Name as it appears on the ballot: Mike Sharp 

Age: 54

Party affiliation: Democrat


Occupation & employer: 4th grade teacher, Durham Public Schools

Years lived in Chapel Hill/Carrboro: 29

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?

I have been a teacher in the district since 2002; I taught at McDougle Elementary and Culbreth Middle. I’m also the parent of four kids who have either gone through the system, or will be soon!

As a veteran teacher in the district, I can bring a unique perspective to the board. District teachers and other staff know the success (and failings) of district policies and initiatives from first-hand experience. The frequent turnover at Lincoln Center means that feedback, as well as data collection and evaluation, are often dropped as the next administrator comes in. The board needs to tap into the institutional memory that long-time staff are preserving.

I’m a champion for racial equity in our schools; we have made shamefully little progress in closing the gap in opportunities provided to our students of color. These issues are deep-seated and will require difficult and courageous conversations and actions to replace it with a system that works for everyone.

I am a spokesperson for our often-overlooked populations. If the conversation turns to athletics, I strive to make sure we’re considering the impact on our transgender students and students with disabilities. Changes to academic policies, for example, should also be viewed from the perspective of our students newly learning English, and our students with learning disabilities. Our LGBTQ+ population should be on our minds when we consider dress codes, bathroom accessibility, or even gendered grouping of kids on trips. It’s not enough to find solutions that work for the majority; we need solutions for every child.

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?

As I mentioned above, we have a really poor history of working to close the “opportunity gap”. Without equity, it seems disingenuous to praise our efforts in dual language, for example, or our often award-winning CTE programs. We can’t really say we’re moving forward until we’ve made real strides to provide each child in our district with the same chances of success, the same opportunities to thrive, the same treatment by all of our community.

As a teacher, I’ve been told since I started in 2002 that we are “working on it”. I’ve seen many programs come and go, some with great promise. I often cite one example: in the mid 2010’s, CHCCS reached out to the students of color, and asked them what strategies they saw in teachers who were truly culturally relevant. Their responses boiled down to a set of six guidelines, called the “student six”, and they were fantastic, including concepts of building trust and relationships, and acknowledging race. When the first of these were shared with the staff, it was with great hoopla from admin and Lincoln Center, a promise to be the next great thing. At my school a committee was formed to help roll out the “six” and we all left the meeting renewed and ready. At the next faculty meeting, however, other issues came up and their time to present strategy #2 was cut drastically. By the end of the year, numbers 3 through 6 came to us in an email. Most people I asked couldn’t even remember them a year later.

We need to be more than simply “working on it”. Our kids deserve a consistent and thorough approach to equity, with no apologies and absolute accountability.

3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?

My top priority is intentional and devoted pursuit of closing that gap, as I mentioned above. Staff training, community education, expectations and accountability, need to be unwavering and precise. Second, we have an immediate and growing staffing crisis. We unfortunately waited until we were in crisis before addressing our need for substitute teachers, bus drivers, and other essential positions. We need to look long-term at hiring (and retaining) staff in positions at every level of our district. Third, we have an obligation to ensure that we are providing a “sound basic education” to every one of our students. Regardless of whether the general assembly agrees to follow the Leandro ruling, Chapel Hill Carrboro knows it’s the right thing to do.

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?

As I’ve said above, I believe our current staffing shortages could have been foreseen, before it got to the place we are today. It’s not sufficient or accurate to blame COVID; we’ve been short on drivers and substitutes in the past. Teachers and other staff are being asked to cover the gaps, at the risk of their own mental health. Students and families are taking the hit with longer bus routes, and poorer families who cannot choose their mode of transportation are forced to accept it.

We need to guarantee each school at least two full-time employees to act as permanent substitutes. Whether we like it or not, we know that classes suffer when a teacher needs to be absent for any reason. Teachers cannot plan for an unknown person to come in and seamlessly continue the work that’s been building all semester. But if we knew the person, had contact with them before and during the absence, felt assured they knew how to operate the classroom equipment, and knew that they had a relationship with the students, we would be much more trusting of their instruction being successful in our absence.

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?

My quick summary: CRT is a theory from graduate programs, decades ago, which looked at ways in which current public policies were shaped (intentionally or not) by racist beliefs and practices. Now clearly, a graduate level concept is not being taught in our K-12 schools, but critics in the last year latched on to the theory as the embodiment of what they consider “woke” culture: that learning our racist history wakes our kids up to the idea that whites are racist (and intentionally keeping people of color down). They suggest that we are making white students feel responsible and guilty for our racist past.

