For many residents, the Chapel Hill Carrboro City School System is the reason they live in southern Orange County. Our school system has long been regarded as one of the top districts in the state, and our high schools are nationally recognized.
At the same time, a 2018 study from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis shows we have the second largest achievement gap between Black and white students of any school district in the United States, disparities that are rooted in our community’s history of segregation and enslavement.
While North Carolina was once a leader in public education, years of budget freezes have caused our teacher salaries to stagnate even as the cost of living, particularly housing, continues to rise. Add in the Covid-19 pandemic, declining enrollments, aging school buildings, and unreliable bus transportation, and it’s clear that our school challenges are substantial.
A crowded field of good, smart candidates
For these reasons, we were alarmed when, five days before the filing period for the CHCCS School Board elections closed, not a single community member had filed to run for school board. After consulting with leaders who were plugged in politically, including incumbent school board members, and hearing rumors that a Moms For Liberty-associated candidates slate might enter the race if seats were available, we issued a call for people to run.
Incredibly, 52 people responded to our call, and 19 candidates ended up filing for the office (six have since dropped out.). We were overjoyed to see the response of our community and so many smart, accomplished people stepping forward. It is clear that we live in a community that values and supports public education.
We also compiled a questionnaire for all candidates with Bridging the Gap, and attendees of a four-part community read and discussion series on reparations and race at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The discussion series was led by Danita Mason-Hogans and Simona Goldin, the co-charpersons of the Equity and Schools Task Force, members of the UNC Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward and members of the Chapel Hill community.
We have published these interviews and, with the help of a volunteer—who is also a high school Spanish teacher—translated them into Spanish.
We want to reiterate that we are delighted to have such a large and diverse field. We are lucky to live in a community where so many people are willing to serve on the school board, a job that requires a substantial time commitment—up to twenty hours per week—and asks elected officials to make difficult decisions at every single meeting. This is not an easy job, and we appreciate everyone who stepped up. We believe many of these candidates would make excellent school board members, and none of the candidates are affiliated with M4L.
To make our endorsement decision, we watched the candidate forum co-sponsored by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) PTA Council, Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP Branch Education Committee, Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators, El Centro Hispano, and League of Women Voters. We also read through all candidate questionnaires, examined previous experiences and decisions by candidates, and read through other questionnaires and interviews they’ve done with Chapelboro and the News and Observer. In addition, we talked with trusted community leaders.
There are many new voices in the race this year, and three incumbents.
We enthusiastically endorse incumbent Rani Dasi. Dasi’s answers on North Carolina’s Leandro case during the candidate forum were excellent, and her considerable experience leading our school district through the pandemic is admirable. She has championed mental health, higher pay for teachers, and reinstating teacher fellowships. In the future, we would love to see Dasi run for office at the county or state level—her leadership, experience with finance and budgets, and her overseeing of the district’s strategic plan would make her an asset on the Board of Commissioners or as a state representative.
Of the newcomers who are running, there are three who we are enthusiastically endorsing.
Barbara Fedders runs the Youth Justice Clinic at UNC’s School of Law. She is a contributor to Excellence With Equity: The Schools Our Children Deserve, a report of the Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools, and the author of articles on student privacy, discipline, LGBTQ+ youth, and school policing.
In her interview with Triangle Blog Blog, she outlined a vision that expands high-quality pre-K, adds more teachers of color to the district, and focus on policies that will remedy inequity.
Fedders has long volunteered in the school system, and serves as the chair of the Carrboro Community Safety Task Force, which engages local residents not often at the policy-making table to develop new approaches to public safety beyond policing.
Vickie Feaster Fornville is a Chapel Hill native, having seen the school system from the perspective of a student, parent, volunteer, and employee. She has long led advocacy efforts across the school system. We have been particularly impressed by her commitment to ensuring that our schools address racial equity by telling the truth about our community’s past—not the “cotton candy” history, as she described in the candidate forum.
Her experience in the district matters also. When asked about how the schools could address the bus driver shortage, Fornville first noted that she drove a school bus as a young adult when the district was facing driver shortages, and then suggested a solution—adding other mid-day responsibilities so some of our drivers can work full-time, with benefits, for the district.
Honoria “Honor” Middough’s answers at the candidate forum were impressive, as were her focuses in our interview on inclusivity, better communication, and accessing resources and training.
Middough is an educator who teaches ESL in the Durham school system. (Note: CHCCS rules prohibit teachers in the CHCCS school system from serving on the school board). An active member of the North Carolina Association of Educators, an organization that gives teachers a voice in a state that does not allow teachers to unionize, Middough will represent the perspective of educators of color, and has a vision for more efforts aimed at hiring and retaining more teachers of color. We have also really enjoyed her presence on social media.
Mariela Hernandez walks the walk. A family support specialist with the Orange County Health Department, she also has extensive experience as an advocate and volunteer in the school district for over 20 years. She has been involved with the PTA for McDougle Elementary and Middle Schools and as a SIT parent for McDougle Middle School and Chapel Hill High School. Her decision to run for school board was shaped by the underrepresentation of Latino representation on the board, and her years of advocacy on behalf of Latino students would benefit the entire district.
We also want to acknowledge Allison Willis, who moved here from New York during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been recognized by people we’ve spoken with as a great listener. Like some of the other candidates, Willis has considerable experience as an educator, and has children in the school system. Her answers to our questionnaire were thoughtful and detailed.
Meredith Ballew grew up in Chapel Hill and has a background in nonprofit administration in New York. Her answers in the candidate forum and in our questionnaire were focused on teacher retention and equity; she’s also been endorsed by EqualityNC and would bring a needed advocate for parents of exceptional children.
She has also raised a substantial amount of money, bringing in almost $15K in donations when most candidates, with the exception of Fedders, have raised far less. (For reference, according to the latest campaign finance reports, Feaster Fornville has raised $4,000, Willis has raised less than $3,000, Hernandez has raised less than $2,000, while Middough and Dasi appear to have raised less than $1,000, which exempts them from having to file a report. Dasi filed anyway, reporting $575 in donations).
Incumbent Deon Temne received the Breakfast Club endorsement and wants to see the board streamline processes. Taylor Tally’s background as a fighter pilot would make him an unique voice on the school board, but we would like him to serve the public in other ways before jumping into this role. Solomon Gibson III and Jane Gabin bring some fresh ideas to the table, but neither seem versed enough in the schools or school policy to make immediately meaningful contributions. Michelle Rissling has been absent from forums and, along with incumbent Ashton Powell, failed to respond to our questionnaire.
We want to thank everyone who stepped up to run in this cycle – it fills us with joy to know so many smart and decent people care about our public schools. Many of us also have children in the public school system. We believe our elected school board, which makes critical decisions about our schools, is essential to maintaining the excellent status of our schools, especially in the face of adversity.
Martin Johnson and Melody Kramer, both parents in the district, took the lead on writing this post. All five members of Triangle Blog Blog’s board participated in the endorsement process. They are Geoff Green, Martin Johnson, Melody Kramer, John Rees, and Stephen Whitlow.