With election day just four weeks away, the Macon County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) held a forum for candidates vying for the open seats on the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. Incumbent Commissioner Bobby Kuppers faced off against challenger Paul Higdon, while Board of Education incumbent Tommy Baldwin squared off against challenger Melissa Evans.
The forum was centered around the candidates thoughts on education in Macon County and their opinion on ways to continue improving the system to be able to provide the best resources for students. John deVille, vice president of Macon County's NCAE, served as the event’s moderator.
In addition to asking all candidates about the current state of Macon County schools' funding sources, deVille asked candidates about the achievement and test scores of students throughout the district. DeVille asked, “At the most recent Board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Duncan said in reference to the fact that Macon County Schools was in the bottom half of 17 WNC school systems when it came to several End of Course, End of Grade, and ACT scores: ‘We can do better,’ he said. ‘We have to do better. We need to get serious about high expectations in Macon County.’ Please evaluate his statement ... do we have to do better and if so, what is your road map for improving instruction in Macon County Schools? Please be as specific as possible.”
According to Baldwin the school system already has a plan of action in place to address the testing in Macon County schools. “Dr. Duncan is working on a plan right now, with committees that he has pulled in,” said Baldwin. “And we will sit down and work with them too when it gets to that point. And yes, we have to do better. We always have to do better. We have to educate our students to the best that they can be because most of our citizens will stay here and they will be our governing bodies one day.”
Evans agreed that educating the future of Macon County should be top priority, and said that in order to get there, the community would have to work together. “No one enjoys being below level on anything,” said Evans. “I certainly don't like seeing where Macon County is on those grades ... there is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child and my goal is to see parents, teachers, principals, everybody working together to improve the education in this system.”
The next question asked by deVille was directed toward County Commission candidates, “Characterize and evaluate what you believe the county commission's commitment to and expenditures on behalf of public education during the past decade both in terms of capital outlay, new buildings and schools, as well as current operating expense. Has it been enough, too much, or too little? How so?”
Incumbent Bobby Kuppers noted that over the past decade the Macon County Board of Commissioners has made a sizable investment in the infrastructure of the school system. “I think the commitment to the school system by Macon County commissioners has been spot on,” said Kuppers. “Of every dollar that is collected in property tax, 50 cents of that dollar goes, in some way, to public education, and I think that’s about right. I think if you look at the investment over the last decade, although I have only been here four years, but it has been $43 million to renovations to schools like Mountain Valley, East Franklin and Iotla Valley, and I would like to point out that Iotla Valley was built at an interest rate of .049 percent. We have been very conscious of how much money we have spent on these schools.”
Kuppers continued by noting that commissioners have made the commitment to fund major upgrades to the school systems in order to keep Macon County competitive with the rest of the state. “We have had major upgrades to Highlands, Nantahala and Franklin High schools, funded an upgrade to the computer technology to the school system, funded boilers, school buses and on top of all that, have managed to pay for 52 teachers,” said Kuppers. “I think Macon County taxpayers’ commitment has been more than sufficient, I think it is adequate, and I think it needs to stay where it is.”
Higdon began by saying that he agreed with Kuppers and that the county's commitment has been sufficient as it is an agreed upon figure between the board of commissioners and the school board and has seemed to work well. Higdon referenced a report done by the John W. Pope Civitas Institute in Raleigh, which acts as “North Carolina's Conservative Voice.” According to the report, Higdon stated that from 2000 until 2010, the enrollment in Macon County increased 8 percent, while the spending increased 32 percent, and per student spending increased by 26 percent. “What did the residents of Macon County get for all of these additional investments? Well, the graduation rate went from 76 percent to 84 percent, the end of grade reading and math tests declined in every grade except one, third grade math,” said Higdon. “In 2003, 100 percent of schools in Macon County schools met Adequate Yearly Progress goals under No Child Left Behind, in 2010 only 7 out of 11, or 64 percent made the goals.”
