Name as it appears on the ballot: Meredith Ballew
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.meredithballew.com
Occupation & employer: Currently Stay-at-Home Parent, but Career: Non-Profit Professional
Years lived in the area: Born and raised in Chapel Hill; Moved back in early 2020 after living out of state.
- 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?
As a native of Chapel Hill and proud alumna of CHHS, I would be honored to utilize my skills and experience to serve the district that nurtured me, taught me to think critically, and gave me the tools to succeed in higher education and in life. I am a graduate of Vanderbilt University and hold a master’s degree (MPA-Public Policy Analysis and Non-Profit Management) from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. In addition to holding leadership positions within the YMCA and other non-profit organizations, I have volunteered as PTA president and as a member of the “School Leadership Team” in my children’s previous public school district and served as a parent liaison for Scroggs Elementary School to the Special Needs Advisory Council (“SNAC”). Through these roles, I gained valuable insight into the school budgeting process, HR matters, enrichment programming, Exceptional Children’s policy, and safety/wellness protocols. I am honored to have the support of Equality NC and community leaders including Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, District Attorney Jeff Nieman, former CHCCS Superintendent Neil Pedersen, and former State Representative Verla Insko. I am also proud to have been designated a “Gun Sense Candidate” by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. I believe deeply in the promise of public education and know we can do a better job of harnessing our community’s vast local resources to improve outcomes across our district. Given my background and experience, my lifelong roots in Chapel Hill and CHCCS, and my role as a parent of two school-aged children, I am well-equipped to serve this community and school district. I have the knowledge and level of commitment necessary to stay abreast of the many complex issues facing our district and look forward to contributing to progress in issues of equity, disability services, academic excellence for all, and teacher recruitment and retention.
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?
Overall, I believe we are on the right course in our school district, although progress toward achieving equitable opportunities for all students is slower than I would like to see. To spur progress, I would support expanding proven initiatives like the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program, while simultaneously examining and mitigating the root causes of our district’s persistent opportunity gap.
One specific change I would like to see in our schools is more individualized support for our students with disabilities. Chapel Hill-Carrboro is a community replete with resources and our school system should be at the forefront in providing innovative, responsive services and settings for disabled students. Further, our district must explore how our classrooms can be inclusive spaces for students of all abilities, while still supporting their individual needs through differentiated instruction, alternative teaching methods and community partnerships. Successfully implementing an inclusive culture in classrooms benefits ALL students.
3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?
- The school system should take steps to harness the vast academic, technological, and therapeutic resources we have in this community to dramatically improve the experience of our students, particularly those with disabilities and learning challenges. As a School Board Member, I would work to forge deeper and more meaningful connections between the school system and local universities, institutes (e.g. TEACCH) local government, and technology companies to benefit our students.
- I am passionate about forging a path to equity: we must examine and remediate the racial opportunity gap that has persisted for generations. Specifically, we must ensure that all groups of students can thrive, access advanced coursework and/or supports when needed, and not be disproportionately subject to disciplinary actions. We must also redouble our efforts to recruit teachers and administrators from diverse backgrounds to better reflect our student body.
- We cannot provide an excellent education to our students without attracting and retaining quality teachers, support staff, and administrators. As a Board Member, I will make it a top priority to advocate for increased resources and benefits (both at the state level and via local supplement) for our faculty and staff. We must also provide sufficient opportunities for professional development, career advancement, and staff appreciation.
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 and staffing needs?
Given the NCGA’s apparent determination to siphon public school funding into private and parochial school voucher programs, it is practically impossible for our local district budget to adequately meet its infrastructure and staffing needs. Buildings are aging, teachers and staff remain woefully underpaid, and programs that support struggling students are perpetually underfunded. That being said, our local budget must be a depiction of district priorities; we should carefully assess how well it reflects the priorities laid out in our strategic plan and whether there are efficiencies that can be gained. I am hesitant to question specific priorities in the current budget without being privy to all information, as there are many factors when developing a financial plan and complicating factors due to COVID surely affected numerous line items. However, if elected to the Board of Education, I will always encourage augmenting line items that relate to support for our most vulnerable student populations and those that relate to teacher and staff remuneration.
