Polk Schools: Status quo, or is it time for change?

Published 12:05 pm Friday, October 14, 2022

11 school board candidates share their thoughts in three forums

 

Voters will have a crowded ballot of choices in this November’s election for Polk County’s nonpartisan school board. Three recent forums have provided insights into the candidates’ educational vision, their system priorities, and how to bridge the divisiveness and rancor of the past two years.

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The first forum, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, was held Sept. 9 at the House of Flags in Columbus. Participants included challengers Jason L. Allen (Green Creek), German Ruiz (Saluda), Robin Atkins Wierzbicki (Saluda), Jolene Williams (Tryon), as well as incumbent Judy N. Jackson (Cooper Gap).

 

The Tryon Daily Bulletin sponsored forums were held Oct. 11 and 13 in the Womack Building in Columbus. 

 

The Oct. 11 forum was for the candidates vying for Saluda and Tryon township seats and included incumbents Mike Ashworth (Tryon) and Rob Parsons (Saluda), as well as challengers Williams, Ruiz and Wierzbicki. 

 

The Oct. 13 forum featured candidates vying for the Green Creek and Cooper Gap township seats. Attending were incumbents Jackson and Sherry Horne Page (Green Creek) and challengers Allen, Sydney C. Holbert (Green Creek), Brittany Klimstra (Green Creek), and Dee O’Brien (Cooper Gap).

 

Incumbent Danielle Edwards Gibbs (Columbus) is running unopposed and was not present at the forums.

 

Challenger Rick Stich is on the ballot from the Saluda township, but in an email to the Bulletin Wednesday, Oct. 12, said that he has essentially withdrawn from the race although he missed the date to officially withdraw. 

 

I have chosen not to campaign for myself, as I have selected another candidate to support and contribute. I chose Robin Atkins Wierzbicki, and I will vote for her as well,” Stich wrote. He did not participate in the forums. His name will remain on the ballot.

 

According to Bill Miller, former Polk County Schools Superintendent and emcee of the Bulletin’s forums, candidates may hail from a geographic area of the county, but they represent the interests of all the schools county-wide. Voters may choose one candidate from each  township, not just the township where they reside.

The Challengers

 

 

Jason L. Allen moved to Polk County from California four years ago. He has three teenage children in Polk Schools. He is a Navy veteran and is running for the Green Creek seat with the motto “Simply Conservative.” He says that being a Christian dictates his decisions and actions. His children did not wear masks to school during Covid, and that the decision to mask a child is not the school’s decision nor the governor’s decision, but rather a parental decision. The board is not a place to enforce mandates, he said. Allen says the school board should provide information on what training programs teachers are sent to, and schools need to provide a syllabus for each class allowing parents to preview what their children will be learning. He says the school board should be able to provide information in a simple and timely manner to community members and parents. Parents “have the right to discern what educational information is appropriate for their children.” He added that board meetings should include students, parents, and community members in open dialogue, and that more board members need to be asking questions at meetings. The last three years, he says, have been “radio silence” from the current board. Allen says “sexually vulgar and explicit material” doesn’t belong in schools and that he would “make a motion to have those books removed and reviewed by an official committee.” Allen says teachers should not be involved in affirming a child’s gender identity without parental approval, saying that “children’s minds don’t mature enough until they’re in their 20s.” Civics needs to be taught as “people have lost track of what this country was founded on,” and he added that he would like to see the system add career technical programs such as robotics, coding and electronics as well as resume writing and job interviewing classes.  

 

Polk native Sydney C. Holbert graduated from PCHS in 2010 and attended Isothermal and AB Tech. She has three children. She says she will offer an approachable persona and play an “active part in coming up with solutions.” Goals of the board should be to have open communication, and to build relationships with parents, teachers, staff and community members. Students need a variety of educational options, as not every student attends college, she says. As a board member she says she will be visible in all areas, a voice for students and staff, and a team player. She has been a volunteer with the rec department and involved in the YMCA. The school board has limited options when it comes to increasing support staff salaries because the funding comes from the state, she says, but “one way to compensate them is to just make them feel valued. Small kind gestures towards your work staff increases morale and helps them perform better.” The top priority for facilities is safety, she says, followed by maintaining clean and welcoming schools, and further developing a vocational program that lets high schoolers develop their career plans. She says she “holds the utmost respect for current board members” as they have had “uncharted waters to tackle these past few years.” She says she is registered as Unaffiliated. 

