October 21, 2017

INDY Week questionnaire responses

By James Barrett

CARRBORO-CHAPEL HILL CITY SCHOOLS QUESTIONNAIRE

 

Name: James Barrett

Website: http://barrettforschools.com

Occupation: Software Engineering Manager
Phone Number: 919-593-0592

Email Address:  james@barrettforschools.com

Years Lived in Carrboro/Chapel Hill: 40

 

1) Given the current direction of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education, would you say things are generally on the right track? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

 

Yes. Of course, there’s always much more to do, but our board is fully committed to the success of every student in learning and in life–including all the elements that contribute to academic success, especially student safety. The hiring of Dr. Pam Baldwin as superintendent shows our determination to get to success for every student, through great leadership development and an equity lens on everything we do.

 

2) Please identify the three most pressing issues the school system faces and how you will address them.

 

    1. Achievement Gaps:  The board needs to ensure strong implementation of the equity plan: We must see that the entire district follows through to enable better outcomes for all students, so that every student–no matter what level–learns and grows, measurably, every day, every year, to close our achievement gaps.
    2. Ensuring innovative, engaging instruction: The board must insist on a current plan that lays out what technology for instruction we have and need, and to what end; we must also support new ways of delivering instruction, which may include blended learning (a mix of online and face-to-face instruction that emphasizes content mastery), flipped classrooms, and other innovative, culturally responsive instruction that truly reaches all students and pushes them to learning growth every day.
    3. Continuing progress on transparency and decision-making in our budget process: So far, we have added a 2-pager explaining how our money is used (tinyurl.com/chccsbudget). We should enhance this to clearly show individual program expenses, and overhaul our budget process to align our spending very clearly with the needs of every student. Such priority-based budgeting, which takes into account varying levels of need, would force administrators and the board to think even more carefully about how we follow through on our stated priorities.

 

3) What in your public or professional career shows your ability to be an effective member of the board of education? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to deal with them?

 

Before joining the board,  I had been a manager in my professional career and had many volunteer opportunities with youth and social justice advocacy, developing a strong passion for change, leadership skills, and community connections to represent all connected to our schools. In six years on the board, I have been a constant voice for all students, even when I lost votes 6-1.  Votes in that direction have happened less often in the nearly two years that I’ve been board chair, as we’ve worked to each stand up for our beliefs but also come to consensus about what’s best for our students and teachers. But I will continue to vote my conscience and not stop serving our students, staff and community as we strive to achieve our goals, and continue to seek out wide input to make deeply informed decisions. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) has great resources thanks to a supportive community, and if any district in America can be an equitable place, ours should be it.

 

4) Across the state, school districts argued that class-size reductions amounted to an unfunded mandate would force them to end arts and physical education programs. Earlier this year, the legislature delayed the bulk of the class-size reductions until 2018–19, but did not guarantee additional funding for arts programs and the like. How would you, as a member of the school board, address this issue in the coming year? What would you do to offer incentives for high-quality teachers to come to or remain in the school system?

 

As a part of the teacher compensation pilot program from the state that supports our Project Advance efforts, CHCCS is exempt from this legislation a little while longer.  But when it does affect us, I will be  most supportive of innovative solutions which would use existing resources to reduce class sizes through very flexible clustering (meaning clusters are constantly adjusted according to students’ progress/needs), which may not look like the traditional one-teacher-one-classroom approach, as we simply don’t have the space and I will not sacrifice Art/Music/PE programming to meet this unfunded mandate from the state.

 

5) Similarly, many urban school districts have complained that, while the state has modestly increased salaries in recent years, state funding is still inadequate. Last year, Orange County taxpayers approved a $125 million schools bond for infrastructure improvements. Do you believe CCHCS’s portion of that amount is sufficient to meet the district’s needs? What kind of innovations can you offer to help spend this money wisely?

 

State funding in real dollars per pupil is still down 10 percent from before the Great Recession.  Our county funding has only recently caught up with inflation, but comes nowhere near filling all the gaps from the state.  There are also really three parts to our capital budget that need addressing:  1) The bond passed last year absolutely will allow us to proceed on expected projects.  But the funding is less than we’d like, especially as construction costs have increased significantly since we first asked the county commissioners to support our renovation efforts.  We will address that through proper value engineering, but we also need the cooperation of city officials to ensure we are not burdened with unnecessary expenses beyond the impact of our efforts on the city.  2) The district is just starting implementation of the 10-year plan to renovate our 10 oldest buildings, thanks to the great support of the community in approving last year’s bond. I will contribute to the implementation by ensuring that we get good value from this investment, working with leaders of both towns to gain any necessary approvals. But the next phase(s) of funding for renovations to get all 10 of our other, older schools/facilities up to current standards so they equitably support our students for decades to come requires additional funding from the county. I will continue to ask that we receive capital funding that would have been allocated for new buildings per SAPFO (the ordinance intended to adequately finance new school construction), as we are deferring new construction to expand existing buildings instead–a far better use of money, resources, and land. 3) We have many ongoing needs to replace roofs/HVAC/etc. The county commissioners only recently increased our recurring capital budget for the first time in decades. They also changed a policy and allocated one-time savings from the reserve fund toward schools’ needs in this area.  But there remains a gap between what engineers say must be spent every year to maintain our buildings and what we receive to cover 20 school sites. I will continue to advocate strongly for funding that meets our real needs in funding maintenance and repairs at the level needed for the size of our buildings — this needs focus to ensure we don’t dig another huge hole with the 10 “newer” buildings built since the mid-’90s.

