Name as it appears on the ballot: Sarah Smylie
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.sarahsmylie.org
Occupation & employer: Talent management advisor to non-profits (self-employed)
Years lived in the area: 13
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?
Our children deserve schools where every single student feels a sense of belonging and graduates prepared to succeed in life. I’m a parent of two OCS students. I’m also a former teacher, and in my day job I advise education nonprofits on how to hire and support strong, diverse teams. As a board member, I believe in: working together to solve problems; deep listening; looking at the data; and learning from what’s working within OCS and in other districts. The focus of my career for over 20 years, and my focus as a board member, has been on expanding excellence and equity for every single student. And I’m proud of the groundwork we’ve laid, despite the massive boulders COVID has thrown in our path.
In this election, we need to make sure that OCS ends up with a school board that’s truly committed to sustaining the direction we’re headed. Pivots in direction stop any momentum towards progress; research shows that sustained leadership matters for academic success. We have got to keep moving forward with our focus on academic excellence and equitable, inclusive schools.
I am focused on ensuring that Orange County Schools becomes a place where:
Every student gets what they need to excel academically and thrive personally
Every teacher and staff member experiences a positive, supportive, collaborative workplace
Every family is embraced as a real partner in their children’s education
Through the district’s new strategic plan, we have many important efforts underway to get there, but for me, right now we’ve got to especially focus on staff recruitment, retention, and supports, and student mental health and well-being.
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 do believe we are on the right course – but that we are just at the beginning of it. COVID has been an immense disruption, and the negative effects on academics and overall well-being/mental health continue to impact students, staff and families. We aren’t yet back to where things were. However, for many students, things weren’t great before COVID, either – for a long, long time. I believe we’re on the right track because we’re finally being honest with ourselves about that, with a commitment to doing something about it.
We’ve got a strong foundation laid (new strategic plan, equity plan; school improvement plans; incredible educators; etc.) and are finally tackling persistent problems with focus. And we’re starting to see the effects on learning. For example, this year we changed how we teach early reading skills, and we saw that almost half of the kindergarteners who started school below grade level had already caught up to grade level in reading by the middle of the year. We also added math coaches, and thanks to them and our teachers, students from K-8th grades are growing in math this year at an exciting rate. Seeing tangible academic progress, even just from the start of the year to the middle of the year, is really encouraging. We’re going to keep building on this and moving forward together.
3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?
1) Academic progress: Our students’ success is why we’re all here, and should be the top priority of every board every year. The board should support the district’s efforts to grow student learning by staying focused on the few, most important things that matter most. We should also establish clear metrics to regularly monitor progress, so we can adjust course as needed. I’d also like to see us hearing directly from school staff and students more often about how it’s going.
2) Staff recruitment/retention/culture: PEOPLE are the key to success. We need to make sure that OCS is a great place to work – a place where a diverse cohort of teachers work together towards inspiring goals in a positive and supportive climate. We need to respect and compensate educators and staff and give them space to collaborate and learn from each other. The board should keep close tabs on progress in these areas and invest resources where necessary. We should broaden our partnership with teachers and staff themselves on finding solutions to the challenges we face.
3) Budget: We have two years remaining of supplemental ESSER funding. How can we transition away from this without students experiencing a decline in supports? How can we make the best use of our existing dollars to ensure students get what they need? If we want to invest even more in some areas, where will the money come from? These are not easy things to answer. Resources are limited. But to do so, I’d also like to see us do a deeper dive into the budget next year to identify possible areas of savings, so we can do even more with what we’ve got.
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?
I am disappointed that we were not able to invest more of our budget this year on adding high-dosage tutoring, because research says this is one of the most impactful strategies for catching students up. This wasn’t initially a line-item in our ESSER spending, and then the district wasn’t able to identify an effective partner for this district-wide – the bids they received were not strong. Tutoring is now in place at most schools, but it’s taken a lot at the school level to make it happen, and likely isn’t at the scale that students need. We should have invested more here.
I’m an advocate for creating systems for more equitable resource allocation. In order to ensure that we’re meeting all of the needs of students from lower-income families, we must figure out a process to systematically allocate resources equitably across schools – so resources align to the student needs at a school. Having a defined, systematic process for doing this will ensure that it’s done fairly and consistently and transparently.
