Richard Monroe, school board candidate, District 8

1.What uniquely qualifies you to serve as a member of the Board of Education?

I feel qualified to serve as a member of the Board of Education based on my 28 years as a classroom teacher and my 12 years as the personnel specialist (teacher recruiter) for the Public Schools of Robeson County. During my teaching career, I was voted Teacher of the Year seven times and was first runnerup for North Carolina Teacher of the Year. During my career as personnel specialist, I also taught the Effective Teacher Training Program for our school system. I was the first president of the Robeson Association of Educators and served three terms in that office. I am very familiar with the inner workings of the central office, the schools themselves, and have had many interactions with the school board over the years.

2. As a challenger, what do you see as the No. 1 failing of the current school board in general? What would you do to try and correct that failing?

This question addresses the No. 1 failing of the current school board “in general.” The main failing is the same one experienced by previous school boards since school merger in 1989. For nearly 30 years, our school board has suffered a terrible public image because individual school board members have fought turf battles, had personal agendas, exercised power struggles, wasted money and never actually addressed the needs of our 23,000 children. If an elected body is to be successful, it must work together as a team. The worst example during the last 30 years of a disconnected team was last year’s “pull out” by six of our school board members. That certainly broke the body of the current board. If elected, I hope to work with individual board members to lay aside their differences, act in a more positive vein, and put the interests of all children first. There are some great team building exercises that can be used to help with this problem. I have used several of them in workshops that I have done for industry and educational agencies. By working together, we can overcome our differences, become more positive thinkers, and improve our overall image.

3. Safety is always a concern for our schools, but more so after the killing of 17 people at a Florida school in February. What would you recommend to make our schools more safe?

If it is true that we have the highest crime rate of any county in North Carolina, then we certainly aren’t providing for the safety of our 23,000 children. We only have 23 resource officers for the 42 schools in our county. Six of those officers are permanently stationed at our six high schools. That leaves 17 resource officers to cover the remaining 36 schools. This is totally unacceptable. Each school needs at least one resource officer. The excuse has been given that the county commissioners don’t have the funds to provide enough officers. If the commissioners can contemplate the purchase of a $6 million building that is only worth $3 million, then they can certainly afford to provide funding for more resource officers. The public must demand that every school be served by resource officers. In addition to more officers, metal detectors should be used more frequently in our schools and student ID tags might be investigated as a possibility. Teachers and staff wear ID tags and students could as well.

4. Our local school system is one of two in North Carolina that allows the use of corporal punishment, resulting in an embarrassing statistic, that most children who are paddled in North Carolina are minority and from Robeson County. Do you favor its use? Why or why not?

I do not favor corporal punishment. During my first two years as a teacher, I used a paddle because I saw the more experienced teachers doing it and my first principal encouraged it. I soon learned that corporal punishment was a temporary fix at best, and that it did not build a positive relationship between the student and the teacher. I found that a one on one meeting with the student produced much better results. I learned to let the student know that I was for him and not against him. Also, by talking with the student, I learned a great deal about the student’s background and personality. I then understood why the student exhibited poor behavior. Once you understand the child, you then understand how to better deal with his or her problems. I didn’t always succeed with every child who was in trouble, but I succeeded much more than I ever would have by using corporal punishment. No purpose is ever served by physically beating on children. There is also another factor to be considered. During my teaching career, I saw several teachers ruin their careers by being sued for the excessive use of a paddle. As a teacher trainer, I always advised teachers to keep their hands off of the children. Some children bruise more easily than others and some teachers are more heavy handed than others. You can never balance those factors to produce anything effective. In addition, we live in one of the poorest counties in the United States. In such counties, physical abuse in the home is more prevalent. Our children don’t need more such abuse at school.

5. Our schools have been in short supply of textbooks in recent years, with some arguing that more books need to be purchased, and some saying that books become dated quickly, and arguing instead for greater use of E-books that stay current. What do you favor?

Modern technology has produced many positive things that have enhanced learning in our schools. The use of E-books is one of these. Still, there is nothing like holding a book, turning its pages and using a bookmark to see how much reading progress we have made. The enjoyment of going to a library, either a school library or a public library, can never truly be replaced. Libraries today also use advances in technology to educate the public. If our children in Robeson County lived in an affluent county where each home had the latest technology, we could see less need to purchase more textbooks. If our schools could afford to give each student laptops to take back and forth between home and school, there would be less need to purchase textbooks. Sadly, these factors do not exist in our county. There is still a great need to purchase textbooks. Also, many parents still expect their children to have textbooks for the subjects in which they are enrolled. I think that if we could survey parents at each grade level prior to the next year, we could get an idea of how many books needed to be purchased for the next grade level. We have to remember that in Robeson County there are many parents who did not finish high school. They possess poor reading and technology skills. It is natural for them to be skeptical when their children come home with no textbooks. As time goes by, we hope that this mode of thinking will change. Until it does, we still need an adequate number of textbooks for our children.

6. Our school system ranks next to last in the state for local funding by the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, about $1,000 short of the state average. How would you work to overcome that?

