NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Democratic candidate Hugh McManus is running for a spot on the New Hanover County Board of Education.
The retired longtime educator will appear on the ballot alongside five other candidates; voters may select three.
Early voting begins Oct. 15. Same-day registration is available during the early voting period, which ends Oct. 31. Election day is Nov. 3. Check your voter registration and county elections office to confirm polling locations, dates, and hours.
Port City Daily emailed all candidates the below questionnaire and will run their responses ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Port City Daily edited responses for spelling and grammatical errors only.
PCD: NHCS publicly changed its reopening plan three times before settling on a final course of action. How would you grade the current board’s handling of COVID-19? What, if anything, should have been done differently?
Hugh McManus (HM): Our county and school board (like others all over the country) had never experienced preparing for a pandemic crisis, dealing with staff and student health concerns, and a new instructional delivery plan for 26,000 students following guidelines set by the state. The planning was led with an interim superintendent and then a new superintendent, both highly qualified. Parent and staff questionnaires were developed and administered, and input from the county health department was received. It is difficult to grade the preparation of this crisis that came with understandably extremely passionate, personal feelings, stress levels and opinions, and without any previous or similar opening school crisis to serve as a guide. This was building an airplane while it was in the air. There were no rubrics available to evaluate different opening plans’ potential for success. Safety could not be compromised if the data and the health expertise were not comfortable with a plan or suggested a change because of the constantly changing health data and local stress levels.
PCD: How concerned are you about the achievement gap for minority students at NHCS? What, if any, policy changes would you push for to address it?
HM: Your September 6 article in the Port City Daily titled “The opportunity gap for Black students in New Hanover is huge. Covid-19 has made it worse” stated there were students in predominantly black elementary schools that were 2 and 3 grade levels behind which was massive and now it is much worse because of Covid-19. It also stated a teacher said “38% of the students at her school arrive at school with expected skills, well below the state average of 50%.” Your article also “found Black students in New Hanover County were academically 3 grades behind white students compared to a less drastic 1.9 grade gap in Brunswick and Pender Counties. Columbus County’s gap was only 1.7 and Onslow 1.4 grades.”
This absolutely must be a top priority for the school board and superintendent. The access to internet and trained adult presence during virtual classes is a vital key to stopping and then working to reduce these learning gaps. I do hope our community will read this article in full to understand how these students’, present and future, educational successes and job opportunities are lost without immediate and continued out-of-the-box instructional support. Forming small, off-campus pods with their teachers means additional resources and staffing to create an environment where every student is engaged and receives greater attention, instruction and remediation. We must not lose a generation of students.
PCD: Do you support higher pay for bus drivers? How else would you address the district’s need for bus drivers?
HM: I support higher pay for our bus drivers; this is how we attract and retain quality staff. The board needs to look at what possible incentives and possible additional schoolwork arenas when not driving where drivers could receive more hours and may become full-time employees as well. Our drivers are the first interaction to begin the school day and the last interaction to end the school day with bused students. These individuals contribute to the success and perceptions of our schools and school system twice a day.
PCD: How familiar are you with the Isaac Bear school facility situation? What would you do to address it?
HM: My present understanding is all Early College Programs in the state were established with the requirement that each early college would be placed on the host university property and the university would be the funding agent as well. I believe the trailers used by Isaac Bear were hurricane trailers and placed on a side corner of the K-Mart property, which is owned by the university. I have not heard or been questioned about the school facility location until now. I would think the location of the early college closer on the main campus and, if possible, near the Watson School of Education would improve security and create opportunities with the educational staff and leadership.
PCD: Do you support the district’s current use of school resource officers? What changes would you make and why would you make them?
HM: Yes, I do support School Resource Officers in school, especially high schools. They are there as a safety resource but not to be the school disciplinarians. They are there to support the administration with issues that could endanger students or staff. They seek help for students who confide in them their personal problems not related to the school. School Resource Officers have gone out of their way to talk to students and guide them as well, taking time to contact individuals and agencies immediately for the students.
The board signed a county’s “Inter-Agency Governance on the Handling of School Offenses. This agreement connects schools, law enforcement, the justice system, DSS and other government and community partners to change disciplinary practices in New Hanover County schools. This agreement expects schools to use a graduated framework and to not involve law enforcement and the courts unless absolutely necessary.” I would like to see the data and discussions more available to the public to see the yearly results of the agreement by the schools and a plan for continuous training.
PCD: How comfortable are you with the way the district uses local funds? What redistributions, if any, would you make?
HM: I am neutral because I have not participated in any budget meetings and heard the different program needs, successes or issues. I would like to see more resources for technology (we need to be on the leading edge), professional development ( attracts and retains quality staff), more high school workforce career classes (to expose our high school students to the technical and vocational skilled worker demands), and additional positions (to create much smaller class sizes for teachers, additional school counselors and staff equity, mental health specialist, and more Latinx liaison positions).
PCD: In 2018 many board members branded their campaigns on increased transparency and accountability. Do you think those goals have been met? Why or why not? What policy changes, if any, would you implement to improve those things?
HM: This board did inherit over a decade-plus plethora of hidden, abusive behaviors which resulted in the arrest of three county employees, and the arrest of former employees who were allowed to resign and move away. The answers to the questions of who knew and who was in charge that allowed these issues to go unchecked have not been released and are under legal investigations.
As a result of these issues becoming public, the superintendent and deputy superintendent were allowed to retire, and the human resources assistant superintendent and his assistant director quit. Former board members before 2018 have stated they “were not aware of these issues.” I would think the new and returning board in 2018 could not share or discuss, under any circumstances, because of the state statutes, the board attorney recommendations, the entrance of legal representation and the SBI. Transparency would mean an individual or individuals on the superintendent’s staff be identified as the recipients of all reports, so everyone knows who is responsible to receive this information.
PCD: Has NHCS administration addressed long-standing issues that resulted in an alleged cover-up culture and consistent failure to protect students from pre-identified criminal activity on behalf of staff aggressively enough? Why or why not?
HM: I am aware of a board committee that has recommended to the board a plan for an anonymous reporting system of any questionable behavior by a staff member, which was accepted. What needs to be known to all is who does the reporting go to, what is the process and who is it shared with? That way, everyone knows who received the information, the process and who else would receive the information. That would clearly indicate those who had the information and were responsible in the decision process.
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