During Kuppers' rebuttal he referenced the original question asked by deVille and noted that it is the county's responsibility to fund capital outlay projects, meaning the building and maintenance of schools as well as capital projects in the district. “First of all, nice numbers, but unfortunately all of that funding did not come from the county because much of that money came from the state, so it is not fair to say that Macon County citizens bore that burden because that is really not accurate,” said Kuppers. “Second of all, with respect to Annual Yearly Progress, I taught at Macon Middle School in 2000 and it was really easy to make AYP because we started so low so it was easy to go up. When you get up in the 70s and 80s its hard to get up in the 80s and 90s and so that is a little misleading. To say that we have gone down, is really not a fair assessment.”
Higdon responded by saying that his intention was to use AYP as a measure of student learning. “We need some sort of measurement of student learning and I am not sure what that is other than test scores, not being an educator, so I was just reading these facts and assuming they are correct.”
Next, deVille asked the Board of Education candidates what they viewed as being the strongest points in the school system.
“I think our strengths are our teachers,” said Evans. “In Nantahala school, we have some of the greatest teachers that I have ever seen at that school. To build on that we need to give the teachers what they need to teach our students. I know for a fact that the teachers have to take money out of their own pockets to fund things in their classrooms.”
Baldwin noted that one of the strongest aspects of the Macon County school district is the system in place that has been improving for years. “We have a system that knows how to educate students. The teachers who work here now were once students here,” said Baldwin. “They went away to college to become teachers then came back here to educate students. We also have families in Macon County that realize the real respect and the real need for education of our children. They have always stood behind our students.”
DeVille asked County Commission candidates to elaborate on what they viewed as the greatest challenge facing the school district. “What do you see as the main challenges facing Macon County Schools in your capacity as a commissioner for the next four years? What buildings or campuses need to be replaced or repaired? Should we renovate Franklin High School or establish a new campus altogether? What about a 10-year horizon?”
Kuppers noted that he did not think it was financially possible to build a new high school now, or maybe even in 10 years, but said that eventually some board will have to make the tough decision to do so. He said the main focus moving forward is to keep operating with so many financial changes from the state and federal levels. “The major challenge will be riding the tsunami of federal funds going away. The recession and revenues drying up—all that has put us on a big rollercoaster. We need to spend the next four years calming that down; getting that back on track so we don’t have to deal with the issues we are this year.”
Hidgon agreed with Kuppers and said that he is most concerned about the school system's funding. “One of the main challenges will be funding simply because we’re in a recession. People simply cannot afford to pay more taxes.”
During their closing statements, Hidgon discussed what he viewed as the future of public education in Macon County. “Public education is crucial to the prosperity and future of this country,” said Higdon. “We can all agree we’re in some serious economic situations nationally, state and locally. It’s going to take a continued commitment from the board of commissioners, taxpayers and board of education to make it through what’s coming up.”
Kuppers closed by explaining that the school system's greatest strength is the children, and that should be the driving factor in any future decisions, “The one thing that got left out when we were talking about strengths is the kids. That’s the strength of the Macon County School System. That’s what makes it work. The rest of us are just there to facilitate and help them learn. They are the strength and the future. They are who the investment is for; it’s not for teachers or administration.”
In Baldwin's closing statement, he noted that although he has already served on the Macon County School Board for several years, he would like to be able to serve one more term in order to see some of the things he started get completed. “Over the years I have enjoyed serving with some of the greatest people that I believe Macon County has to offer,” said an emotional Baldwin. “These are the people who really get down and think and work for the children. We are in agreement with what Macon County really needs to do for the children, and that is the way it needs to stay.”
Baldwin noted that the Western district of the state is the most competitive district in the state, and has the highest test scores in the state.
Evans noted that she is a native of Macon County and that she doesn't believe that there is any where better in the world to live. “I want what all mothers, grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers want,” said Evans. “I want them to get the best education possible, I want them to feel safe and secure in their school, and I want them to excel in their life ... I am very excited about being able to be a part of that by being on the school board. I think that Tommy has done a wonderful job over the years and I think we have some great teachers in Macon County and it has been wonderful meeting them.”