Let’s face it. Poverty, Medicaid payments for the poor and the lack of industry remain the culprits that prevent local school funding from reaching the state average. Raising property tax rates by 46 cents to acquire $23 million to bring us up to the state average funding rate will not happen in the real world. Implementing a new local sales tax will only further burden the citizens of our county who have trouble now buying groceries, gas, and other necessities. As a school board member, I would try to work with local legislators to bring about a state bond referendum for school construction and other needs. Also, state legislators could work to distribute state sales tax revenues equally between rural and urban counties. At this point in the history of Robeson County, we simply must look to the state for help. Following school merger in 1989, we should have mandated that school funding be maintained at the state average. Now, 30 years later, we have built no new schools and our children lack many of the classroom needs to raise their academic achievement levels. There is talk that this summer the state legislature will contemplate setting up a fund for school construction to benefit rural counties. School boards, county commissioners, and the general public should strongly support this proposal. It is time that our citizens made sacrifices for our public school children. With well educated children, we can take a real stab at poverty, Medicaid payments, and the lack of local industry.

7. Our school board has a reputation for micromanagement, and not staying within its jurisdiction of being a policy maker and allowing administrators to implement that policy. Do you agree with that assessment? What would you see as your role as a board member?

In regard to policy making, it is my understanding that a school board identifies problems or goals and then decides alternatives for each problem or goal. It is then up to the administrators to select what they consider to be the best alternatives for solving the problems or meeting the goals. Has that been the process followed by the local school board? Well, not very often it seems. Over the years, I attended more than 300 school board meetings, some by choice but most required as part of my job. I have watched our school board members become much too involved in personnel issues and budget matters. Many situations could have been handled effectively by the administrators. As a board member, I see my role as the helper vs. the decision maker. After all, we did hire them to do the job. Why would I be dropping by their offices every day or so to tell them to hire this person or put those funds in another line item? Has that happened? Yes, unfortunately it has. I worked for 11 superintendents and two interim superintendents during my career. With the formation of the Public Schools of Robeson County, four of them were my boss. Two of them were fired, one retired, and one moved on to greener pastures. They all suffered from the micromanagement problem. Two of them cared deeply about children, teachers and principals. Because they were not allowed to do their jobs, they are no longer with us. As a board member, I want administrators to have the freedom to explore, think outside the box, and make decisions which benefit both children and educators. Until they prove that they are not doing an effective job, I simply assist and offer suggestions. I don’t dictate.

8. The school system is currently without a central office. There has been much conversation about the new one, where it might be located, and should an existing building be used or one built from the ground up. What are your thoughts?

When you start talking about a central office, most citizens begin to see a rise in blood pressure. Still, there is a necessity for school system departments to be housed in a centralized building in order to effectively get the work done. We are one of the largest school systems in the state, sitting in the largest geographic county in North Carolina. It is true, however, that we don’t need a mega structure to accomplish our goals. Many of us who worked at the former central office had offices no bigger than 10-by-12’ or 12-by-14 feet. My small office had room for a desk, a chair, a file cabinet, a credenza, and two visitor chairs. I purchased a 5-by-7 rug and two buffet lamps out of my own pocket. I hung my own artwork. It was tight but it was adequate. Using every inch of space saves money. I am not in favor of new construction for a central office. There are many empty buildings which can be renovated for much less money. Some of these buildings have beautiful architecture and should be preserved. I also think that the current county office buildings would make a very nice central office location. If the county would give those buildings to the school board, we would only be faced with the renovation costs. Every dollar saved is a dollar that can be used to help the children and the teachers. Besides, we have a new school to build to replace West Lumberton which was lost to the hurricane. Let’s put the money there.

9. Our school system lags far behind those across the state in every education metric except the graduation rate. Do you think this is something that can be significantly improved, and if so, how would you work to achieve that?

I am a firm believer that our 27 low performing schools can do much better. First, our school board needs to spend more time addressing curriculum. Too much time is spent on budget and personnel matters. As a school board member, I see my job as helping our children to become better educated. My first step would be to meet with the Program Services Department which oversees the state mandated curriculum and best teaching practices. This department needs to have dialogue with the school board on a regular basis to share what they are trying to do and how they go about doing it. There are several school board members with teaching experience. Together, we can offer practical ideas and suggestions to help this department. I have ideas on curriculum delivery and teaching strategies that I believe would be helpful. It’s time to think outside of the box, try new things, and allow teachers to spread their wings.

I would also like to monitor the progress of the Innovative School District that will be taking over Southside-Ashpole Elementary School. They claim that they can turn this school around and improve test scores. If that is true, let’s capitalize on their ideas and use them for improving other schools. Here again, good dialogue between the school board and the Innovative School District is vital. I would also like for the school board to bring in some of our school system’s best teachers for dialogue. Let’s ask them why their test scores are at or above the state average. Their ideas and suggestions would be very helpful as we try to improve our low performing schools. There are many positive things that we can do to raise test scores and help children to expand their horizons. The time to start is now.

10. Question to myself: As a school board member, what would I do each month other than attend the monthly school board meeting?

I would like to begin visiting the 27 low performing schools as well as the schools in my district. It is important that the teachers, principals, and parents know that school board members care about the schools and are willing to visibly show their support. Visitation in schools will also give me insight and direction as to how I can best help the children to improve academically. In addition, there will be a great deal of reading and research in order that I remain abreast of the latest trends and strategies regarding school improvement. This is not a job for the faint of heart. I have the time, the energy and the passion to contribute to this very important need in our county. Though Robeson County has many improvements that need to be made, none are more important than helping our children. A quality education for them is the cornerstone for improving all other facets of our county. I sincerely want to help to make this happen.