Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Donna D. Coffey
Legal name, if different: Donna Dean Coffey
Date of Birth: 07/12/1959
Mailing address: PO Box 119, Efland, NC 27243
Campaign Web Site: www.coffey4ocs.com
Occupation & Employer: Retired from Orange County Local Government; Currently Employed NC State Board of Registered Environmental Health Specialist Examiners
Home Phone: (919) 304-6839
Twitter handle, if applicable: @coffey4ocs
1. What are three most important issues facing Orange County? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?
NC Legislative View/Support of Public Education
In my opinion, one of the greatest issues facing Orange County Schools and public education in North Carolina today is the negative criticism coming from our own General Assembly. While North Carolina’s legislative commitment to public education may have waxed and waned in past years, there has never been a time when legislative sentiment has been as demoralizing as it is right now. Every day legislators openly attack public schools. They paint pictures of ineffective schools, unworthy teachers and underperforming students. These negative views seem to have caught fire, and the rhetoric has prompted grossly inaccurate statements and assumptions about public education to abound throughout the State.
Legislators continue to push public schools to move forward, yet all the while, the General Assembly’s funding commitment is just the reverse. Instead of investing in and valuing our public schools, legislators constantly hand us unfunded mandates and funnel public tax dollars to private for profit schools via vouchers. In addition, they annually increase the number of publically funded charter schools and afford those schools flexibilities that “traditional” public schools are denied. All without any accountability. What is happening now at the State level – diverting $11 million from the already underfunded public school budget to the new School Voucher Program – is the opposite of what public schools across the state need in order to serve all of our students and improve our schools.
According to the National Education Association, North Carolina currently ranks 48th among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in terms of our per-student support for K-12 public schools. That is down from 45th last year. What an embarrassment! While I agree that money is not the “be all end all,” it is clear that sufficient funding is a requirement to improving achievement and preparing students for success in life beyond school. Too often, severely limited funding requires local school districts to choose between funding day-to-day operations and maintaining/repairing aging school buildings.
I believe that we can strengthen public education in North Carolina through finding common ground when it comes to educating our children and supporting our teachers. In short, law/policy makers, educators, parents and communities must put students first instead of holding their education and future in abeyance for the sake of partisanship.To that end, I would like to say that we are fortunate, and I am proud, to live in a community that has a strong tradition of supporting public education. Orange County Commissioners have historically made difficult decisions year after year in an effort to support both school districts in our County. I will continue to advocate strongly for the needs of our District both at the local level as well as at the State level.
Success for All Students
Our District has a long and thriving history of offering opportunities to all students. Unlike charter and private schools, we, as public schools, must serve every child that comes through our doors regardless of their needs – that is the fundamental beauty of what makes public education great. In order for our students to be successful, it is important that we recognize that our student demographics are changing. For example, the number of students who require specialized services is increasing; our Hispanic/Latino population is increasing; the number of children growing up in poverty is increasing – I could go on, but you see the trend. In addition to serving more diverse children and families, we must also carry on and improve programs that encourage and strengthen those we have traditionally served.
Again, while spending alone cannot guarantee student achievement, increased performance and success are dependent on our fiscal investments. Our District has invested in, and I will continue to support, programs that lead to better performance and safe learning environments for all students. For example: (1) focusing on literacy initiatives at all levels; (2) recruiting minority teachers and those with diverse backgrounds; (3) maintaining a strong Pre-Kindergarten program; (4) safeguarding our technical and vocational education programs; (5) expanding our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum; (6) placing School Resource Officers (SROs) at elementary, middle and high schools; and (7) investing in our digital learning initiatives such providing laptops for each student in grades 3 through 12 and other handheld devices for special needs/education.
Teacher/Staff Morale and Retention
Historically, teachers have been underpaid and overworked. However, today we know that it is worse than ever. It is becoming more and more challenging to recruit dedicated teachers. Based on information currently available to me, North Carolina now sits at about $10,000 less per teacher than the national average and ranks 48th in the nation for teacher pay. It will take a beginning teacher 15 years on the State salary scale to make $40,000 per year. All too often, we hear stories about teachers who must take second jobs just to make ends meet. Unfortunately, many excellent teachers leave the profession for higher-paying, less stressful jobs despite their heart’s desire to stay in the classroom.
Each year, expectations and responsibilities placed upon teachers become more complex, and I firmly believe that educators deserve a compensation plan that respects them and values their contributions to our children and our community. Not only are students our future – teachers are our future too. Our state and just as importantly, our community, must choose to invest in our teachers and support staff. My record shows that I have always supported teachers and other employees, and I will continue to do so.
2. What is your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Orange County School Board? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.
(I assume that this should reference Orange County Schools Board of Education and not Orange County Board of Commissioners.)