 

Brittany Klimstra lives on a 4,500-tree apple farm in Green Creek that she and her husband started in 2014. She has three children in Polk Schools, and says that the school system was the deciding factor in her family’s choice to move to Polk County to establish the farm. She says the current school board has “done a great job of hearing the issues at hand … of seeing what would be best to keep our kids healthy and safe and in schools as much as they can … and moving forward for the greater good.” As a board member she would strive to have an open and objective mind and come up with solutions that bring people together, not divide. Having worked in the food industry and now as a farmer, she says child hunger issues are important to address. Support staff shortages and low salaries should be addressed by the board, she says, to the extent possible as the bulk of that funding comes from the state. “We can all do a better job of advocating for support staff,” she said as she urged the audience to write their state legislators to press for more funding for the school system. “These people deserve a living wage,” she said. When budgeting for school priorities, safety has to remain top of mind, she says. She says she would like to see the Early College add an international baccalaureate diploma program, and to look at the Swofford model to expand career and technical programs. The testing that occurs in schools currently is sufficient, adding that it is stressful for students and teachers. She encouraged the audience to become mentors. “The resources we need are here in this room,” she said, adding that not everything kids learn comes from books. Klimstra praised Superintendent Greene saying he is a “great leader” and that whoever is elected to the board needs to have an open and diplomatic mind, be objective and supportive of the schools even if things don’t go their way. 

 

 

Dee O’Brien lives in Sunny View and is running for the Cooper Gap township seat. Her two children are Polk Schools alumni and now are college graduates. “Polk Schools delivered both of our kids a fabulous public school education,” she said, “which is one of the reasons I wanted to give back and run [for school board].” She says that she is very appreciative for what Judy Jackson has done for Sunny View for over 20 years, but that she would bring fresh ideas, new energy, and new perspectives. Her vision includes a platform of a fine arts center and for programming that would allow students to get a letter grade in art, as well as supporting increased daycare and childcare in the community. She says as a board member she will be honest, kind, humble, enthusiastic, patient, and a team player. She says that she wants to look into whether bus drivers could come under the benefits plan of the county, to make those positions more attractive. O’Brien advocates for school gardens, incorporating outdoor classrooms, and expanding the farm program. “We have not only a fabulous school system,” she says, “but we also have a wonderful superintendent… Don’t let the dissention keep you from making sure that you value Polk County Schools, that you support your superintendent, that you support each and every teacher, and every person that helps make the system number three in the state.” 

 

 

Running for the Saluda seat, German Ruiz said he became involved with the school board during the past two years during Covid because he felt the school board “dropped the ball” and because parents don’t feel heard. Parents need their emails to the board returned, he said. He stressed a focus on teaching the nation’s founding documents, addressing the “Covid slide” in student learning, combating student anxiety and depression, funding career, technology, the arts, sports, FFA, internship, mentorship and entrepreneurship programs, and implementing “high dosage tutoring.” He says the school system needs to offer its support staff pay that is competitive with Buncombe County. With a library background, he says “the issues in the libraries are something I understand personally and I understand we can fix them tomorrow if we have the right board. We are not looking to ban books, we’re looking to curate the collection for an age appropriate audience.” He said he served on a committee to evaluate books with Principal Schweitzer that was “a complete sham.” Later he said that he is “running on getting rid of these books.” He does not support a teacher affirming a child’s gender identity without parental approval. He says more parent involvement, more transparency in the curriculum, and more communication will go a long way to regaining trust in the schools. He criticized Superintendent Greene for giving him “platitudes” about a teacher he says is teaching critical race theory. “That’s something that has to be opposed 100 percent. Any kind of Marxist ideology has to be opposed fully,” he said. “We know that there are secret curriculums being taught, or not taught but they’re influencing children in subtle ways…the people that have controlled school systems for a long time are very cunning.” Ruiz said he withdrew his children from the Polk School system. 