 

6) Racial academic disparities are a perennial problem in every school system. Please provide fresh ideas you have for addressing this long-running problem.

 

There are many reasons for our racial gaps, and there is no one solution which will solve this.  One thing we know from research is that the quality of the teacher is critically important.  Excellent teachers can help students grow academically at least one and a half years for every year in school, meaning they can close their gaps within a few years, while the students of poor teachers grow less than a year, meaning those students continue to fall further behind. Even if we could ensure that all our teachers are excellent, we  won’t close gaps immediately–but we must ensure that high growth happens for all students who are behind, and that every single student gets at least the expected “year’s worth of growth.” Project Advance is our effort to improve instruction through very intentional professional development for teachers, including racial equity lessons that we have developed specifically for our district. And we know that to have and support great teachers, we need great leaders in our schools.  We are working right now to ensure that our school leaders are compensated correctly, and Dr. Baldwin has brought a renewed focus on leadership development–setting the right goals for our leaders, providing the right supports, and having the highest of expectations for them and their schools. The school board is also completely committed to eliminating racial disparities in student discipline. Students who are suspended or otherwise not in the classroom cannot learn. The large racial gap in who gets suspended is unacceptable, and the board while I’ve been chair has been leading the charge to focus on this and fix it.

 

7) Schools in the twenty-first century face the task of educating an increasingly diverse student population. What about your background has prepared you to lead a twenty-first-century school system, knowing the unique challenges students from different backgrounds face?

 

I got my start in public service by being trained in IAF methods of social justice through Justice United (http://www.ocjusticeunited.org/).  The first lessons there are about building relationships and “don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.”  My work as a founding member of Justice United compelled me to run for the school board, and I have continued to focus on relationships with people from all parts of our community. I also continually encourage any with a stake in our schools to speak up for themselves — board decisions are always better when those directly affected (students and teachers primarily) share their stories.  I am happy to be available to anyone who wants to discuss school issues.  My cell # is 919-593-0592. My board email is jbarrett@chccs.k12.nc.us.

 

8) After Charlottesville, CHCCS banned the Confederate flag and “other threatening symbols” from its campuses. What more do you think the school board can or should do to foster a safe learning environment for its students of color?

 

I was pleased the board decided to add this to our anti-bullying policy.  It shows that our commitment to student safety is primary in everything we do.  But words on a website aren’t enough. We need to complete the roll-out of restorative practices to every teacher and every classroom, building and restoring teacher-student and student-student relationships–ensuring that students are learning from conflicts, rather than being punished for them. I expect our school leaders to use this moment–as I believe they are–to recognize the challenges that their students face due to racial oppression in our country and are working to ensure that every employee in our buildings is truly committed to high levels of learning for each and every student, regardless of “a student’s race, creed, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, class, socioeconomics, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cognitive/physical ability, diverse language fluency, religion, status as an English language learner, marital status, pregnancy, parenthood, or other characteristic protected by federal law” (as stated in our policies).

 

9) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

 

I’m certainly progressive.  I’ve always been strongly liberal on social issues, as shown in my background, training, and stances on the board. I used to say that I was more middle-of-the-road on some economic issues, but the failure of our current systems to address inequality has pushed me to more liberal positions in recent years.  I do believe in some accountability for success in government efforts.  Over my six years on the board, there have been school board votes where I’ve not been comfortable with the board’s tendency to request more and more money to solve every problem.  Additional resources will not fix some issues in our schools.  We actually will be stronger if we focus attention on creative solutions and clear responsibility rather than throwing more people into the mix.

 

10) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

 

Our community is wonderful and desirable, but that’s led to it being extremely expensive.  While we will keep pushing for funding from the state and county to pay teachers more, it continues to be hard for teachers to afford to live in Chapel Hill or Carrboro–hurting our efforts to recruit great teachers and help them be truly involved and integrated into the community. The school system needs to work with partners to find a way to dedicate some housing for teachers. Several counties in North Carolina are ahead of us on this already, and we need to learn from their efforts and follow suit, to improve our ability to recruit and retain the country’s best teachers.


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