Two Republican challengers seeking seats on Guilford County School Board have ties to the charter school movement, while Democratic incumbents warn about “an assault on public schools in this state” and trends in education “that have not been positive.”

With all seats on the reconfigured Guilford County School Board up for re-election this year, two Republican candidates with deep ties to the charter school movement are challenging longtime Democratic incumbents intent on defending traditional public schools.

Republican Alan Hawkes, a member of the NC Charter School Advisory Board who was appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, is challenging board Chairman Alan Duncan, a Democrat first elected in 2002, for the countywide at-large seat. Hawkes current serves on the board of directors of two local charter schools: Greensboro Charter Academy and Summerfield Charter Academy.

“We’ve got incumbents making excuses as to why public schools of choice shouldn’t have a seat at the table,” Hawkes told an audience at a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad on Sept. 20, referring to charter schools. “Every option should be on the table to get our children reading at grade level and not ending up incarcerated or on the streets or substance abusers.”

Elaborating in an interview with Triad City Beat, Hawkes said, “There are some things that members of the Guilford County School Board don’t want to talk about. One of them is the actual school board applying for and getting a charter where they could skip some of the requirements of those traditional public schools, and partner with an education management organization to be able to plunk one of those schools down in the district and be a public school of choice.”

The Hawkes campaign received a $1,000 contribution in February from Jon Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based charter school company that operates schools in seven states, including North Carolina. The contribution accounts for a considerable portion of the $2,596 total raised by the Hawkes campaign as of the most recent report at the end of June.

Colleen Reynolds, a spokesperson for Charter Schools USA said in an email that she doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to “question any private citizen about his or her motivation to contribute to a specific campaign.” She added, “However, I can tell you from my observations and experience that Mr. Hage is a serious proponent of doing what he believes is best for students and families. He has a long history of contributing to political campaigns across the country, across party lines, in states where we do have schools and in states where we don’t have schools. It’s very simple. Jon Hage supports political candidates at all levels who support education reform, educational choice and high-quality charter schools.”

Hawkes said in an email that “there is no quid pro quo nor expectation of special treatment for public charter schools in NC with which CS USA has partnered.”

Among Hawke’s duties as a member of the state Charter Schools Advisory Board is recommending applications for final approval to the State Board of Education and recommending to revoke charters for schools that fail to perform.

“I have absolutely no problem,” he said, “voting to revoke the charter of any public charter school that fails operationally, financially or academically.”

Duncan, Hawke’s opponent, has signed a statement that he does not intend to raise more than $1,000 during the campaign, and as such has not been required by state law to file detailed campaign finance reports with the Guilford County Board of Elections. If at any time during the campaign he exceeds that threshold, he will be required to report his receipts.

During the candidate forum, Duncan offered a nuanced response to a question about whether traditional public schools in Guilford County have adapted any innovations from charter schools — one of six purposes articulated when the state General Assembly initially authorized charters in the 1990s. Duncan cited Allen Jay Preparatory Academy in High Point. He elaborated later that the academy borrowed some practices from a charter school in Charlotte based on the “Ron Clark model,” which emphasizes a balance of academic rigor, creativity and a strict code of discipline. As an example of innovation flowing in the opposite direction, Duncan added that the private Phoenix Academy launched an aviation program after the public Andrews High School did so.

“The charter school question’s terribly complicated,” he said.

Darlene Garrett, a Democratic incumbent who has served on the school board since 2000 and who is running for reelection in the new District 5, has taken more of a hardline position against diverting state funds from traditional public schools to charters.

“I am definitely against the vouchers,” she said. “I believe they’re unconstitutional, as well as there’s no accountability for the taxpayers’ dollars that go to parochial schools and religious schools. It’s just plain wrong to take it away from public schools.”

During her closing comment at the candidate forum, Garrett took a jab at her Republican opponent, without mentioning her by name.

“And if you don’t know it, there’s an assault on public schools in this state,” Garrett said. “And that’s why it’s so important to elect strong board of education candidates. I have all the time in the world to do it. I don’t have a job. I’m not running another charter school.”

Mary Catherine Sauer, the Republican candidate, responded during her own closing statement by saying, “I have started two charter schools; I don’t run either one.”

Sauer elaborated in a follow-up interview with TCB, explaining that she founded Cornerstone Charter Academy and Piedmont Classical High School. She said she currently holds a part-time position as director of development at Piedmont Classical, adding that her contract ends in June 2017. All four of Sauer’s children attended Greensboro Charter Academy, a K-8 school, and three returned to the traditional public school system to attend Northern Guilford High School. Her youngest child is attending Piedmont Classical.

“My job was to get it started and stay there two years to make sure there’s a healthy transition,” Sauer said.

Sauer does not see her employment with a charter school and potential service on a local school board as being a conflict of interest, and said she would like to see “more constructive dialogue” between Guilford County Schools and local charters.

“There are lots of ways we can work together; at least, we shouldn’t be working against each other,” she said. “We need to do what benefits the kids. I think they could go a lot further. Charter schools tend to see families as customers. I think Guilford County Schools could go further in that regard by being more customer friendly and more in partnership with parents.”

Sauer acknowledged the concern of some that charter schools represent a diversion of public dollars and in some cases fund religious schools at taxpayer expense. “As a school board member we really don’t have any control over that,” she said during the candidate forum. “So while I see that some people have concerns about that — and separation of church and state — as a school board we should worry about what we have control over, which is Guilford County Schools. We need to concentrate on making Guilford County Schools the best it can be so that people don’t make other choices — that every Guilford County school is an excellent school.”

The Sauer campaign had raised $2,534 as of June 30, including a $200 contribution from Eddie Goodall. The former state lawmaker owns Goodall Consulting, a firm that advertises itself as offering “a broad range of services to help charter schools achieve and maintain a firm financial foundation.”

Goodall said he doesn’t view his contribution as promoting any potential financial benefit for his company.

“I’ve worked with Mary Catherine before,” he said. “She is smart and passionate about public education, and I think she’s someone who’s dedicated to creating change that provides better outcomes for students.”

Like her fellow Democratic incumbent, Garrett has signed a statement to the effect that she does not intend to raise more than $1,000, and has not been required to file detailed campaign finance reports.

A third candidate, Lois L. Bailey, is running for the District 5 seat as an unaffiliated candidate. Bailey did not field either of the two questions about charter schools during the candidate forum and did not address the issue during her closing statement. She could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Alan Hawkes issued a withering denunciation of opponent Alan Duncan at the forum. “If I were an incumbent on the board of education,” he said, “I would be absolutely ashamed of myself for 50 percent reading proficiency in third grade and 39 failing elementary and middle schools in Guilford County.”

Without responding directly, Duncan shifted focus to a number of state trends that he said threaten teacher morale and public education, including a drop in the number of teachers in “our education pipeline.” Then he noted that the Guilford County School Board has passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to repeal the A-F school grading system.

“If you look at a map of where the poverty is in North Carolina,” Duncan said, “you will be able to follow that probably to where the schools are failing.”

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