits, if not better, to keep and attract the high-quality staff our students need.
Increased outside agitation against students and staff because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity is on the rise and we must resist movements to limit the rights and representation of these members of our school community. All students and staff should feel safe and welcome in our schools.
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 affluent families? Does the budget meet the district’s infrastructure needs?
The school board budget and the board’s ability to shift funds around to different areas is greatly restricted by the state’s control of local school budgets and the state’s long and widely-acknowledged underfunding of our public schools. Local school boards do not have much freedom to allocate money where they wish. The limited flexibility we do have comes mostly through collaboration with the local county commission, who supplement state funds with additional county revenues that allow the district to hire more vital support staff, like school counselors, nurses, and social workers, or to supplement pay to reward experienced teachers for their service.
The current budget supports students from low-income families by funding many vital support services directly to students as well as providing support for schools serving predominantly under-resourced communities through the federal Title I program and federal magnet school grants. If additional funding could be made available through enforcement of the Leandro decision, many impactful additional services could be offered for low-income families, such as before-school and after-school programs with academic enrichment opportunities and expanded Pre-K services.
Despite collaborative budgeting with our current county commission, our budget has not yet caught up from past years of insufficient investment in our school infrastructure needs, which is one of the reasons why this year’s school bond divides its funding projects between new school construction and important school renovation projects. Past infrastructure funding has not kept pace with Wake County’s rapid growth, and the necessity of building new schools to accommodate increased population has reduced the funds available for maintaining and renovating existing schools. Passage of the school bond will make progress in this regard, but until there is adequate state funding for school operations, local revenues that could be used for these important infrastructure needs will continue to be directed toward operational expenses needed to keep schools staffed and open.
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?
The term “critical race theory” has been used to describe a wide range of topics and subjects different than those included in the academic definition of the term. CRT, as it is defined academically, is not taught in K-12 public schools. Material that might be described in social media or by activists as “CRT” might be, depending on how they define it. For example, Lt. Governor Mark Robinson’s investigative study into CRT in schools reported examples of curriculum that some people found objectionable that was completely unrelated to race, but was still labeled “CRT”, so as long as people cannot agree on definitions the question cannot be answered with certainty.
I support Governor Cooper’s veto of HB 324 because I think this legislation fails to live up to its name and disguises a more specific intention of denying some families, staff, and students, their own rights. Speech codes that create forbidden discourse and subjects are a slippery slope toward an even a greater loss of rights. Many of the more benign requirements contained in the bill are already required by other state laws or Department of Public Instruction policies and regulations.
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?
7. 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. Should Wake follow Orange’s lead and implement Gender Support guidelines that create a protocol for students who are transitioning or want to?
Wake County should develop a consistent district-wide protocol of rules and procedures so that students at all schools receive the same support and resources no matter which Wake County public school they attend. Development of the protocol must include student voices and representation as well as involved and informed input from parents, doctors, psychologists, and counselors.
8. How do you think the current school board handled the COVID-19 pandemic? Please explain your answer.
As well as possible, given conflicting guidance from national, state, and local health authorities and strongly diverging opinions from administrators, staff, parents, students and other members of the community. Each board member had to make their decisions based on their own individual conscience and though there was disagreement it was mostly respectful. I personally gave the greatest deference to guidance provided by local pediatricians, doctors, and hospital staff regarding questions of public health and safety.
9. Recently, groups of parents with students in WCPSS have mounted efforts to ban certain books from school classrooms and libraries. The school board and school administrators pushed back on these efforts. Did the board and school system handle this controversy appropriately? What more, if anything, should be done to address efforts to ban books in schools?
No good has ever come from any society banning books. Books in school libraries are selected by trained professionals and there is already a process for citizen review of materials. I believe most of this movement is fed by social media and the Board discovered that many complaints coming from people who either did not have students in the school they were complaining about, or who admitted they have not read the entire books and only “skimmed them” to confirm that the language that they objected to was present. The Board sided with current high school students who came to Board meetings and spoke before hostile crowds to bravely advocate for the continued inclusion of these books in school libraries.
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 Wake County Schools?
Yes, SROs do provide an important public safety resource for our schools. The current board spent over a year studying the issue, surveying students, parents, staff, and community advocates, and identifying key areas of concern and needed improvements. This study was intentional in reaching out to ensure that traditionally under-represented groups had full access and participation in the study. The study resulted in many significant changes to the program based on community input that affirm that the roles of the SRO must be focused on law enforcement and public safety and not student discipline. Improved training, relationship building, and de-escalation principals are built into the new program and new opportunities for feedback from families were created.
11. Research has shown an achievement gap for Wake 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?
I support the work of the current board and its multiple strategies for identifying and overcoming achievement gaps attributed to race and socioeconomic status, including diversifying schools to avoid schools on disparate ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, supplemental funding through the Title I program for schools with a majority of underresourced students and magnet school grants, and employing school social workers and counselors that can provide impactful resources that may be needed by these students. Additionally, I support work by the board to develop a fair equity policy that should require an audit of services, resources, and needs to ensure that students get what they need to remediate disadvantages.
12. How should WCPSS address its ongoing shortage of educators, support staff, bus drivers, school nurses, mental health professionals, and other key staff?
Compensation is the most important issue for addressing our current labor shortage, for both teachers and for non-certified staff such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers. NC teachers don’t receive adequate salaries from the legislature, with NC’s current average teacher salary ranking about 40th in the nation this school year. However, the larger issue is comparing teacher salaries to other professions with similar educational requirements, where NC teachers make on average 25.3% less than other occupations with similar education and longevity. Fewer college students are seeking Education degrees because of low pay.
Even where Wake County is able to supplement local teacher and staff salaries with funds from the county budget, this is off-set by the much higher cost of living in Wake County than other NC counties, and still lags below what teachers and staff are paid in similar metro areas in other states. These compensation issues mean that local teachers often leave their current position for better teaching positions in other states or leave the professional for better paying jobs. Similarly, our other school staff can make much better money in similar professions in the private sector and even in other areas of government where city and county bus drivers earn much more than school bus drivers. There must be additional funding for these positions in order to staff our schools and failure to do so leaves vacancies that contribute to higher workloads for existing staff, creating more stress and fueling even more departures. Alternatives such as “cut waste” or “pay management less” fail to acknowledge the lean administrative budgets of the schools and the comparative salary studies that show our school administrators and management are underpaid compared to their peers in similar markets.
13. Is the district currently doing enough to assist disabled students? What more could it do?
The district is doing all that it can with its current level of funding to assist disabled students, but the needs of disabled students require more. The federal government needs to fully fund the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which would provide states and local school districts the money necessary to provide the many essential services required to provide qualifying students with the assistance, accommodations, and resources that they need.
14. If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
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