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Watauga County School Board Candidates Share Thoughts on Funding, Safety and Other Issues

By Nathan Ham

Five candidates are hoping to secure one of three open spots on the Watauga County Board of Education in this year’s election. Current board members Dr. Gary Childers, Dr. Jay Fenwick and Jason Cornett are seeking re-election while challengers Steve Combs and Danny Watts hope to take one of those open positions.

All five candidates were present at the Meet the Candidates forum held on Tuesday, October 23 at the Watauga County Courthouse.

Jason Cornett

“I am running for re-election to the Watauga County Board of Education. I’ve served on the board since 2014 and enjoy working with WCS. As a board member, I serve on several committees; Safe Schools, Watauga Education Foundation, Student Health Advisory Council, and Teacher of the Year. I come from a public servant background having a career in law enforcement, and having done so for the last 19 years. I pastor Three Forks Baptist Church in Creston with a loving congregation and enjoy aerial videography with my drones when I have free time. My wife, Brandy, works with App State Housing as a business officer, and our son, Josh, is a junior at Watauga High. I serve as an investigator with App State Police, which allows me to study current criminal trends which I find useful also in my BOE duties. I am one of three NCISAAC Field Liaison Officers in Watauga County and we work together monitoring potential issues that arise that could affect our schools, county, town, and App State campus communities. I sincerely appreciate all who work in WCS and those who take the time to advocate for our school system. As a native from the Bethel community, WHS graduate, and having a student in WCS, I feel it is my responsibility take part in this work and contribute how/where I can. I am asking for your vote for re-election to the Watauga County Board of Education.”

On the Issues

School safety: “School Safety is among my top priorities and I advocate for having a School Resource Officer in each of our county schools. Funding is our main hurdle and I, along with several other board and community members, had the privilege to present our thoughts to the House Select Committee on School Safety this past September. This committee expressed the desire to assist us in fulfilling our county school needs for SRO’s and Mental Health Support Personnel. The BOE recently applied for and received a grant from the Department of Public Instruction for approximately $66k and Watauga County Commissioners added an additional $100K to assist with adding two SRO’s to WCS. I am thankful for this progress and continue to work toward having the personnel needed in each of our schools.”

School funding: “Capital/Facility needs is another top priority. The BOE hired an architect firm to assess WCS’s capital needs and we have in hand a proposed plan to get each of our schools updated along with the need of new construction of Valle Crucis and Hardin Park Elementary Schools. Valle Crucis is regularly affected by flooding while Hardin Park’s enrollment has outgrown the current facility’s capacity and the study shows it is more cost effective to replace rather than renovate these two schools. $1.5M from county taxes is being set aside annually to begin to support this plan. With student enrollment rising, which is a good thing, and aging facilities, we have to move forward with our capital needs. Plan your work, and work your plan.”

Danny Watts

“I have been here since 2005, I originally moved here from Winston-Salem. I attended UNC-Greensboro and then I went on and got my master’s degree at Wake Forest in Theology. I have been working with children from kindergarten up through college age for about 35 years so I decided to run for school board hoping that I can be able to do some good for the kids here in the county and to help our children grow up in a safe environment and have some values to stand upon.”

On the Issues

School safety: “I am all for a resource officer at every school, but I think part of the problem we are seeing is anytime something happens at a school, it happens when someone gets inside. I have been working on a plan about using community volunteers to put outside like safety patrols like elderly people or people like that. They don’t have a weapon, they just have a radio that they can communicate with the principal, with the school board, with the police department and if something unusual happens at the school, they could let them know and maybe stop the intruder before they get inside the school. If we can stop them before they get inside the school, we can defeat the problem.”

School funding: “I think Valle Crucis is preeminent in what we need to work on first and then we need to maintain the other schools until we decide we need to build another school and where, because we have to keep everything maintained to keep the kids in school and keep the kids safe. I’m for doing anything we can to help the children. I don’t want to raise taxes, but if it helps the kids, maybe we should. I don’t really think we should, I think if we as a board and the county commissioners put our heads together, we could do this without raising taxes.”

Steve Combs

“I love kids, I have two kids that are in school right now at Watauga High School. I did 12 years on the school board from 2000 to 2012 and during that period of time we made a lot of great accomplishments. I was part of the team that helped build the new Watauga High School and that helped plan for the new programs that are in that school right now. My family has lived here at least seven generations and we’ve always served the people of Watauga County. I don’t look at this as a county, I look at this as a neighborhood where we all live together and we all have an investment and I want to be part of your life each and every day. If you elect me to your school board, you’re going to have a guy who’s out there every day fighting for you. I love to talk to parents, I want to know what your problems are. I am about not just students but about kids and families. That’s what makes up our school system. If you elect me to your school board, you will have someone that really cares about each one of you.”

On the Issues

School safety: “I look at this problem as a two-sided problem. I think many of the things that the school board is doing right now is good with the doors, the security system, and the ID system they’re using right now, it’s a good thing. One of the things that I want us to be really careful about is that we’re trying to keep the bad people out, but at the same time we’re keeping the good people out. I’ve had people come up to me on various occasions and say they used to volunteer at Cove Creek or volunteer at Bethel, but now it’s so hard to do this. I think we need to have SRO officers in every school but we need to work through that process with our county commissioners.”

School funding: “Right now our two biggest needs is to be able to replace Valle Crucis Elementary School because it floods something terrible. Number two we need to take care of building a new Hardin Park School. Even back when I was on the school board from 2000 to 2012 it continuously leaks and I think it continuously leaks now. Those two would be a great priority. Something else we need to do in the process is we need to be able to go back and update and repair the existing schools we have, but we need to do that in a way that doesn’t put a tax burden on our citizens.”