Our lieutenant governor stoked these fears even more so by claiming (with no proof) that leftist teachers are “indoctrinating” our students to become democrats, and thus to hate America. He then set out to collect evidence (spoiler: he didn’t find any) and pushed his accusations into HB324. I am 100% against the ideas in said bill, and am insulted as a teacher that he would defame us in this way just to stir up more followers.  I’m proud of Governor Cooper for standing up for teachers, and reminding us all that school policy should not be the playground for partisan politics.

The most ridiculous piece, in my opinion, of trying to legislate the teaching of race in our schools is the idea that we, as teachers, stand in front of our students and just “tell” them stuff. This is such an antiquated view of education. We present students with first-hand accounts, with documents, with data, with personal narratives. We ask them to evaluate and to coalesce. We build critical thinkers. What the students might decide about our history is entirely in their hands, not mine. And if students feel uncomfortable with the discussion, we’re ready for that too because we’ve built relationships and know how to help students separate discomfort from guilt.

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. 

Absolutely. Unlike those of many other states, our founders decided to write in our constitution that everyone deserved a sound education. It’s our moral obligation to do this anyway, but having it in the constitution makes it a mandate even for those who would prefer to remain in the status quo. We know that resources are not distributed equitably – there was an agency hired specifically to study that. We have to be willing to spend the money – or in this case move the money around – to make that happen. One of the actions proposed by the study which I’m most excited to see happen is providing much more early childhood education to families who need it the most!

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? 

Through this campaign I’ve been hesitant to criticize any decisions made during the pandemic, as we all were in new territory with little to no precedent to help with decisions. As a staff member, I most appreciated that the board usually steered in the direction of caution and safety for our staff. First, that they put the decisions into the hands of experts and allowed science to guide their decisions, rather than bowing to the will of strongly-complaining community members (as we’ve seen happened in other NC districts). Second, that they allowed for those of us with medical conditions to continue to work from home. And third, that they recognize and support that developing social and emotional needs is of paramount importance for our successful recovery from all the lost time.

One area where I was disappointed was at the start of the current school year. Although in May and June, it looked as if we might return to “normal” in the fall. When the delta variant changed that picture, it appeared that we were scrambling to figure it all out. There should have been a plan B in place for just such a situation; we certainly had enough time to work on it prior to August, and yet we still appeared to wait in case it just went away.

Similarly, I’ve been pleased as a teacher that our state did not take extreme measures that we saw happen in other parts of the country. Governor Cooper and his staff followed science and put safety first, and as a staff member I appreciate that. I’m disappointed that they seem to have caved to pressure on the monthly mask decisions, and I hope this won’t continue.

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?

We’ve moved away from calling this phenomenon the “achievement gap” because that implies that students of color are not performing as well. In fact the gap is with opportunities provided; for example, white kids are about 4 times more likely to be placed in gifted programs. To understand this phenomenon, we need to look into the concept of unconscious bias. Teachers might have an idea of what “gifted” looks like in their classroom – or a “definition” handed down to them – which is skewed to white students and their typical behaviors. NOTE this does not mean the teacher is biased or racist; instead, it shows that the system needs fixing.

One stunning example is the fact that, in our district, black students are almost 16 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. When teachers are given discipline forms which include subjective behaviors (“disrespect”, for example, or“talking back”) then unconscious bias can result in the label being applied to behaviors in students of color, and ignored in white students. Two white girls talking during a lesson might be “gossiping,” while two brown girls showing the same behavior are “disruptive”.

In order to begin changing systems such as these, we need all the players – community, admin, and staff – to get more training on racial equity, until we can can all accept that (1) these biases exit and are causing inequity, and (2) that we’re not assigning blame when we do this. Only then can we move forward to repair.

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?

Oops, sorry I answered this in the last question! Here it is again:

When teachers are given discipline forms which include subjective behaviors (“disrespect”, for example, or“talking back”) then unconscious bias can result in the label being applied to behaviors in students of color, and ignored in white students. Two white girls talking during a lesson might be “gossiping,” while two brown girls showing the same behavior are “disruptive”.

In order to begin changing systems such as these, we need all the players – community, admin, and staff – to get more training on racial equity, until we can can all accept that (1) these biases exit and are causing inequity, and (2) that we’re not assigning blame when we do this. Only then can we move forward to repair.

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?

I’ve worked with many SROs over the years. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on their abilities or their intentions, but I do not think there is a place in our school for them. First and foremost, it’s because we live in a world where black and brown people are treated inequitably by police officers. The idea that students might “play a pick-up game with an SRO and realize that cops can be nice” is totally overshadowed by what our students see playing out in the news, affecting their families, and – yes – even in our schools. Until we live in a world where no one lives in fear of an officer of the law, we do not need their presence in our schools.

