Democrat Blake E. Odum considers Republican Guilford County School Board member Pat Tillman to be a friend.

“I think he is a great guy,” Odum said in a phone interview. “I think he has served the best he’s known how in his position.”

But just because they’re friends doesn’t mean Odum will hold back in the race for Tillman’s seat this fall. Odum, who currently serves as a youth development coordinator for Vandalia Elementary faces Tillman, who works in business development and has held the seat since 2016. Odum said he believes he is the better candidate to represent District 3 because of his experience working in the public school system.

“I think experience matters,” Odum said. “A lot of educators have expressed excitement with my choice to run for the board of education because educators want a voice from the frontlines as opposed to the sidelines.”

Tillman, who is running for re-election, won the seat in 2016 after beating Democrat Angelo Kidd, another candidate with an extensive education background. Tillman won by less than a percentage point.

District 3 starts in the heart of the county in the Greensboro neighborhood of Lindley Park, a predominantly Democratic area, before spreading to the northwest into Oak Ridge and Stokesdale which trend more Republican. Odum said he was told by many when he filed to run for the seat that there was no way he was going to win as a Black Democrat.

District 3 starts in the center of the county and then spreads to the northwest. (screenshot)

“I was actually crushed by some of the words of some influential individuals in the area because my district is predominantly white and I was told that I wouldn’t be able to win,” Odum said. “To be told that I couldn’t win because I was a Black candidate in a predominantly white district in 2020, there were times when I thought about dropping out. I didn’t know if I could deal with the trauma of that.”

Then the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings hit.

“Many constituents in District 3 started reaching out to me,” he said. “The support has been coming in and I don’t think [race] is as big of a barrier as it was in March or February.”

Tillman currently works as a senior business development executive at THS Creative and served in the Marines for 13 years. In a recent phone interview, he called Odum a “great guy” but said that he believes that he’s done good work in the last four years and deserves to keep his seat. He pointed to his work which helped secure five new CTE, or career technical education, programs that he said will help students during the uncertain economic future.

“I’ve gotten to see so much in the last four years and that experience is unparalleled by Blake or anyone that I’ve run against,” Tillman said. “It’s not a resume contest but even if it were, I think my background experience runs deep and wide…. It’s been a privilege and an honor to serve the people of District 3 and beyond. I’m just very grateful to have had the opportunity and I look forward to continuing that work.”

On the pandemic and reopening schools

Odum said his biggest concern going into the election is advocating for proper technology and access for all kids across the school district while they learn remotely. In October 2019, Odum said he saw the lack of resources at Vandalia Elementary for the most marginalized students and advocated for a device for every student in the school. He eventually worked with school administrators and outside sources like Technology for the Future of High Point to make his goal a reality. When the pandemic hit, Odum took his success story from Vandalia Elementary and made suggestions to Winston McGregor, the at-large member on the school board, to do something similar across the district.

“That is the type of person we need on the board of education,” Odum argued. “People who are resourceful enough to help solve some of these problems.”

Tillman agreed with his opponent that technology and access remains a problem for students as they learn virtually. That’s why he is advocating for students to return to schools and quickly and safely as possible.

“I just think that if we’re looking out for our most vulnerable students, getting back into schools in a safe manner is of the utmost importance,” Tillman said. “We know that from data from Hurricane Katrina that the achievement gap will widen the longer kids are out of schools.”

Odum differs with his incumbent opponent on when to send kids back to schools.

“We need to make sure that we are acting responsibly and appropriately to make a decision on when to return,” Odum said. “I miss my students. I would want them here just to see their faces, but we know that’s not the safest choice yet.”

Tillman acknowledged that COVID-19 poses a threat but said the widening achievement gap poses a greater risk.

“I think we need to reopen schools as quickly as we can,” he said.

At a school board meeting at the end of July, Tillman argued for five weeks of online learning rather than the nine weeks that eventually passed.

The two candidates also differ on the issue of students playing sports during the pandemic.

Tillman said he supports it because it helps students’ mental health and their grades.

“I think sports are a great tool for young men and women,” Tillman said. “In a lot of cases I think you’ll find that student athletes work hard to keep their grades up because of athletics.”

Odum said participating in sports is not worth the risk.

“I am a huge fan of sports,” Odum said. “But as much as it breaks all of our hearts, it’s just not safe right now and to have someone pushing to resume it would put lives in danger.”

