Name as it appears on the ballot: George Griffin
Party affiliation: Democrat
Occupation & employer: Educator – Retired
Years lived in Chapel Hill/Carrboro: 50
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?
During my 46-year career in education I have been a special education teacher, high school principal, program director at the local and state levels, professor in Educational Leadership at NCCU, and for the past ten years an evaluator/accreditor of schools and school districts in 25 states (including NC) and ten foreign countries. I would bring multiple perspectives and experience to the board.
My educational background includes:
• B.A., Sociology, Duke, 1971
• M.Ed., Special Education, Duke, 1975
• Ph.D., Special Education, UNC-CH, 1984
I have lived in Chapel Hill for 40 years. Both of my adult children attended CHCCS schools Kindergarten-Grade 12. Serving on the school board is a way of both giving back to the community and paying it forward. I want to make a positive difference today, as well as leave the district in stronger shape for the future. I believe that a strong public education system is a bedrock of our democracy. Public education has been under attack for several decades. It is past time to put a stop to that and begin to strengthen it.
My priorities include:
• Implement systemic changes to eliminate the racial opportunity gap.
• Ensure that our basic education program (Pre-K – Grade 12) is sound and well-resourced for all students (i.e., focus our priorities on the classroom).
• Develop a realistic plan to address significant unfunded capital improvement needs.
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?
Things will never be on the right course until students of all races and ethnicities are provided equal opportunities for success. The persistent racial opportunity gap requires some systemic changes – changes in district-wide practices. Black students are under-identified in programs for Academically/Intellectually Gifted students. Out-of-school suspension rates are significantly higher for black students. An unofficial tracking system has persisted whereby students of color take classes with lower levels of rigor and expectations for performance. This won’t be an easy fix by any means, as it will necessarily raise issues related to cultural changes.
The system has identified nine schools as having significant repair and renovation needs. The price tag just for these projects will be in the $200-300 million range and going up. Although the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) has identified $30 million in funds (shared between two districts), much more will need to be developed. I intend to work closely with the BoCC to develop a reasonable plan to address these unfunded capital improvement needs.
3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?
1) Racial opportunity gap.
2) Unfunded and significant capital improvement projects (major repairs and renovations).
3) Plans and services to address lost learning time due to the pandemic, as well as a plan for effective remote instruction.
Additionally, I will urge the new school board to take a “step back” from being immersed in a myriad of ongoing decisions and actions and be certain the day-to-day management of the district is left to the administrators. In conjunction with the community, the board needs to develop a cohesive set of core beliefs or values that will drive future decision-making. In my work with school boards across the country I have seen many examples of high functioning and successful boards. In each case, the respective board had a clear set of values that informed major decision-making.
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?
• The board’s budget was developed this year using a zero-based process (as compared to a continuation budget process). Although many items are categorical and not subject to discretionary use, programs locally funded (Fund 2) need to be thoroughly reviewed for effectiveness. Teachers have reported for years that the district frequently implements programs, but often doesn’t stay with them over time before adding another one. There may be some significant cost-savings in discontinuing ineffective programs, with the money being spent to enhance basic classroom instruction.
• The budget supports students from lower income as well as wealthier students. By NC standards, the CHCCS is well-resourced.
• The budget does not adequately address the district’s infrastructure needs. This is a major issue. The district has previously identified nine schools as needing significant repair and renovation, and there are insufficient funds available for this. Significant collaborative work is needed with the BoCC in order to develop a feasible short-term and long-term capital needs funding plan.
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 a scholarly framework of research and ideas that evolved in the 70’s and 80’s when some legal scholars began to question why racism persisted despite the prevalence of laws and policies to the contrary. The focus of CRT is on the many social, legal, and cultural structures that exist to support a white dominated culture, rather than a focus on individuals as racists. In 2002 when I was on the faculty at NCCU we spent many hours developing a framework around these questions for use in our teacher and school administrator training programs. At one point I wrote an Op-Ed piece for The News & Observer about my own realizations of my white male privilege and its impact on my career as an educator. This was a response to a report issued by the N.C. Commission on Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps. Here is a relevant passage from the column: “I am suggesting that those in the predominately white power structure begin some open and honest dialogue about rethinking some of our fundamental beliefs. One of the tenets of critical race theory is that the white power structure will allow those in the minority to do just about anything until it threatens our very own (white) way of doing things. I have seen this many times.”