Many argue that SROs are beneficial for handling discipline. I would say the opposite is true. Our teachers are trained to identify kids in crisis, and to talk them down before it gets out of control. We know restorative practices and de-escalation techniques. And above all, we build relationships with our students so that they trust us when we need to intervene. If I have a discipline problem and someone calls in an SRO, then I have lost that kid’s trust forever. I have become part of an unfair system that was making them angry in the first place. And that student inches ever closer to the school-to-prison pipeline.

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?

We have made progress in improving the diversity of our school staff, but we still have a ways to go for it to truly reflect the community. Students need to see people who look like them in positions of authority and guidance. We have a reputation as the finest school system in the state and we need to aggressively plan to make employment here as appealing as possible to every candidate. We need more competitive signing bonuses and supplements, as well as aid in finding affordable housing in the area. With a larger base of prospective staff wanting to interview and work here, we will be better able to choose a more diverse staff. In addition, we need to be able to show a clear focus and value of racial and gender equity in our schools, so that prospective diverse hires see that this would be a safe and fulfilling place for them to settle down!

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 has done a great job of providing wireless hotspots to families who lack internet service at home. This was vitally important during remote learning to keep all our kids connected and growing as much as we were able. In the wake of tha experience, we have all become much more tech savvy than we were before. There are tools which were absolutely necessary during remote learning that we can now see have value in-person as well! Presentation assistants like peardeck, for example, gave every student the chance to still participate; now it allows teachers to gather data on everyone during class simultaneously, rather than calling on one student. As we continue to explore all the ways these news inflows of technology can enable our students, we will be even more prepared for a potential return to online teaching, should it occur again in the future.

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

One of the most important stressors weighing on our teachers is the concept of a “full plate”. Through my career, we’ve been asked on a regular basis to add one more, then one more, then one more again. Complaining about the plate already being full is often shut down as not being a team player. One of the  best things the district could do to support our teachers is to more explicitly define the expectations for time, work loads, coverage of other teachers, and guaranteed breaks during the day. Any further additions to the plate would need to be accompanied with something else being lifted. This would often involve hiring additional staff; please see my comments above about how we should be budgeting for permanent substitutes.

14) How can the school district better assist refugee students?

One of the main services we should be providing for refugee families is housing assistance. We can partner with many agencies around town who are already doing this kind of work. We should use the structure of our “newcomer” classrooms to help students learn the most important school-readiness skills first, and also to connect these families with others who share the same culture, who might have already moved here and can offer some guidance and friendship. Perhaps most importantly, we can publicly support and reinforce a welcoming attitude in our publicity and outreach, to help educate the community about its newest members.

15) Is the district currently doing enough to assist disabled students? What more could it do?

There are a few issues which I keep circling back to, and one of them is staffing. I’ve already mentioned a need for permanent substitutes at each school so we are not stretched too thinly, and nowhere is that more apparent than in our EC departments. We have a legal obligation to serve students a certain number of hours, and schools fill the caseloads of EC teachers to the brim. When a teacher is absent, then, everyone scrambles to make up for missed service time. EC assistants are often pulled to help in gen-ed classes, leaving our already over-loaded teachers struggling even more. And any newly-arrived or newly-identified students will need to be added to the caseloads as well, usually without hiring additional staff mid-year. Our staffing practices for EC departments need to recognize these ongoing struggles (as well the potential lawsuits that might accompany non-compliance!) and staff our schools with a surplus of qualified EC staff, to allow for coverage that includes a buffer for missed sessions and for future incoming students.

16) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here. 

There was an issue in our schools at the beginning of this year which concerned me greatly, and it seems to be part of a new wave of conservative backlash in our country. One of our principals decided to paint over a pride flag which had been painted by a teacher in their room. Apparently the principal worried that the flag might make someone feel uncomfortable. 

Similar to the lieutenant governor’s “indoctrination” message, this wave of outcry claims that teachers and staff are forcing liberal views on our kids. But the message of posting a pride flag in a school is to announce that this is a safe space for everyone. This happened in one of our middle schools, and I can tell you from experience that most middle school children are struggling to define themselves. We know suicide rates among teens drop when they feel they are welcomed and included. It takes a special kind of hate to think that LGBTQ+ people are so wrong that we can’t even welcome them. We need to revisit our policies on symbols of hate in our schools, and designate those that we agree are welcome at our schools as well.

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