NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Candidate Questionnaire
The North Carolina Sierra Club Political Committee is a state political action committee dedicated to electing pro-environment candidates to the North Carolina Legislature and statewide offices.
The Sierra Club Mission Statement is: “To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.”
A quality education for all is central to preserving, protecting and enhancing the human environment.
If you are interested in being considered for endorsement by the Sierra Club, please complete this questionnaire and return it no later than January 25th to Rich Wasch at RSWasch@gmail.com and to Ken Brame at email@example.com.
Your responses will be considered privileged and confidential, will NOT be posted online or released to the public, and will only be seen by Sierra Club volunteers and staff.
Name: James Barrett
Occupation: Software Engineer
Political Party: Democrat
Candidate for: Superintendent of Public Instruction
Telephone #: 919-590-5754
Preferred email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter Handle: https://twitter.com/jcbarr
Campaign Manager Phone:
Campaign Manager Email:
- Would you like your candidacy to be endorsed by the Sierra Club? Why?
Yes, because climate change is THE existential threat to our world, and all units of government need to do their part to get us to carbon zero (or negative) ASAP. Therefore, we need a State Superintendent who understands all aspects of policy in running schools and is willing to advocate for the investments needed to make a difference in our carbon footprint. The Sierra Club has my commitment to not only make a difference in our schools’ environmental impact policies, but also to ensure that we are educating the next generation about environmental issues to make our society better in the future.
- What actions have you taken to protect and advance North Carolina’s natural and human environment in your civic, professional or personal life?
While I was on the school board in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, we built one new elementary school and designed a couple of other buildings. I was always an advocate for including green roofs, solar, etc., not just as environmentally positive parts of the building, but also as opportunities for education about our impact on the environment to the students and families. Northside Elementary is the first LEED Platinum elementary school in North Carolina because of our policies (and the board’s hiring of the right architects). I also strongly supported hiring a sustainability director for the district in 2013, who is not only leading the charge on finding opportunities to improve our environmental and financial positions, but also spends time educating students on what he does–so the triple benefit we are seeing from his work has an impact beyond the school walls. Also, after Flint came to light, I led the push for lead testing in all of our schools and am pleased to note that OWASA did the testing without charging the schools, and everything was well below standards. (In my personal life, my wife and I were delighted to buy a passive solar house with solar hot water as our first house.)
- What do you consider to be the three most
important environmental/environmental justice issues facing the state? As
a member of the Council of State, what actions would you propose and work for
to address those issues?
Climate change, solid waste disposal, and clean water are all huge issues for North Carolina. The Council of State should ensure that all development under our influence addresses our carbon footprint and that we have investment funds available for local agencies to act as well (including retrofit of older buildings). In Chapel Hill-Carrboro, we’ve seen that the energy savings from making changes such as using LED lighting and electronic climate controls are significant, so investments here will save the state money in the longer term. For solid waste, we need to encourage regional solutions to create scale for innovative efforts such as waste-to-energy. Shipping solid waste to poorer communities elsewhere is not a just solution, and the state needs to assert more moral authority to reduce this impact on environmental justice. On cleaner water, North Carolina has seen from coal ash to GenX to lead in our school water the impact of pollutants that will be with us forever. The Council of State can advocate with a united voice that this is not acceptable; the superintendent must be part of the conversation because we know that children who are poisoned by lead and other heavy metals have a lower ability to learn—so my voice will be important in these conversations on behalf of our students. On lead in drinking water in particular, we need state-level investment to test and mitigate schools (and in housing, including public housing) where this is occurring, or our students will not be able to live up to their potential.
- Curriculum: What can DPI do to prepare students to adopt sustainability practices and get “new green jobs” as the world tries to mitigate global warming? How should the curriculum help students understand the reality of climate change in a way that equips them to take action about it?
We must have DPI encouraging curricular materials that teach science,
and are up-to-date in best practices in sustainable practices. This is difficult when money is not available
for refreshing books on a regular basis, but we can point districts to good
electronic sources so that teachers don’t need to individually search for them
(and possibly be led astray). In Chapel
Hill-Carrboro, we’ve found that even more important than adding to curriculum
is to add to practice. One example: I’ve
heard lots of feedback from parents whose children are pushing them into composting
after the schools started using three bins and teaching students how to
separate at the end of lunch every day. Just
show kids what compost is and how it benefits a school garden, and they start
to ask why we don’t do this at home. We
already require an earth science course that covers many technical details in
high school, but making the learning part of everyday living is even more
valuable. We also have students who are
putting up signs and explaining to parents how bad idling is in the pickup line
because of what they’ve been taught through the curriculum. DPI can do a better job of spreading these
practices across the state through PD and even email updates on what is
important to us. Teachers listen to
other teachers about best practices in their classrooms, as shown by how
Charlotte is following the lead of others in this composting work—https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/article225237895.html.
- Transportation is a major contributor to
climate change. How can you help districts reduce transportation impacts?
For starters, districts need the money to fully fund our yellow buses instead of formulas that solely encourage minimizing costs—I will advocate that the focus of our transportation system should be reduction of emissions overall (personal vehicles as well as school buses), with funding allocated accordingly. We need to make common transportation easy so that all families are encouraged to use it. Also, we should make sure state regulations are not an impediment to being flexible in providing smaller transportation options (for example, minivans or the like for special needs students, since there are fewer of them per route). Finally, we need the state to be a major player in the transition away from diesel buses—likely first to natural gas and then in five years into electric. Making a clear commitment will help the price curve come down as manufacturers ramp up production. I had an interesting conversation with a rep from Thomas last year about how they view electric buses as not only inevitable, but also as an interesting battery solution for the grid to meet peak demand.