In 2009, I retired from Orange County Local Government after almost thirty years of public service. During my tenure, I served in a number of finance and budget-related positions with my last appointment being Budget Director – a management position that I held for more than twelve years. In that capacity, I oversaw the multi-million dollar day-to-day operating budget and ten-year Capital Investment Plan for the County. Since about fifty percent of the County’s resources historically have been dedicated to funding local school districts, I gained much insight into school finances, policies and needs. In addition, I also served as staff advisor to a number of Commissioner-appointed committees related to school operational and capital needs and funding. I also served on, and learned much from, several state committees dedicated to public education and local taxation and finance. I also participated in a number of strategic planning and visioning processes for the County.
Since my election to the Orange County Schools Board of Education in 2010, I have been a fair-minded, tireless advocate for our students, parents, teachers, district and community. I understand that the Board’s role is to set policy and hire/direct the Superintendent. It is not a Board member’s role to “get into the weeds” and micromanage. During my first year on the Board, I served as Vice Chair. Each year since that time, I have been humbled that my fellow board members have elected me to serve as their Board Chair. In addition, during my Board tenure, I have served on the North Carolina School Boards Association Legislative Committee as well as the Association’s Risk Management Board, and in 2012, the School Boards’ Association appointed me to its All-State School Board.
Equally as important as the aforementioned things, as a mother of three children who either have graduated from or currently attend schools in our district, I am in a position to view items that come before the Board through the lens of a parent and caregiver.
3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
I am running for this position, because I believe our community as a whole, regardless of partisanship, deserves hard-working, dedicated leaders who focus on the educational success of ALL children rather than on individual constituencies. Parents, students, teachers, administrators and community members trust school leaders to make sound decisions that will positively influence children and our community, and my goal is to do the right thing for ALL and for the good of the entire school district and community as a whole. I have always kept my eye on the “big picture” and am open-minded, respectful and fair in my decisions rather than aligning with one political ideology or another, and I will continue to do so.
4. A recent national report ranked the average teacher pay in NC at 46th in the nation. Considering that pitfall and ongoing tumult in the N.C. General Assembly over education funding and teacher tenure, how do you recruit and retain quality teachers in the school system?
There is no doubt that in order for our district to recruit and retain the best, diverse and brightest staff, Orange County Schools needs to take positive steps to attract them. While the State determines what our Board can and cannot do with State dollars, our Board has more options and flexibility when it comes to our local budget funded by Commissioners. Our Board needs to continue putting our best foot forward with local dollars to ensure that our salaries, supplements, professional development and benefits are competitive with other counties throughout our State and with other states.
We also need to show our staff that we support them by working towards repeal of ill-conceived legislation such as Senate Bill 402 (elimination of tenure bill). Senate Bill 402 eliminates “career status” protections afforded to veteran teachers, and requires school districts to identify 25 percent of high-performing teachers (as defined by the legislation) and offer them new four-year contracts. The enticement for those who accept the new contract is a $500 annual salary increase for each year of the four-year contract. However, in exchange, those teachers lose their tenure or “career status.” Never mind the fact that lawmakers have handed school districts another unfunded mandate as the General Assembly provided funding for only one year of the four-year plan leaving future funding in question.
Teacher tenure has served our State’s education system since 1971. Unfortunately, many current lawmakers mistakenly view “career status” and “job security” as one and the same when, in fact, the most important components of “career status” centers around a teacher’s right to due process and salary protection.
I believe that we should do the right thing and treat all of our staff, in particular teachers, fairly. It is a matter of principle. I wholeheartedly applaud efforts to improve teacher pay, but I also know that there are better, more positive options than the one that the General Assembly has handed us. I want our district to be in a position to reward all high performing teachers and not be limited to only a select 25 percent.
In addition, we must take a big picture snapshot and make sure that we are doing all that is within our power make OCS a learning environment where teachers and other staff members want to work and live. As I stated earlier, we must join with community partners, including our County Commissioners, to offer local funded incentives to bring the best and the brightest to our district.
5. Considering funding cuts at the state level, how do you shape a budget that maintains the school system’s reputation for quality, innovative education?
We have to be mindful that funding for our schools comes from the taxpayers of this county and our state. Our district is a very diverse one – one where people work hard for their money and needs are vast, and we need to ensure them that we are excellent and resourceful stewards of the investment that they make into our school district.
One of the best examples of our district’s steps in that forward direction is our One-to-One Laptop Initiative. Our Board took a bold step almost two years ago when we launched that program. We recognized that we were never going to be in a position to sustain all of the demands coming our way if we didn’t start thinking “out of the box.” Textbook dollars from the State have essentially dwindled down to almost nothing per student – case-in-point, year before last the State gave us $1 per student for textbooks, and as a point of reference, a set of textbooks costs, on average, between $250 and $1,000 per student per year depending on grade level and particular needs. With that information in mind, our Board determined that the only way that we could move forward was to figure out a way to offer up-to-date textbooks for a reasonable amount of money.