5. 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? What other policies should lawmakers enact at the state level to strengthen public education?
The refusal of the Republican super-majority in the NCGA to comply with the financial mandates contained within the Leandro decision (and consequently the recommendations laid out in the Leandro Plan) is not surprising, but it is indicative of our state legislature’s complete lack of interest in improving our public schools. Instead, they have prioritized diverting funds from our public school budgets into private and religious schools via voucher programs. Many of the schools receiving voucher funding have little to no oversight on their content, curricula, standards, or operations, some failing to provide even a basic education. Not only should the General Assembly immediately comply with the order in the Leandro case, our state constitution demands it. The fact that our State Legislature has been fighting the Leandro ruling for a literal generation is unconscionable and is letting down our state’s most vulnerable students and perpetuating inequity across our state.
There are many other changes on the state level that must be made to public education. First, a recent report shows that North Carolina currently ranks 34th in the nation in terms of average teacher pay and 46th in the nation in terms of starting teacher pay. It’s no mystery why our state struggles to recruit new teachers and retain veteran teachers. Providing our educators with fair compensation and reasonable benefits for the absolutely essential service they provide to our students is crucial to our ability to recruit and retain excellent educators, it’s an investment in our state’s future succeses…and it’s the right thing to do.
I would also advocate for laws that protect and affirm our LGBTQIA+ students and staff, rather than those that seek to tear them down and delegitimize them. The Legislature should allocate more time and resources supporting our public schools and teachers instead of passing a so-called “Parental Bill of Rights,” which is nothing more than an attempt to censor books, whitewash history and limit the judgment—and compassion—of our teachers.
6. Despite boasting a 94.8 percent graduation rate last academic year, and ranking in the top four percent of all public school districts in the nation, an achievement/opportunity gap still exists between white students and students of color. What specific policies should CHCCS pursue to close this gap?
There are a number of concrete policy changes that could narrow the persistent racial achievement and opportunity gap in our district. Specific recommendations I would support include:
- High-quality, universal Pre-K with age-appropriate and science-based early literacy instruction
- Comprehensive equity and anti-bias education for students, faculty, school board, and staff
- Increased efforts to diversify teaching staff and administrators to better reflect student populations
- Expanded support for initiatives like the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program
- Allocation of increased instructional time for struggling students
- Universal, year-round free breakfast and lunch for all students
- Thoughtful partnerships with community organizations, university departments and institutes, and businesses to deliver proven enrichment programs and services
- Increased use of school facilities as community hubs
- Conscious coordination between teachers, interventionists, administration, students, and families
- Access to advanced course material for all students
- Free, affordable, and accessible early childhood programs, afterschool care, and summer programming
- An equity-based framework for resource allocation, disciplinary policy, and instructional methodology (including gifted student identification)
7. Despite working for CHCCS, many teachers and staff can’t afford to live in Chapel Hill or Carrboro. What role should the school district have in ensuring that affordable housing is available for its workforce?
The lack of affordable housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro has reached a crisis level and teachers and school staff are among those paying the price. Many have been priced out of the district for a long time, and it does not appear that home prices are going to become more affordable anytime soon. The local salary supplement CHCCS teachers receive has fallen in recent years relative to other NC districts, so I would be in favor of increasing it to offset the underwhelming raise schedule included in this year’s state budget.
I would also be supportive of some out of the box solutions when it comes to school employee housing and think the blueprint created by Buncombe County schools (creating affordable employee housing on district property) would be a great place to start the conversation. I have a long professional history of bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders and community leaders to create innovative programs and believe this skillset would come in handy in identifying local non-profit, private sector, and governmental partners to make a project like this a reality.
8. Recently, groups of parents with students in North Carolina public schools have mounted efforts to ban certain books from school classrooms and libraries. How should school boards handle these efforts?
