School board divided over empty seat

Feb. 06, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

It’s still anybody’s guess as to who will fill Deb McManus’ empty seat on the Chatham County School Board.

Angela Millsaps and Jane Allen Wilson both interviewed for the seat that had belonged to McManus — who was elected to the N.C. House of Representatives in November — on Jan. 9, and the board had intended to make an appointment at its Jan. 14 meeting. But they couldn’t choose, and the decision was pushed back to this past Monday. After deliberations at that meeting got heated, the board deadlocked and voted to try again as soon as legally possible, with a goal of meeting early next week.

The current board members — David Hamm, Del Turner, Gary Leonard and Karen Howard — said Monday that neither candidate would be a bad choice to fill the District 4 seat, which represents Siler City and the northwest part of the county. But despite those claims, they refused to budge.

The struggles mainly lies in philosophical differences in what they think the board needs. Hamm and Leonard support Millsaps, they said, because of her family’s long history of involvement in Siler City and her dedication to her church and local schools. Turner and Howard support Wilson, they said, because she’s bilingual, has lived and worked abroad and has a long history of advocacy work with Latino students and families — and they think the county hasn’t focused as much on those students as it should.

Although the county as a whole is 13.2 percent Hispanic, 26.98 percent of students in Chatham County Schools are Hispanic. And they tend to struggle academically.

There are three elementary schools in Siler City. Virginia Cross Elementary School and Siler City Elementary School are 76 percent and 65 percent Hispanic, respectively. According to state data, both also have high levels of poverty, reading proficiency levels at about 50 percent (compared to the district average of 70 percent) and many students with limited English speaking skills. Silk Hope Elementary School, on the other hand, is about 13 percent Hispanic and has test scores above the district average, relatively low poverty levels and virtually no students with English difficulties.

Turner said Monday that Hispanic students are closing the achievement gap in math but are still far behind in reading. She said Wilson — who taught ESL classes to migrant farmers in North Carolina and in the Dominican Republic and also worked as a bilingual counselor for victims of domestic violence — has the potential to be extremely helpful.

However, Leonard and Hamm, who’s the board chairman, said Siler City should be represented by someone with deep ties to the community as a whole and that the board doesn’t absolutely need someone with a specific Hispanic focus because there are already ESL classes in place. Both also noted an exodus from Siler City and its schools — Hamm called it “white flight” — and said that Millsaps should be commended for not moving away despite the beating the local economy has taken.

“To have the option to do that and not sends a huge message,” Hamm said of Millsaps, who has worked on several committees at Virginia Cross and also directs both the Lay Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Siler City and a retirement community in Sanford in addition to her involvement in civic groups, nonprofits and school programs.

According to census data, between 2000 and 2010, Siler City has grown by a total of 13 percent, with a 43 percent increase in the number of Hispanic people but a 6 percent decrease in non-Hispanic people, and the town is split almost evenly between Hispanic and non-Hispanic people. The only demographics that shrank from 2000-2010 were white people and Asian people.

Hamm said a big factor in the loyalty of those who did stay is the enthusiasm of people like Millsaps, who served as PTA president at Siler City Elementary School for five years and at Chatham Middle School, where her son is in eighth grade, for the past two years. He also said he was deeply touched that Millsaps said she prayed about whether or not to apply for the job.

“Our country needs a lot of prayer right now, and that foundation is a big cornerstone to our livelihood,” he said. “... We have to take our past and use that as our stepping stone.”

Turner and Howard were not swayed.

“I’m not going to make my decision based on anyone’s declaration of faith,” Howard said, adding that the district serves people of all religions as well as those who don’t practice religion at all. “... I think we need to remove that from the conversation.”

Board members are now trying to find a third-party mediator to guide them to a decision. Once someone is found, the public must be given 48-hour notice before the next meeting. Board members said Monday night they want to meet this weekend, although Beth McCullough, the district’s public information officer, said Tuesday that any meeting likely won’t happen until early next week.