Jay Fenwick

“I’m running for re-election to the school board to continue the important work the current leadership has begun. We have been a really good school system, but I feel we are at a tipping point to becoming a great school system. The current board has a diversity vital for effective leadership and my computer science background gives the board an important insight into technology issues. My goals for another term on the board include: Continue productive discussions with commissioners on long-term facilities plan; continue use of data to inform and drive decisions; continue revamping salary schedules of non-teachers; advocate for monitoring and decreasing incidents of bullying and vaping; visiting a school a week; supporting teacher initiatives and more.”

On the Issues

School safety: “We did get a grant that the school board applied for, for two additional resource officers. We don’t have a resource officer in every school right now but we have several small schools and they’ll see a resource officer every single day, which is better than what it has been in the past. It’s more than just school resource officers because that is no guarantee. The tragedy in Parkland, Florida, they had school resource officers. We can’t trick ourselves into thinking that is a magic bullet, there is no magic bullet. Security is a process, not a product. It’s an ongoing discipline. I’m for school resource officers but there are lots of other parts that need to fit into this too.”

School funding: “We’ve been talking about schools and new schools for a long time in this county. With this board we have finally hired an architect and gotten a comprehensive review of all of our facilities and the architect has told us what needs to be done. We need to spend money to replace Hardin Park and Valle Crucis Schools because the renovation cost for those is even more than building a new school. For the other facilities, the renovation cost is less, even though there are big population problems at Parkway, there are other issues. There is ongoing maintenance at all facilities, so the trick is going to be having a dialogue with our county commissioners that we’ve already started to figure out how to enable that over the next 10 to 15 years.”

Gary Childers

“I’m running for election to the Board of Education because I love this school system! Since my retirement in 2005, due to serving in several Watauga schools, people from all areas of the county have encouraged me to run for election to the School Board. I have been grateful for the encouragement, and the trust/confidence it represented, but resisted until spring of 2017 at which time the current Board selected me to complete the term of a Board member who was unable to continue serving. During the past one and a half years I’ve become deeply engaged in, and committed to, the work of the Board and would like to continue. My highest priority has always been doing what’s best for the young people of Watauga County. Close behind that has been employing, and supporting, the best teachers for our young people. When one becomes a principal he or she quickly learns that even though our mission is to provide the highest quality education for every child our highest priority must be to make the school safe for all students and staff. Students and teachers cannot do their best if they are in an environment in which they don’t feel safe. Therefore, my top priority will be to continue the work of making our schools safe places to learn and teach. Closely behind this is my desire to continue supporting the formula for success Watauga Schools have enjoyed for many years. That formula is supporting a positive learning environment where the students feel loved and encouraged, employing the most qualified teachers, implementing the most effective instructional practices, providing the best training and materials we can afford, supporting the efforts of teachers, and engaging parents/guardians in a positive manner with their children’s learning. My final major area of focus is the continuation of improvements to our school facilities. In conclusion I’d like to share the following reflection. Over my years of service good teachers, parents, and other administrators helped me understand that the greatest gain for students can be achieved when everyone works hand-in-hand to bring out the best in each other. If elected, this will continue to guide my decision making as a member of the Watauga County Board of Education.”

On the Issues

School safety: “In order to have the best instructional climate in schools the students and teachers need to know they are safe. It is saddening that we have to even consider providing armed protection in our schools but we are remiss if we do not accept the fact that a tragedy, like the ones that have occurred in other schools in our nation, could happen here. Our current Board has accelerated the pace of making our buildings more difficult to enter by “hardening” the entrances to all our schools and requiring visual confirmation, and identification, of all persons who want to enter. Additionally, with the help of our town and county officials, plus grants from the state, we have been able to employ more School Resource Officers and will soon have a total of five serving our schools. Another major emphasis has been to increase planning for school safety by bringing in the best-informed state consultants and coordinating safety responses with law enforcement and other public safety officials. Additionally, we’re currently addressing the root cause of many of the school attacks by providing additional counselors and social workers in our schools. The purposes of these additional positions are to help students who are struggling with issues that might lead to them harming themselves or others find positive resolution to those issues. As to what should be done to further improve safety in our schools, the first step is to secure funding in order to provide full time School Resource Officers in all the schools. We also must continue to implement recommendations for additional “hardening” of access to our schools. I want to quickly add that we must do this while still finding ways to make our young people and school employees feel like they are in an inviting, positive learning environment and making our parents and community members feel welcome in our schools. In conclusion I feel we must always come back to the root of these horrible incidences and address the issues that cause a young person to want to harm others (or themselves). I support the following initiatives to help achieve this. The Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative is raising awareness of the real issue of damaging effects of trauma in young people’s lives and ways we as a community can take steps to reduce these incidents through education of parents and earlier, effective interventions when it is determined that a child has experienced trauma. The other way we can be proactive in reducing the potential for school tragedies is to aggressively address bullying of all forms (physical harm, verbal abuse, hazing, taunting, harassment, etc.) in our schools. We must aggressively work to reduce (or eliminate) the bullying that cause the debilitating effects plus we must hold accountable, and provide help to, those who are the bullies.”

School funding: “The current long-rang capital plan has been well researched. A thorough inspection of each school facility was done by a licensed architectural firm experienced with school building assessment. The assessment clearly identified the need for replacement of two or our schools and upgrades for all the others. The superintendent and Board of Education’s facility committee have been meeting with the county manager and Commissioners to develop a plan for addressing all this over a course of several years. I believe we should stay the course with this plan. Funding for capital improvements is the responsibility of the Commissioners in each county. I believe the best path to funding these needed projects will be for the Commissioners and School Board to have ongoing dialogue establishing a process for acquire funding to address current, and long range, needs over a period of many years using the best source of monies at the times they are needed.”

Below if the video of each candidate’s opening statement, closing statement and answers to questions.