School board candidates at odds over key issues

aspecht@newsobserver.comSeptember 12, 2013 

Eastern Wake residents won’t have trouble telling their two school board candidates apart on the campaign trail.

Democratic incumbent Tom Benton and Republican challenger Don McIntyre in interviews on Wednesday laid out their separate positions on key issues such as the $810 million school construction bond on the October ballot.

Benton is one of six school board candidates who support the bond. McIntyre is one of two candidates who oppose it.

The bond directs $11.5 million toward rebuilding Rolesville Elementary, $4.5 million to start renovations to East Wake Middle, and a combined $2.8 million in upgrades to six other eastern Wake schools: East Wake High, Hodge Road Elementary, Knightdale Elementary, Lockhart Elementary, Wendell Elementary and Zebulon Middle.

McIntyre, a retired attorney, sees no problem with the bond proposal, but says he’ll vote against it because he doesn’t trust the Democrat-controlled school board to follow through on its construction promises or spend the money wisely.

“I’m going to vote against the bond,” McIntyre said. “(Bonds are) absolutely necessary for new school buildings. This particular bond, we need. But I don’t trust the school board to handle that much money.

“I would like to see a new bond next year, which I can evaluate then under the new circumstances,” he said.

Benton, an education consultant and retired Wake County educator, said he’s “shocked” any school board candidate would oppose the bond because the community continues to grow rapidly.

“In addition to the growth, there’s the needed renovations for existing schools,” Benton said, noting that the Republican-controlled Wake board of commissioners helped craft the bond proposal.

Benton also pointed out that the bond issue in 2006 helped build Heritage High, Rolesville High and Rolesville Middle – additions Benton says alleviated congestion at other area schools.

Rolesville High is a favorite talking point for McIntyre, who used it as an example of school board ineptitude when talking about another hot topic in District 1: low resources at four Knightdale schools.

McIntyre noted that some of the $75 million spent on the Rolesville High building could have been sent to Knightdale High, East Wake Middle, Knightdale Elementary and Hodge Road Elementary – schools that lack the resources need to effectively implement the curriculum, according to an independent audit released in August. The audit said one school, East Wake Middle, runs out of food on an “almost daily” basis.

“We don’t need marble floors. There are millions of dollars there that could have gone to Knightdale,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre noted that local education advocates had complained about a lack of resources for years, and said addressing the issue “should have been one of the first things my opponent (Benton) did” in February when the school board appointed him to fill the unexpired term of Chris Malone, who won election to the state House of Representatives.

Benton says he persistently lobbies for the equitable distribution of resources throughout the county. He said the board wanted to receive the results of the Knightdale schools audit and to wait to hire a new superintendent before it took action.

“Talk to anyone who’s been at any board meeting. I bring up that issue at every board meeting, committee meeting, and work session,” Benton said.

“Most importantly, I’ve worked hard to build a consensus plan (for addressing the issues) between the board of education and leaders in eastern Wake,” he added.

In fact, Benton initiated and attended a 1 p.m. meeting Wednesday in downtown Raleigh between school board chairman Keith Sutton, Superintendent Jim Merrill, who was hired in June, and the mayors in Knightdale, Rolesville, Wake Forest, and Zebulon. Wendell Mayor Tim Hinnant was invited but couldn’t attend.

“We discussed actively involving community leaders and parents in the process of improving eastern Wake schools,” Benton said.

Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny confirmed Benton’s account of the meeting, saying it lasted about an hour and a half and was “really productive.”

Aside from their differences over the bond and addressing the audit, Benton and McIntyre have also engaged in a debate – albeit, a relatively subdued debate – over student assignment.

Benton was one of seven board members who earlier this year voted to approve an overhauled student assignment policy that seeks to minimize high concentrations of low-performing students and students from low-income families. The vote in school year 2013-2014 revamps the choice-based assignment plan passed by a Republican-controlled school board in 2010.

Benton and others noted that the policy says students should be assigned to a school within a reasonable distance of their homes and should be given an opportunity to stay at the schools they attend.

“We’re not going back to where we’re just going to yank kids from here and move them to there to balance out numbers,” Benton said at the time.

McIntyre, a proponent of neighborhood schools, declined to take a stance on the school board’s student assignment policy revision. He says he has a 10-year plan to reduce busing and keep schools economically diverse by building new schools in areas that are already economically diverse.

“I’m told by (Wake County) commissioners that there’s plenty of land that can be acquired for these schools,” McIntyre said. “This is not pie-in-the-sky, but a simple common sense solution. … We save money on transportation and wear-and-tear on kids.”

McIntyre says his plan involves encouraging charter schools and vocational schools. He also noted his support for a voucher program proposed by state lawmakers for disadvantaged students to use to enroll at private schools.

Benton says he “vehemently opposes” giving Wake public school money to charters and voucher programs until the school system is “adequately funded.”

As for McIntyre’s plan, Benton said: “This is what happens when people come in to fix the system and haven’t done their homework. They think there’s a simple fix to an extremely complex issue.” T. Keung Hui contributed.

 

Specht: 919-829-4826

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