We watched closely over the past few weeks as applications started filing in for the District 1 school board seat vacated by Chris Malone when he moved into a new role with the General Assembly.
I was impressed with the credentials of a handful of the eight candidates who have served in school-related positions in the past. Those folks, seemed most likely to have a grasp on what the proper role of a school board member should be.
But Tom Benton, the man school board members ultimately chose to fill the vacancy, clearly had the most complete resume for a potential board member. He became the favorite to win the seat from the moment he applied.
Benton has a deep history in Zebulon, where he lives, but he has experience as an administrator across Wake County, which surely would give him an idea of the challenges other parts of Wake County face (yes, there are challenges in other parts of Wake County as well).
And, while Benton was not a unanimous choice to fill the seat, he is inarguably the most qualified.
But being qualified on paper and in real life, are two different things.
Benton will need to be his own man on the board, advocating for all of his district, not just eastern Wake County. He will, as weve written in this space before, be required to cast votes on decisions that effect all parts of Wake County, including downtown Raleigh, Fuquay-Varina, Cary and northern Wake County. There will never be enough money for Benton to do all the things he might like to do, so he will be required to make the best possible use of the resources available to the school system. That means arguing in favor of efficiency and reach. That will mean looking for opportunities to use best practices in Wake County from ideas generated, tested and proven in other parts of the country.
He will have to be immune to the shrill cry of opponents who look for any opportunity to oppose or denigrate change in Wake County. And, he will have to find ways to reach across the political aisle to work with the Republican majority on the board of county commissioners who, right now, are looking for legislative authority to revamp the way school system leaders are chosen.
Thats a tall order for the new kid on the block. But its the task that lies ahead for Benton.
Logic and clear and concise communication will be his allies if he chooses to use them. He will need to master the art of compromise in such a way that the school system doesnt throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to dealing with county commissioners. Benton is a bright guy. Hes clearly invested in the school system. His lifes work has been in our schools. He didnt have to seek a seat on the board of education. That he decided to says he has a public service mentality.
At times, that will mean making difficult even unpopular decisions. Benton would be well advised to make himself as visible as possible to the public he now serves, not just by touring schools, but by talking with parents, business leaders, town leaders and community leaders about the challenges and solutions they see for our schools.
Im excited about Bentons tenure. Hopefully, well be able to look back at some point and say that Benton was successful in using his experience to make positive changes in the school system.