And to put it bluntly, no, our budget doesn’t currently meet our numerous infrastructure needs. It’s unlikely that the state will fund these. To make big improvements, we will need the county to put out an additional bond. (With the 2016 bond funds and some additional money from BOCC, we’ve been replacing roofs and HVAC systems, added an addition to CRHS, added a geothermal system to OHS, and created security vestibules and key card access across the district to enhance security.) Currently, both Orange County districts and our county commissioners are working together via a capital needs working group. I’d like them to work together creatively to ensure that the highest-need projects in the county get prioritized first – rather than giving each district a set share of the funding. I’d also like to explore using what’s known as “performance contracting” as a mechanism for funding some capital projects.
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?
Governor Cooper was exactly right. Legislation like HB324 is harmful to students, and this national CRT “scare” is a distraction from the important work of educating children. I will stay focused on what matters. This statement from the Public School Forum of NC summarized my concerns: “[This bill] incites a fear-based approach to limit teachers’ ability to discuss the reality of racism in the United States and would limit students’ engagement with history, current events, and personal health, as well as their social and emotional learning. The bill will also hinder efforts at the school district level to understand and tackle the root cause of inequities in our educational system and address the opportunity gap. While non-discrimination and unity are worthy ideals for which we should all strive every day, this bill would take us further from these goals…By denying our students these opportunities, we also deny them their constitutional right to a sound basic education, and we put them, and our nation at a future disadvantage. We must not deny students this right simply because these truths are challenging and uncomfortable.”
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?
100% Yes. This is a constitutional obligation and a moral obligation, and the state has the funding sitting there. In September, I introduced a resolution in support of the Leandro Plan, which the board passed unanimously. I believe we were the second district in the state to do so. What some people do not realize is that all districts would be impacted by the plan. Under the Leandro Plan, OCS is calculated to gain over $15 million in state funding by FY28, including 48 instructional support positions (TAs) to better meet the needs of our students.
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.
Yes, I do. School boards cannot just remove content that they consider objectionable. Legally, one must consider things like literary value, age appropriateness, and a work as a whole. After reading each book, I came to believe this about each one: 1) That the book had literary value in our HS libraries – each had won awards for literature 2) That it was age-appropriate – each had won national literary awards specifically targeting books for teens. As I said in the meeting, “Upon review, I can see why the two previous committees of our own educators determined that it was appropriate to have in our HS collection. I will not vote to ban this book over the expertise of both the school library field and our own educators.” I also noted the broader national efforts to ban books by/about people of color and LGBTQ people. Seeing the spread of these efforts can be intimidating to young people who are already experiencing racism and homophobia, and it’s important to be visibly supportive. I said, “The context matters. Our students see it, they know it – and our marginalized students need their school board to state clearly and unequivocally that they matter, and that in this district we are committed to creating learning environments where every single student belongs and is valued, and where all students are taught to think critically and use good judgment and engage with hard history and engage in a diverse world.” I’m frustrated by these political distractions, but when they come we’ve got to stand by our students.
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.
Yes, I do. These efforts to have a more equitable and inclusive school system are essential for the academic success of our students, and I am proud of the groundwork we’ve laid through policy over the past four years. This is about holding ourselves accountable to success for ALL students – including directly addressing the disparities that exist for students of color. It’s about holding ourselves accountable to being a welcoming environment for ALL students – including directly addressing the unique challenges experienced by gender non-conforming students. For people who want to learn more about what OCS means by equity, in this video OCS teachers and students talk about it better than I ever could.
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?
Yes, I strongly support these guidelines. I helped to refine them as a member of the board’s Policy Committee. These guidelines were developed after hearing directly from transgender students and their parents about challenges they were having in OCS, and hearing that clear guidelines were needed to prevent future incidents that can be harmful to student well-being. (Mental health concerns are acute for transgender and gender non-conforming students; a 2021 survey from Trevor Project found that nationally more than half of these students had considered attempting suicide within the past year.) These guidelines are also necessary to provide school staff with clear expectations and protocols for how to proceed when a student is in need of a gender support plan. For students, families, and staff, it is helpful to be transparent and specific upfront about how an individual’s needs will be addressed.
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?