- Some counties have made commitments to transition to renewable energy. Do you support these resolutions? How can you help district efforts in this area? How else can you help them increase sustainability?
Yes. Humanity cannot be
successful in this transition unless every institution is moving forward in
this direction. The state can help with
investment funding (such as zero-interest loans to be paid back from utility
savings) and technical support/guidance from DPI (not all districts have the capacity
to hire a sustainability director). DPI
can also use the bully pulpit by publicizing efforts on this issue with the
state board of education and legislature on a regular basis, including
information that is easily broken out by county, so that school districts can
share that with county commissioners—who may not always be interested in
renewable energy but are always interested in how effectively schools are using
- What can DPI do to address the epidemic of youth obesity and the research showing that young people should spend more time in unstructured outdoor play?
We’ve had some concerns in Chapel Hill-Carrboro recently about how state regulations (from DPI) handle unstructured outdoor play vs “instructional time,” given that the legislature has decided we need 1,025 hours of instructional time. DPI can clarify that we value this time and declare it to be necessary for instruction and thus count it in those hours. We can also model and encourage quick breaks that increase movement in the classroom, given that we know this has a positive impact on brain function and learning. We should encourage furniture choices that encourage movement by highlighting choices that help students address fidgetiness and exercise core muscles while learning. DPI could also incentivize districts to move to school start times that reflect research on teen sleep, so that middle and high schools start later—helping to ensure adequate sleep, which helps with weight control as well as learning. And it should spread other practices that help both students who struggle with food insecurity and food deserts and those who struggle with their weight, including free breakfast for all, “second breakfast” offered later in the morning when more teens are hungry and can eat healthy options offered by the school, and reasonable time for lunch, so students do not need to wolf down or waste their food due to lack of time.
- What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective in office?
I have the combination of leadership, policy, and advocacy experience needed to be effective from Day 1. I just finished 8 years on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, including being elected by my peers twice as chair (the first time in anyone’s memory the same chair served consecutive terms). During this work, we were recognized around the state as progressive, creative policymakers, enacting specific policies that ensured that our teachers felt protected and respected despite what the General Assembly has done to the profession in our state. This role, and my work before it as a founding member of the education committee of Justice United, a local interfaith social justice organization, also trained me how to advocate effectively with other policymakers and elected officials who controlled aspects of our schools, such as our funding. In my day job, I have led extremely large projects and high-performing teams to drive significant business process changes, managing risk and organizational change on a daily basis. This leadership is critically needed to ensure that DPI delivers in all the areas in which NC schools need its support, and to rebuild a department that has suffered major cuts and staff losses under the current officeholder. Additionally, in all this experience plus other volunteer work with youth and adults over the years (including youth league baseball and basketball coach, math tutor, church council member), I have focused on listening to the needs of those I serve—educating myself on the issues and listening to all viewpoints of those our decisions and actions affect. This history of listening, advocating, and leading, plus my deep knowledge of broad policy areas and issues confronting our schools, means I will not need the same on-the-job learning as others in this race.
- The Constitution of the State of North Carolina states:
- Article I, Section 15: “The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.”
- Article IX: Education, has ten sections. Of note is Section 2 which addresses the duty of the state and local government to provide a uniform system of free public schools “…wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”
How would you support these clauses if elected?
The first key is how we measure success of our schools. Today, the measurement focuses almost entirely on student proficiency, which is much more correlated to the effects of poverty on our students than on the effort that schools are making to increase student learning. In my professional leadership experience, I’ve seen how human beings react just to measurements—you tell employees something is important and they will address it to the extent possible, even without incentives that current school reforms believe we need for improving teaching. Our current measured goals aren’t achievable, primarily due to lack of supports and resources to address the impacts of poverty in our schools. Instead, we need our measurements to better align with what we actually want our schools to accomplish—a year’s worth of learning growth each year for each and every student, and even greater growth for those who come in behind. Measuring that will change the instructional and testing focus in classrooms, greatly reducing teacher and student stress, and get us closer to the goal of serving all students on an equitable basis. We also need funding to be available and aligned to support needs—I will advocate for fully funding our public school needs statewide just as I have for the past 15 years at a local level. I will create opportunities to use the bully pulpit of the superintendent’s office in a strategic way to ensure that legislators feel the pressure to vote in alignment with their constitutional duties. The plans being completed now under the Leandro court order can give us a clear roadmap on how to meet this obligation, but it will take more advocacy and effective policymaking to see this come to pass.
- Why else do you think the Sierra Club should support you?
There is no other candidate who is as ready on Day 1 to lead our public schools and all the complicated components necessary for success. I have a track record of professional and board leadership, broad policy expertise, and more advocacy experience than any other candidate, and I will use those skills to deliver for our students and the environment. The one knock one candidate tries to use against me is that I’ve never been a teacher. What that has proved to mean in reality is that as an advocate and then as a board member (and as an active campaigner for many other progressive candidates over the past two decades), I have had an open mind and open ears, so that my decisions are broad-based, grounded in extensive experience and learning about the issues at hand. I ran for office originally because I saw that the school system I grew up in was not doing enough for all its students, and while major change is difficult for any large organization like a school district, with tested, experienced leadership, a willingness to continue to listen and learn, and a dedication to always focusing on what’s best for kids, we can take North Carolina forward to once again being a nationwide leader in education.
Thank you for your time and thoughts. We look forward to discussing this more during a potential interview. Please feel free to share any additional information with us.
I have been more involved in getting pro-public education and pro-environment candidates elected to the General Assembly than all my opponents combined. I have a track record of supporting innovative work in our schools that has moved the needle on our environmental impact, educated students about the importance of this work, and am ready on Day 1 of being State Superintendent to make a difference across all of our schools for the same values of the Sierra Club.