Cat Gaines, school board candidate, District 8

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

Because of my 22 years in the military, I have proven that I am able to work with folks from different cultures, backgrounds, religions and beliefs. Because of my involvement as a board member of the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants, I understand parliamentary procedure, the importance of organization, and the division of labor within a board in order to streamline progress. I understand the importance of re-building and stabilization following a major disaster. These skills, coupled with the fact that I don’t have the history of disappointment and distrust that seems to be preventing progression for the members of our current school board, makes me uniquely qualified to help move our county school system forward for the betterment of our schools and the education of our children.

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?

One failing of our current school board is the divisiveness which manifests itself in animosity as well as a lack of respect between current board members. A second and equally important failing is that current school board members lack an understanding of the actual job description of being a school board member. It is difficult to succeed at a job if you are fundamentally unsure of your job description.

I would correct these failings by organizing with the N.C. School Board Association the training they offer for our school board members (12 hours every two years). This would help all school board members understand better the complexity of their position. I also would help to implement more community engagement in the form of an advisory council in order to gather input and support from community leaders, teachers, civic organizations, parents, and other stakeholders.

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?

I would build off of the work that has already begun with our superintendent to continue her school safety evaluation and prioritize that needs assessment. We clearly need more resource officers and good training for them. This item will need to be budgeted and plans need to be made to fund these officers. I would also make sure that our school system employs enough mental health professionals so that they can work with students who might be considering endangering the safety of classmates and faculty members.

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 understand the concerns over corporal punishment, and every study I have read recently shows that it fundamentally destroys the trust between a child and a teacher, has shown no benefit in preventing repeat behaviors, and seems to target kids from poorer homes, many of whom are minorities. In short, it achieves nothing, and should not be used (not to mention it could set us up for a lawsuit).

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?

Our state legislators declared that by 2017, North Carolina will transition from textbooks to “digital learning competencies” and digital materials. To support this digital literacy, I’d look into implementing the best ratio of technical support staff to enhance this digital learning. There are innovative grants available to assist in funding. We need to apply for these grants and support our teachers and administrative staff to be comfortable with this type of digital instruction. No one likes change, but we have no choice if we want our children to graduate on to a level playing field with the other children in North Carolina. Several studies have been done which convey that our schools continue to send graduates to the workforce without necessary technology-based “soft skills” demanded by employers. This disconnect between the classroom and the real world leads to uninspired and resistant learners. As one of our educators noted, “We have to prepare students for the world they’re graduating into, and so that means instruction needs to change,” DeCourcy said. “We can’t even conceive of the jobs that will exist for the current kindergarteners when they graduate from college.”

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?

As a low-wealth county, even with the extra state funding we receive, it is difficult for us to find the revenue to bolster these per pupil funds. Knowing that state legislators, county commissioners, city councilmen and others are actively seeking funding solutions to increase our per pupil funding for our students I would work to help develop an interactive strategic plan involving the school board, the county commissioners, other public agencies as well as civic groups and not-for-profit stakeholders in education. I would look long and hard at a bond referendum. I would encourage our school system development officers to seek out grants to support the education of our students. I would encourage our county residents to vote for pro-education representatives at all levels of government.

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?

The actual job description of a school board member, per the policy manual for the Robeson County School Board is as follows: The board will provide a system of schools; establish general policies in keeping with the needs of the community and the requirements of state law; and perform all specific duties imposed by law. The board considers some of its most significant duties to be the following: providing leadership and direction through the formulation of goals and objectives, especially in defining and setting high academic standards for student success; creating policies that establish standards, accountability and evaluation of essential operations of the school system; taking steps necessary to help ensure legal compliance of board and school system functions; pperforming judicial functions by conducting hearings as appropriate or as required by law regarding decisions of school system personnel or the board; hiring a superintendent, supporting the superintendent in his or her administration, and evaluating and responding to recommendations made by the superintendent, including recommendations pertaining to the educational program and facility needs; considering the budget recommended by the superintendent, presenting the budget to the county commissioners and adopting a budget after evaluating whether the county commissioners’ appropriation is sufficient to support a system of free public schools; electing school system personnel upon the recommendation of the superintendent; establishing school attendance areas; and being an advocate for the school system, for employees and especially for students in all interactions with other governmental entities and the public.

My role as a school board member is to uphold these charges and duties as described, to undertake the training required of board members to properly carry out these duties, and support our students, teachers and administrators so that we can get on with the business of educating our children.

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?

I am still at a loss to understand why some of our county commissioners are on fire to purchase a building the school system has adamantly stated they do not want. The Native Angels building does not meet the school system’s needs, and the county school administrators ought to know. They’ve been working there since the flood. I do advocate renovating an existing building if possible. However, if the renovation is more expensive being retro-fitted for IT infrastructure, meeting rooms and other needs, it may make more sense to build from the ground up if it saves the taxpayers money. Once the county renovates and moves forward into the BB&T building, their office space may be available and suitable for the administrative offices. In either case, I believe we need to research FEMA grants, and other sources of revenue, regardless of which direction we take.

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 know that we can improve and it is up to the school board to lead the way. We have a comprehensive strategic plan, we need to implement it. The current strategic plan looks at testing, decreasing attendance issues, using positive behavior intervention and support, addresses technology in the classroom and staff development. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel, we need to just move forward together with the plan we have in place.

10. Question to myself: Why are you running for school board if you don’t have children?

As I am deeply committed to the people and prosperity of our county, I care about the success of all our children. I was blessed to attend North Carolina public schools and I know first-hand the power of an engaged parent, the positive effect of teachers that pushed me to succeed, and when my family struggled financially, the importance of a free lunch. I am a success story for our public schools and I want every child in Robeson County to have the same opportunities for success.