Currently, from what I have seen, SROs play a positive role in their schools in OCS. Now, I want to be clear that the school to prison pipeline is a huge concern in education, and it’s important to address disparate discipline and overly punitive responses to student behavior. We know that in some schools, law enforcement is misused and helps to fuel that school-to-prison pipeline. We need to avoid that ever being the case in OCS. I believe that the role of school resource officers should be limited only to protecting the school from external threats; there is no role for SROs in school discipline. While on the board, I’ve supported steps to limit the use of suspension, to limit the potential for bias to influence discipline decisions, and to make the lines between staff/SRO roles clear. We have revised our student code of conduct and our dress code policy to be more restorative, less punitive, and more consistent. I haven’t seen indicators that SROs in OCS are overstepping in school discipline or fueling the school-to-prison pipeline for our students. I’ve also met a number of SROs who have built positive relationships with students and are valued members of their school community, and we’ve had security incidents when having an SRO on the grounds was helpful. Last year we (the board) established a discipline task force which, among other things, is looking at the relationship between OCS and SROs, and I am interested in the group’s recommendations to see where we have opportunities to make improvements.
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?
The gaps in student outcomes by race and economic status have existed in OCS for decades, and are wider than in many other districts. But we can absolutely change this reality for our students. Researchers have studied what distinguishes schools that beat the odds from those that don’t. In her book Districts that Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement, Karin Chenoweth describes the findings from some of this research from University of Chicago: “Schools improve as the result of people working together cooperatively over extended periods of time to develop coherent instruction and build a culture of improvement. What was required? 5 things:
Involved families – Does the school partner with families and communities?
Supportive Environment – Is the school safe and supportive with high expectations?
Ambitious Instruction – Is instruction focused, challenging, and engaging?
Effective Leaders – Does leadership focus on results and school improvement?
Collaborative Teachers – Do teachers work well together and strive for excellence?
When school had all 5 essentials firmly in place, they were 10 times as likely to improve than if they didn’t – in fact, only three of five would do it, if one of them was an effective leader focused on results and school improvement.”
As we’ve developed our plans to recover from COVID, accelerate learning, and address gaps, OCS has taken steps towards strengthening each of these areas above through its strategic plan and equity plan. These plans also include essential related actions, like increasing the racial diversity of our teaching staff and developing the skills of culturally-responsive teaching in all staff. We know that each of these will positively impact the academic achievement of students of color – and benefit all students. Now is the time for building momentum – for the follow-through on what we’ve started in order to speed up improvements and eliminate these gaps in student outcomes.
12) How can the school board better assist students who lack broadband access?
This was one of the biggest challenges of remote learning, and even the best solutions we came up with (investing in hotspots) were insufficient for meeting the needs in the most rural parts of the county where phone service is also inconsistent. The Board of County Commissioners’ Broadband Task Force has just recently identified a provider who can expand fiber broadband in the county all the way to peoples’ homes, which is a huge step forward, and hopefully we’ll have more complete information about this soon. As a district, I’d like to see us connect lower-income families to programs that allow this access to be affordable. Even if fiber exists, presumably it won’t be free! A family’s resources shouldn’t prevent them from getting online in ways that are necessary for learning.
13) Is the district currently doing enough to assist disabled students? What more could it do?
I don’t believe so, and I think we can see it in students’ academic outcomes. Some of the things we need to do:
Address turnover of Exceptional Children teachers and TAs: Turnover is highest for these staff members, and stability can be especially important for students receiving EC services.
Establish a Special Needs Advisory Committee: Other school districts have these committees of families, teachers and perhaps students, who work with the district to better support the needs of disabled students. Some early work was done last year, but I don’t believe it’s been established yet. This is really essential! No one can better come up with solutions than the people most directly impacted.
The two areas above are the top priorities. The Advisory Committee will be able to best-identify what specific improvements must be made, via their first-hand experience. However, a few other things that I believe are good opportunities to improve are: 1) Ensuring that students’ evaluations are processed quickly so that students are identified as early as possible, 2) Strengthening the individualized supports that students receive – ensuring that each student’s IEP / 504 is followed, and ensuring that tailored interventions are happening via the MTSS process to ensure that disabled students learn and succeed, and 3) Helping all classroom teachers to better meet the needs of their Exceptional Children students – for example, via team teaching with an EC teacher, opportunities to observe, professional development opportunities, adapted curriculum, etc.
14) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
It has been an honor to serve the students of Orange County Schools over the past four years. They are world-changers. If we stay focused on them, there’s nothing we can’t do.