Attempts to ban or censor books are on the rise across the country, typically with the goal of silencing marginalized groups and whitewashing aspects of our history, though presented under the guise of “protecting children.” Many book challenges come not from concerned community members but from national political groups. Such book challenges divert the time and resources of local districts from more pressing concerns. In recent years, a large percentage of the titles on banned book lists have involved LGBTQ+ content. Students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community deserve to see themselves and their families reflected in materials in our schools and libraries in age-appropriate ways. It is therefore crucial to model acceptance of these students and families by normalizing depictions of their lives within our learning institutions.
We have also seen a substantial uptick in attempts to ban and/or censor books written by authors of color and books that depict aspects of America’s racial history. Our students deserve to know the unvarnished truth—not only is it intellectually dishonest to whitewash our history, but it is also extremely harmful to students from historically marginalized backgrounds and disrupts progress towards racial equity.
Reading stories about diverse populations helps students develop empathy, global understanding, and acceptance; it also helps them develop critical thinking skills and the ability to consider issues from multiple perspectives. Given the recent “Parental Bill of Rights” legislation passed by the NCGA, I anticipate book challenges may be more frequent, even in the CHCCS district. While parents have a right to influence what their own children are reading, I do not believe that one parent’s objection should keep certain books out of the hands of all children. Students in our district come from diverse backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities, and perspectives—it is important that our public schools and libraries provide a diversity of culturally relevant and informed materials. There is power in numbers and school boards should consider connecting with boards from like-minded communities across NC to exert pressure on the NCGA to focus more on funding our public schools and less on fearmongering and fanning the flames of bigotry.
9. Do police officers (School Resource Officers) have a role in schools? Please explain your answer.
I think we can all agree that we must take a number of measures to ensure that our schools are safe spaces, particularly in light of the many recent instances of gun violence in schools across the country. However, I am concerned by data that show that the presence of SROs in schools has a negligible impact on reducing violence while measurably increasing disciplinary referrals, in which Black and brown students are disproportionately implicated. I think it is also important to acknowledge and consider the understandable fear many of our minority students have towards law enforcement when making future decisions about SROs in our schools.
I am aware that the district has been in the process of examining the role of SROs in schools and in 2022 the Board voted to keep SROs our middle and high schools, while piloting a program in one middle school that would replace its SRO with additional trained behavioral specialists to respond to crisis situations. I will withhold judgment on the presence of SROs in our schools until the results of this pilot program are shared and I learn more about the specifics of the SRO contract and the scope of their work in our district.
10. CHCCS was able to hire drivers for all bus routes this academic year, but, as with other school districts in the state, it has had a hard time filling transportation vacancies in the past. What steps should the district take to ensure that there are enough bus drivers for all routes in order to get students to school on time going forward?
Many families depend on school bus transportation to get their children to and from school safely each day. Consistent and dependable bus service is even more crucial for low-income families, who are more likely to have inflexible work schedules and less likely to have backup transportation options. Reliable school transportation is an equity issue and we should consider adding transportation-related goals to the Strategic Plan to increase transparency and accountability in this area.
It is of paramount importance that we budget sufficient funds to pay our bus drivers a living wage, fair benefits, and signing bonuses (when needed), acknowledging that positions that require split schedules and part-time hours are often harder to fill than jobs that adhere to a more traditional work schedule. We should also explore creative ways to combine roles for those employees who would like to work a full-time schedule and find positions within schools to supplement their morning/afternoon split schedules when possible.
11. If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
If elected, I promise to carefully and thoughtfully examine every issue that comes before the board through various lenses to consider how different populations may be affected. I cannot promise that I will always know the answer to every problem, but I will do my best to learn from others’ perspectives, amplify voices from minority communities, and respectfully listen to dissenting views. I would be honored to utilize my knowledge, skills, and love for this community to help improve outcomes for ALL our students and hope to earn your vote.
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