CRT is not “taught” in our public schools. The questions CRT raises about institutionalized racial disadvantage and systemic racial inequality need to be taught.
House Bill 324 is a travesty. It is yet another example of the intrusion of politics into our education system. It appears to me that it was written to appease a segment of the far right-wing membership of the Republican party. Some of the items don’t even make any sense, and it imposes an ever-growing list of restrictions on the schools (e.g., give 30-day notice when a certain curriculum is to be covered). I would never support such a bill. Never.
6) Should the state legislature comply with the Leandro mandate, its constitutional obligation to fully fund public schools? Please answer yes or no and explain your answer.
Yes. The North Carolina Constitution states, “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” Article IX: Section 2 addresses the duty of the state and local government to provide a uniform system of free public schools “…wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” It is also state law (N.C.G.S. 115C-1) that: “A general and uniform system of free public schools shall be provided throughout the State, wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students, in accordance with the provisions of Article IX of the Constitution of North Carolina.”
In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court (Leandro v. State, 346 N.C. 336) determined that all children in NC are entitled to a “sound basic education,” and are not receiving it. The phrase “sound basic education” was defined to include: 1) sufficient ability to read, write, speak English and sufficient knowledge of fundamental math and physical science to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing society, 2) sufficient fundamental knowledge of geography, history, basic economic and political systems to enable students to make informed choices about issues that affect the student (personally, or in the student’s community, state, and nation), and 3) sufficient academic and vocational skills to enable the student to successfully engage in post-secondary education or vocational training and to compete with others in further formal education or gainful employment.
Superior Court Judge David Lee has now given state lawmakers “one more last chance” to meet their constitutional obligation to provide students in North Carolina with a sound basic education. He is expecting them to allocate almost $700 million in mid-October. The current General Assembly is balking despite having a reported surplus revenue amount of approximately $7 billion.
7) How has the State Board of Education and CHCCS board handled the COVID-19 pandemic overall? Has the state/CHCCS provided enough assistance to teachers when they have to work remotely? What more could have been done, or should be done, in future? Should school boards continue to have to vote each month on whether students should wear masks in schools?
Overall, the boards have handled the pandemic as best they could. In the early going (beginning in March 2020) there was frequent confusion throughout the country about how to deal with the Covid-19 virus. In hindsight when mistakes occurred the boards erred on the side of caution. Since the inception of the vaccine, both boards have been clearer about their policies and procedures.
Teachers have not been given enough assistance to work remotely. In-person instruction and remote learning are two very different teaching strategies. Teachers will continue to need “best practices” training and support for future remote instruction on a large scale.
School boards absolutely should not be required to vote monthly on mask mandates. From the political party that champions “keep the government out of my life”, this is hypocritical and overreach. And it simply provides a monthly forum for protests and theatrics that are occurring far too often.
8) In what ways can CHCCS work to erase racial inequities in the education system? How can the Racial Equity Impact Assessment tool be better used to guide CHCCS in setting policies? How can the district make student achievement more equitable?
Eliminating the racial opportunity gap in the CHCCS schools will require some significant systemic changes in practice. By third grade students are being identified, grouped together and quite literally segregated from each other. The schools are integrated, but there is a de facto tracking process. Almost 30% of all students are identified as AIG, however the rates for black students are significantly lower than for white students. The result has been a segregation process. The board has approved steps in recent years to address this under-identification, however little progress has occurred. Many community members see this as a zero-sum situation and the board will need to examine that reality as well.
Black students are suspended out-of-school at far higher rates than white students. Teachers and administrators will continue to need significant training in alternatives to suspension.
Bottom line, district leaders will have to step up and support the structural changes needed. Use of the Racial Impact Assessment Tool is a start. The recent hiring of a Chief Equity and Engagement Officer can serve as the clearinghouse for very specific changes in practice.
9) Last year, Black CHCCS students were almost 14 times more likely than white students to receive short-term suspensions. Why do you believe that is? In what ways can the district address this disparity?
In 1993, I was a teacher at Phillips Middle School in the district. One afternoon in the early fall, the new principal (Mr. Alton Cheek) stopped by my classroom. I remember the conversation to this day. He said, “George, I’ve observed something about this school. When black students get in trouble in class they are sent to the office. When white students get in trouble they are sent to guidance.” So, one thing needing investigation is which teachers and principals are involved with the inordinate number of suspensions. As a former school principal, I know that these “data” are available. Specific individualized teacher/administrator training is needed. Secondly, the Code of Conduct matrix continues to need revisiting as certain levels of misbehavior call for automatic out-of-school suspensions. There needs to be some degree of administrator flexibility in the code.