On school funding and the state of school facilities

Odum said he was disappointed to see that the county commissioners only passed a bond referendum for $300 million when the requested amount for school facilities from the school board was $1.6 billion.

“There was no accountability for our local elected officials,” Odum said. “Our students deserve the best. That would be another one of my priorities.”

Tillman voted for the $1.6 billion request in during a March school board meeting along with six of his colleagues.

He said there’s no use dwelling on past decisions by other boards and that the school board needs to focus on how to best to spend the $300 million if it gets passed by voters in the fall.

“While $300 million is not enough to address the issues that we have, that’s the number we got,” Tillman said. He added that he would support a future bond.

Odum said he was disappointed by the amount approved by the county commissioners for school facilities, and like Tillman, he would advocate for a future bond.

“In order for us to be a cutting-edge district, we need people to make decisions to ensure that our students are learning in some of the best facilities,” Odum said.

On racial equity and policing in schools

Odum got his start in public education as a student instructor for an after-school program in Michigan at a predominantly Black and Brown school. A few years later, Odum expanded his advocacy of racial justice in schools by starting the Motivational Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for historically Black colleges and universities and helps students get into colleges. When he moved to North Carolina, he said he took the job at Vandalia Elementary, a school that has a majority-minority student population with 73 percent Black and 16 percent Latinx students.

Because of his experience, Odum said he understands the nuance of race in schools and how it can play out in discipline. In November 2019, the school board voted to allow parents and students to appeal short-term suspensions in the school district. Supporters of the measure argued that there were disparities in discipline based on race and that the appeals would allow for more due process. During the November board meeting, Tillman expressed concern that the appeals process would create more work for principals, and he voted against the measure.

“I just think that when we start taking tools away from principals, to me, that’s not productive,” Tillman said in an interview.

Odum said he supported the change.

“There is data that tells us that children of color are suspended at much higher rates for the same or lesser infractions as others,” Odum said. “A policy that allows marginalized parents, primarily, to have a voice in a decision that they may not necessarily agree with is important to address inequities in the system.”

Tillman said he would want to “see the data” that people’s “civil liberties being violated” but after being told the disparities that exist in discipline between Black and Brown students versus white students in Guilford County, he acknowledged there might be a problem, but said he believes discipline is an “individual issue.”

“It’s not targeted at a group,” he said. “But if the collection of those individuals end up being a certain race, that’s hard for me to make a decision because I’m not there.”

Odum and Tillman also differ on policing in schools.

Odum said that he thinks it’s an important conversation to be had and that one solution may not work for every school.

“Too often we try to do a one-size-fits-all fix,” Odum said. “We want to hear from parents. Ultimately, if the majority of parents feel safe with an officer in the building, then let’s put an officer in the building.”

Odum said there might be another prevailing opinion at schools where students of color comprise the majority.

“Having an officer in the building means something different based on what building that is, and there is data to support that,” he said. “In some schools, SROs are a community liaison. They are not viewed as a threat… and at other schools, they may not be viewed as a friendly resource. They may be viewed like, If I make one mistake, I’m going to jail.”

Tillman said he supports having officers in schools.

“They develop meaningful mentor-type relationships with students,” Tillman said. “These SROs have prevented so many students from ending up in the criminal justice system; it’s not the other way around. These SROs prevent acts long before they happen. They are a deterrent.”

Both candidates say Guilford County schools need additional support staff such as psychologists.

Odum said again cited his classroom experience as a reason voters should trust him to make decisions about police in schools.

“The difference between Pat and I boils down to experience,” Odum said. “It’s much different to see it from the outside than to be in the center of it all on a day to day basis…. To be in the building with [students] is much different. Some things that we might think are minute issues are major issues, but how you know the difference is based on experience. It doesn’t make Pat a bad person or a bad politician, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to allow a dentist to perform heart surgery on me. It doesn’t make the dentist a bad doctor, it just means that’s not his expertise.”

Tillman, who has three kids in the public school system, pushed back on the notion that he can’t know what’s going on in schools without working in them.

“To say that I don’t see what’s going on is a little bit short-sighted,” Tillman said. “I think many times people in education maybe don’t see the wider perspective. I come from a background in military, business and I have three kids in schools. I have a much more well-rounded perspective.”

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