Name as it appears on the ballot: Chris Heagarty
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: Heagarty4Schools.com
Occupation & employer: Executive Director, City of Oaks Foundation.
1. What do you believe are the three most important issues facing the Board of Education? What are your priorities for addressing these issues?
The top issue facing the Board of Education is managing a proper response to the COVID-19 epidemic. This has been a very divisive issue in our community that threatens to pit parent against parent, parents against teachers, and teachers against other teachers because of strongly held beliefs about what is or is not “safe”. My priority in addressing this issue is to listen to the direct guidance provided to us from state and local health officials, and our own independent health experts, and work to reopen schools as soon as possible, as safely as possible, and based on actual science. I believe students and staff with health concerns, or with vulnerable family members, should be able to continue remote learning while adequate PPE, mask use, and social distancing should be required for face to face instruction.
Another important issue facing the school system is addressing the growing “wealth gap” and segregation in our schools. With a growing number of “poor schools” in communities segregated by housing costs and family income, student achievement scores are suffering, but I believe we can address this by strengthening our magnet school program.
Both of these issues are discussed in more detail later in the survey.
A third important issue is improving the counseling, health, and career services in our schools, especially as students experience the effects of school closures and COVID-19’s impacts in their community.
Our school board was able to increase funding for school counselors, nurses, and social workers in our 2019-2020 budget, thanks to support from our Wake County Commission, and we increased funding for special education services, and pre-school teachers, instructional assistants, and transportation services for these students. However our ratio of staff to our students is still far below national averages, and these staff – especially our special education teachers – need more support now while we continue to provide services during the COVID-19 epidemic.
While state and county tax revenues that support education are expected to drop in the coming year, we need to make expansion of these services a priority if we are to faithfully serve our students and overcome the challenges they have experienced in recent months.
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.
I have worked very hard to help families, school staff, and others navigate through challenges within the school system. While not everyone can get a problem solved the way they want, I have listened and helped many people find a solution to problems that they have experienced, whether it is a family that needs a transfer to another school, a teacher needing to provide feedback about problems with a school decision, or an entire community needing relief from overcrowding at their local school. Sometimes all it takes is just listening and providing an answer or helping people find the right resources so that they can solve their own problem, but other times it requires being an advocate and finding the best solution to cut through bureaucracy and red tape.
3. Research 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 WCPSS needs to address? Please explain your answer.
Evidence points to the increasing economic segregation of neighborhoods based on housing costs as the primary driver of this trend toward economic segregation in schools, along with the ability of wealthier families to afford private and homeschooling options. These same factors contribute to increasing racial segregation as well. Segregated schools lead to lower student achievement and do not help our children prepare for life in the larger community outside of their neighborhood.
While the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) cannot do much to impact housing patterns and home ownership, WCPSS had addressed this problem successfully for years through our award winning magnet program that rewarded families for choosing schools outside of their immediate neighborhoods. However, inadequate funding and “neighborhood school” policies that were promoted by a different school board reversed this progress.
Making a renewed commitment to strengthening our magnet school program to help diversify our schools, to balance out crowded and under-populated schools and to provide all families with more choices for their child’s academic paths will improve overall student achievement and fight re-segregation.
4. 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?
Rather than receiving their own designated funding from our state government, charter schools receive allotments from our public school budget, sometimes for services that they do not provide to students. They also compete for student enrollment with public and private schools, creating uncertainty in planning for student enrollment each year.
While some charter schools have been valuable parts of our community for some time, changes in state regulations over the past decade like the removal of caps on charter schools and the expedited review for many new charters, have led to the approval of some questionable charter applications for schools without unique or innovative qualities, that instead are just tax-payer financed private schools, some which have been shown to have been set up to financially benefit their organizers.
5. In light of the ongoing threat of COVID-19, do you believe it is safe for students to return to the classroom? What policies or protocols should be put in place to ensure the health and safety of students? If remote learning must continue in some form in the future, what can be done to ensure students are still receiving a quality education?
At the time that I am writing this, state and local health experts, as well as independent consultants working with WCPSS, have said that a phased-in return to school can be safe if there are strict safety protocols in place and if these are faithfully followed. However, community health data in Wake County must continue to be monitored and if COVID-19 infection rates and trends reverse and rise again then this could change.
There are many specific safety policies and protocols required for reopening, that are updated frequently by state health officials, and links to these can be found here: https://heagarty4schools.com/covid-19/. Additionally, for those who do not feel safe, I advocated for the creation of the WCPSS Virtual Academy, as a semester long or year long remote-option for families or staff with health concerns about COVID-19 exposure.
Remote learning will continue into the future, temporarily for students participating in the phased in reopening of schools, but longer for Virtual Academy students, so it will continue to evolve and improve based on feedback and evaluation from families and staff. For example, students may see more independent reading and project-based work and less “screen time” or may see new tools and technical improvements adopted to improve the remote communication.
6. Do you support the placement of school resource officers in Wake schools? If so, what do you think their role should be? If not, what do you propose as an alternative?
The role of SROs inside our schools needs to be re-examined so that schools can be safe places where all families feel their students are safe and secure. We are currently soliciting the opinions of students, parents, staff, and the community on this issue. Inside schools, emphasis should be placed on respect, conflict resolution, and de-escalation and there may be a bigger role for school staff and counselors, while local law enforcement may focus on keeping school neighborhoods safe from external threats.
7. Black students make up about a quarter of Wake County public school students, yet, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, are nearly eight times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Are racial disparities an issue you think the board of education needs to address?
Yes, and the board is already looking at analyses of racial discrepancies in how punishments are assigned – especially options like suspension that are shown to have damaging impacts on future academic performance – and is also reviewing disciplinary policies, and evaluating alternatives.
8. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.
Our decisions for a phased-in school reopening are based upon the best recommendations that we are receiving from state and local health experts and upon what is possible for the school system to implement under the rules required by our state government. Any phased-in reopening, however, will alienate voters with strongly held opinions on both sides of the reopening issue, some who believe that COVID-19 does not pose a serious risk and that all schools should return to business as usual right now versus others who believe that schools cannot be safe and should not reopen until not only is there a vaccine, but that it has been in circulation some time and proven.
I have received thousands of emails, from people on both sides, both claiming that medical experts support only their opinion, and that our refusal to act as they demand is killing either students, staff, or both. While I am able to understand frustration and anxiety on both sides, I have to act based on the best evidence I have that schools can and need to be opened safely, with important safety protocols in place, while maintaining virtual options in place for students and staff with family health concerns.
Comment on this questionnaire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.