I have conducted many “Alternatives to Suspension” training programs for teachers and administrators, so I know they exist. There are specific strategies and practices that need to be in place in each school in lieu of suspensions.
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 CHCCS?
School Resource Officers are not needed in all schools. The broader issue is better described as school safety. First and foremost, schools must be safe learning environments. Safe includes both physical and emotional safety. School safety issues and how to best address them require a total team commitment from all the adults in any school. It is wishful thinking to expect an SRO to be the one individual who can keep a school safe.
Beginning with the principal and administrative team, a successful school safety plan requires the participation of the entire faculty, staff and supporting agencies. Viewpoints of individuals need to be genuinely considered. For example, black students report higher rates of undesirable interactions with SRO’s. It is incumbent on school administrators to act on this reality, rather than merely acknowledge it. A School Resource Officer (SRO) may be a vital and important part of the plan; however, this is not automatic.
The current review of the role of the SRO in our schools should occur in the context of the overall safety plan at each school. I would like to see the discussion focus on the safety plan at each school, and not on whether or not SRO’s are needed. The SRO may play a vital role; however, it needs to be as part of the overall team, and not done in an isolated manner. I have seen many situations nationwide where the administration and/or staff abdicated some of their responsibilities for school safety because there was an SRO in the building.
SROs have no place in handling routine student discipline issues. That is the job of the school administration and faculty. So, the common question of, “Should we have SROs in our schools?” is better framed as “How can an SRO assist in our overall safety plan?” and then go from there to make decisions on a school-by-school basis.
11) Research has shown that increasing teacher and staff diversity can improve education outcomes. What do you think of the faculty/staff diversity in CHCCS? If you believe increasing faculty diversity should be a priority, how do you believe the district should go about it?
The faculty/staff diversity does not match that of the community/student population. For starters, the Human Resources department needs to reflect the diversity in the district. The local Asian, Black, and Latinx communities need to be actively involved in working with the district leadership to attract faculty/staff of color. These communities are needed to help identify recruiting strategies and sources and become actively involved in interviewing. Also, and this is the challenge, our culture needs to become more inviting to persons of color.
12) How can the school board better assist students who lack broadband access? Is the district better prepared than before if it has to move learning online again?
The district identified Wi-Fi spots throughout the area for those without home internet. Local companies (e.g., AT&T, Spectrum) provided discounted, time-limited services. In terms of leveling the playing field, internet access will be needed at each child’s house, thereby raising the issue of funding. This is one of those structural changes needed if CHCCS is to truly have a level playing field. It is incumbent upon the district to continue refining and developing its online learning protocols and resources.
13) How should the school district address the mental health concerns for students, teachers, and staff that we have seen arise during the pandemic? What, if any, mental health services should schools provide?
The district reported that, “During the period of remote learning, a social and emotional learning (SEL) universal screener and attendance measures were used to assess student social needs and level of engagement.” During the pandemic, mental health specialists have been able to offer additional counseling sessions to students to address needs varying from dealing with acute stress and trauma to increasing executive functioning skills. Data gathered has supported the need for additional mental health specialists at the four middle schools.
The district also has in place a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework that allows it to screen all students on a regular basis. As I’ve listened to staff and parents during the past several months, it appears that the MTSS process is not universally effective in every school, so this would be a place for improvement.
14) How can the school district better assist refugee students?
The district has established a robust Newcomer program for English Language Learner (ELL) students. Services include an actual Newcomer Program Center where student’s entire days are built around their individualized needs. At one time students were started in one of the school newcomer programs, however, a more personalized level of service was needed and so this center was established.
15) Is the district currently doing enough to assist disabled students? What more could it do?
The district works hard to address the needs of all students, including special needs students. The local Student Needs Advisory Council (SNAC) works closely with district staff to connect parents and students with appropriate and effective services. There has been a reduction in the number of teacher assistants over the past several years that has created some difficulties. Additionally, the MTSS process reportedly varies in effectiveness among the schools.
16) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
The school system needs to work hard on connections with the community. Transparency in communication is essential. CHCCS is a well-resourced system and needs to truly be a community partner, working with town Parks and Rec departments and Transportation departments to provide access to services that are mutually beneficial. I look forward to becoming a part of representing the schools in our community.
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