 

 

Robin Atkins Wierzbicki, a Polk County native, is the only candidate with a NC educator license. She was a special education teacher in Wake County, before returning home to Saluda to get married, raise a family and work in the family’s apple business. Her platform includes improving communication, updating school websites, prioritizing core academics, teaching consumer math and good citizenship/character, and providing transparency in the curriculum. She says she will advocate for parents’ rights and involvement. She decided to run because she “has a passion for education” and felt the board was “not representative of our local community and of our values.” She does not support a teacher affirming a child’s gender identity without parental approval, saying “Alabama’s governor said if you’re born a girl, you’re a girl. If you’re born a boy, you’re a boy. That’s it. Pretty simple.” She added that with kids who think they might be transgender, “Give them a few years. 85-95 percent of them turn out perfectly normal. I mean, that’s puberty, that’s growing up.” She says that there are existing programs that schools should be teaching but aren’t, such as celebrating veterans, and that parents should be involved and pushing for that. The environment at school board meetings for the past several months “has not been great” she said, “and the community as a whole has felt this divide and it’s unfortunate.” She continued, “There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of building those relationships back.” She says she is a good listener and effective communicator, and stressed the need for positive relationships between schools and parents. Bus drivers recently received a pay increase, she said, adding that the pay of all school support staff from teacher assistants to custodians needs to be addressed by the board. Wierzbicki says that Polk has a clear computer technology policy with regards to vulgarity, obscenity and age-appropriate material, that should be easily transferable to books. Her children attend Wolverine Academy through Polk County Early College. 

 

 

Jolene Williams is a Polk County native, Tryon resident, PCHS alum, Furman graduate and preschool teacher with two children in Polk schools. She always wanted to be a PTO mom, but after attending school board meetings last year, she realized “that the only way my voice was going to be heard was if I was actually on the school board.” She says there are a lot of great things about Polk Schools, but that change is necessary. She would like to see better communication, parents’ emails to the board answered, transparency, and she wants parents to “have their parental rights back.” Williams says that many parents want to help out in various roles in the schools, but “they feel like they’re kind of shut out right now or not invited.” Williams says that there “has to be better communication during the [school board] meetings,” and “the way it is set up, they [board members] don’t have to talk at all … It looks like they either don’t care or they have no clue what’s going on and I think there has to be some involvement from them at the meeting.” Curriculum transparency in the form of a syllabus would be helpful and teachers need to be held responsible for what they teach. Williams said her son was not masked in school during Covid. “Instead of telling parents that disagree with what’s going on to take their kids out of school and go somewhere else, I think it was a huge downfall for several members of the school board to say that, because that’s saying that we don’t care what you have to say, we don’t care about your children.” Referencing Swofford Career Center in Inman, S.C., Williams said that vocational training needs a fresh emphasis, and that classes in practical knowledge (changing a tire, balancing a checkbook, completing tax forms, etc.) should be offered. 

 

The Incumbents

 

 

Tryon township resident Mike Ashworth decided to run for school board first in 2018 and is the current chair of the board. He has four children in county schools, and he says that what the schools need now is status quo. “When you have a top ranked school system in our state, I think status quo is ok, and certainly we don’t need any major upheavals with our schools right now. After the last couple years, normalcy would be really nice for our teachers, administrators and staff.” He says that the top ranked school system has an attractive economic benefit as people move here for the quality of the schools. Ashworth has served on numerous boards in the community including Polk Wellness Center, St. Luke’s Hospital Foundation and Thermal Belt Outreach Ministries. He says he is able to work with all members of the board and this makes him an effective school board member. Regarding funding for support staff, Ashworth says that the problem lies at the state level. “We’re not getting the funding we’d like to have. We take pride in our small headcounts, but that means more staff. We’re spreading things more thin every year.” Teachers have enough on their plates, he said, and they don’t need any more testing added. Facility priorities have been a $6 million HVAC upgrade, moving Forbes Preschool to Tryon Elementary campus, and installing safety equipment at Polk Central. “There are always ways to improve but major changes are not needed,” he said. “I just want to continue to help.”  