Thanks to the voters of Orange County who approved the 2011 ¼-Cent Sales Tax Referendum, our District has been able to provide laptop computers to each one of our third through twelfth graders. The laptops allow students to be on equal footing with textbooks and have current resources readily available. The initial investment was less than $650 per laptop, and with regular technical updates, we anticipate the laptops have about a five-year useful life. While we have continued to pay for a select few textbooks, many of our lessons are now available on-line for our students.
6. Recent changes to the SAT scoring system have made the essay question optional and reduced the emphasis on tough vocabulary words in an effort to make long-time testing system more modern and fair. What do you think about the changes? What else can be done to make the college prep testing process fairer for all students?
I applaud the proposed changes, as I believe that they bring a level of reality and fairness to the exam. The proposed practical, current day changes promise to better gauge student achievement. In my opinion, all tests, not just the SAT, need to be reviewed and modernized on a regular basis. I have always questioned whether students perform at their best during an anxiety filled four-hour test especially when the outcome of the exam would determine their academic future. It seems to me that the test is a relatively low interpretation of how well a student would perform in college and thus in life. While the majority of colleges and universities still require either the SAT or ACT, others are beginning to question whether these tests should be considered the most important factor in determining admission. In my opinion, test scores should be only one tool in the toolbox and not the one essential element that determines whether a college admits a student or not.
Historically, students whose families could afford expensive SAT prep often performed better on the test than those who could not afford the special training. I have read that, as an answer, there is a move afoot by the College Board to collaborate with Kahn Academy, a free internet-based tutoring resource, to prep students for the test. I believe this step will help level the field and make college acceptance more accessible to all. With our district’s implementation of the One-to-One Laptop Initiative, many of our teachers have found Kahn Academy to be an excellent tool to enhance classroom lessons. With that in mind, I believe the College Board is to be commended for “thinking out of the box” to make these tools available to all students.
7. Anti-bullying campaigns have become popular in the wake of numerous school shootings in recent years. Would you further the anti-bullying campaign in Orange County Schools?
Every child deserves to come to school and feel safe. Children come to us for an education, yet in reality, many count on us to feed them their only meal for the day while others find their classroom a place of personal comfort and a safe haven. Bullying should never happen, but sadly and unfortunately, it does. It happens at school and not at school. It occurs throughout adulthood. Bullying is a societal issue, and it affects individuals for a lifetime. Identifying acts of bullying has become more complex, because the social media explosion has taken it to an entirely new level with cyber bullying.
Our District currently has awareness programs that engage students in recognizing bullying behavior and informing them of actions to take if they witness or experience bullying. In moving forward, we should task our School Safety Office and our School Resource Officers to collaborate on opportunities to strengthen our anti-bullying campaign. Examples of these opportunities might include (1) continuing to heighten everyone’s awareness of what bullying “looks like,” (2) not brushing off bullying as “kids are just being kids” or “they will grow out of it,” and (3) involving students as peer advocates and seeking their input as we, as a District with a united front, stand up to bullying.
8. Identify a principled stand you would be willing to take if elected, even if it cost you popularity points with voters.
Being a school board member is not an easy job as every decision that you make affects someone’s child or someone’s job. I have taken principled stands on a number of issues since my election in 2010, and I have stood my ground, because I know, in my heart, that it is the right thing to do. Two instances quickly come to mind – the first is supporting Orange County’s successful ¼-cent sales tax referendum in 2011 and the other is standing against the anti-public school and teacher related legislation coming out of Raleigh.
There are many in our district who do not believe that the County and both Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools need more money – especially if the money comes from a tax increase. I, on the other hand, believe in the need to invest in the future of our community both through our children and through economic development, and I worked hard with fellow school board members from both districts and Orange County Commissioners to get voters to approve the sales tax increase in 2011. The outcome for our district is very tangible as we are using our share of the sales tax proceeds to fund our One-to-One Laptop Initiative.
The current majority sentiment in Raleigh is anti-public education, and that belief is detrimental to our children, to our teachers and to our state as a whole. I have stood solid with our Board, along with other school districts across the state, in passing resolutions against school vouchers and anti-teacher pay legislation, and I will continue to do so. We must do the fair and right thing – ensure ALL children have access to education in safe, healthy environments.
9. The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?
I try to put myself in other people’s shoes when making decisions. I analyze data and speak with those affected by the outcome of my decision. I also give much thought to the direct impact as well as unintended consequences of my actions. Sometimes my decision may not be the most popular one, but I am willing to stand my ground for what I believe is “right,” “fair,” and “just.” ALL children deserve the best a community can provide for them, and as a school leader, it is my job to ensure that Orange County Schools serves and protects ALL children fairly regardless of socioeconomics, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., because it is the “right” and “just” thing to do. In the end, our entire community benefits.