 

 

Judy N. Jackson has been on the school board for 20 years representing Cooper Gap. Her children graduated from, and her grandchildren currently attend, Polk County schools. Her resume includes 15 years with Little League, driving a school bus, chairing Head Start, and serving as PTO president. “One reason I’m on the school board is because I love children,” she says, “and I know that my input is important to make sure that our children have a wonderful education. I like being a voice for the children to make sure that they have a quality education.” Jackson argues that since not all PCHS graduates go to college, the board needs to focus on opportunities and technology for those students. The teacher shortage, teacher salaries, and mandated paperwork are great challenges in addition to parental involvement. “I think there has to be two-way communication and I think that’s kinda got lost along the way … that has to start back, to where parents feel like they are important in the school system because their child is there and they want to be involved.” Jackson says teachers should not be involved in affirming a child’s gender identity without parental approval. “God gave us our life and He created that. He created it for a reason and if He wanted us to be a girl, He would’ve made us a girl. If He wanted us to be a boy, he would’ve made us a boy.” To build trust in the community, Jackson says she is transparent, a good listener, honest and willing to discuss things in a calm manner. The decision to mask children should have been up to parents, she says. Procedures are in place to handle objections to curriculum and books, and a media specialist is now in place to work on any reviews necessary in conjunction with parents, she says. Saying that she wants to see Polk move from being ranked third in the state to first, she asks the voters to look at more than the last two years when making their choice. “Has the board done that bad?” 

 

 

Sherry Horne Page has served on the board for 24 years, representing the Green Creek township. A Polk native, she is the COO for a home furnishings company and oversees 100 employees and 12 managers. Her three children graduated from Polk Schools. Her board service has been under Superintendents Susan McCue, Bill Miller and Aaron Greene and under the leadership of Ann Whitmire and Geoff Tennant. “I believe continuity on the board is critical at this time,” she says. In her years on the board, she has had to make tough decisions, she says, but she has been a “catalyst in building an outstanding school system.” Page recently voted to increase bus driver pay by $3.50/hour and says if reelected she will work to increase salaries of other support staff “as we can” given budget parameters. Over the past two years, the school system received so many requests from citizens for reports, email records, information pertaining to Covid, and inquiries on books in libraries, she says, that they had to create a position to handle the influx of records requests. “…the administrative time it takes to handle these requests comes at a high cost,” and added that was “money that could have been used for support staff and teachers.” School safety is a priority when planning for facility needs, she says, and the system is continuing to work on addressing entrances, electronic locks, and securing areas of campuses. She would like to see the district revisit its long-range facilities plan, and she says that “we need a career and technical education addition at Polk High.” Teachers and students do not need more testing she says, but students need assistance with internships and opportunities that help them develop the skills of civil discourse, attendance, critical thinking, and discipline. 

 

 

Rob Parsons was appointed to the Saluda seat to fill a vacancy earlier this year. He is a graduate of Furman with a degree in biology, and of Yale Divinity School. He helped start the C4C Program, a reading mentoring program that he says has been extremely successful in terms of increasing reading scores and attendance. He promoted the One Book, One Community Program which involved children and community members in Saluda reading and discussing a common book. He says he is running for school board because when he sees a need for something, he wants to step in and help. In 1993 Polk Schools ranked third from the bottom in scores, and now Polk is third in the state at the top. He says that Polk students are now scoring so high because of the preschool and afterschool programs which equal a year and a half of extra instruction. Today and in the future, “our schools are the engine of our economy,” he says, noting that PCHS students are employed locally with certificates they earned while a student, such as through the certified nurse assistant program. “The division [at school board meetings] has been hurtful to our county and hurtful to our kids…As a community we need to gather together and pull together in one direction. And I’m able to pull people together in one direction to accomplish what’s best for our kids. In the end, that’s best for the community.” He stressed the need for bus drivers and for substitute teachers, noting that he voted recently to increase bus driver pay. He says he wants to develop a program starting in ninth grade that would pair students with a volunteer mentor who would help give vision and support to a student’s career aspirations. 

 

Early voting runs Oct. 20 through Nov. 5, weekdays from 8 a.m. – 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. at the Womack Building in Columbus. 

 

Election Day is Nov. 8 and voting is at the precincts, not at Womack, from 6:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.