Featured photo: Deborah Napper (left) and Michelle Bardsley (right) are facing off in the Distrct 5 Guilford County School Board race. (file photos)

Two political newcomers are battling for a seat left vacant by the 20-year Democratic incumbent in District 5 of the Guilford County School Board.

Darlene Garrett, who has held the seat since 2000, opted out this November, leaving Republican Michelle Bardsley and unaffiliated candidate Deborah Napper to duke it out next month.

The district starts in the center of the county, near Grimsley High School, and spreads north towards Northern High School and to the northwest into Summerfield.

Both candidates are using their professional expertise to persuade voters to choose them over their opponent.

“I’ve been a registered nurse by trade for 15 years,” Napper said. “I decided to get more involved in the school system because I have two kids, one in fourth grade and one in pre-K, and I’ve seen firsthand the things that need to be fixed in our school system. I would really like to be able to work on that.”

Bardsley previously taught in Guilford County Schools for 12 years — eight years at Grimsley High School and four years at the Academy at Smith — and now works as a career and technical education educator in Wake County. She said her time working in the school system makes her the better candidate to lead the district.

“I feel that I’m fully equipped for stepping into this role,” Bardsley said. “I understand the needs of teachers, the students as well as the business leaders in this community. I just felt like I had a good perspective going into this position.”

While Bardsley is running as a Republican, Napper is running as unaffiliated. Because she is registered as an unaffiliated voter, Napper had to collect 1,800 signatures before March 3 to qualify as a candidate. In the end, she said she got about 2,350.

“I’ve been unaffiliated for at least a solid decade,” Napper told Triad City Beat. “I like to explore the candidates and see what party values are in line with mine. These days, my values are more in line with the Democratic party.”

Bardsley recently participated in a virtual town hall with other Republican candidates, such as county commission candidate Troy Lawson and Sebastian King, who is running for the state Senate. She’s also been endorsed by Republican Congressman Ted Budd.

Napper said Darlene Garrett, the current Democratic representative on the board, has “taken her under her wing.”

“We’ve talked about the board itself and the duties outside of the meetings,” Napper said. Napper also considers herself to be a part of a team with other Democratic school board candidates like Blake Odum and Bettye Jenkins, who are running in districts 3 and 7 respectively.

Similarly cautious approaches in response to the pandemic

Both candidates are taking cautious stances on reopening schools in the midst of the pandemic. Napper, who is a medical professional, advocated for keeping an eye on the COVID-19 numbers as well as taking into account the inevitability of flu season that corresponds with the fall.

“The registered nurse in me is a little unnerved at the idea of COVID-19 meets flu season,” Napper said. “Adding another nasty virus looks pretty bad. That being said, it looks to be getting better, but I don’t know that I would advocate going back to school after nine weeks even though the mom in me knows that kids need teachers. I think it’s a little premature to make a decision now.”

Bardsley echoed Napper’s sentiments and said she wants to look at the “health data and the death rate due to COVID for our children for our age group of children.” She also wants to get input from parents and then see which educators are ready to come back to the classroom.

Still, she said she’s concerned with student achievement as some kids will fall behind during virtual classes.

“Most parents I’ve talked to have concerns about their children’s achievement,” Bardsley said, “about their emotional social health. It’s a lot of challenges that we’re facing…. Assuming that the current health risks exist and we cannot be in school full time, we need to have options. I think 2021 will be about flexibility and options for students and educators.”

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Sharon Contreras proposed a plan that would allow pre-K students to attend school five days a week beginning on Oct. 20 and grades 3-5 to begin on Oct. 26. Middle school students would return for two days of in-person learning in October while high school students would return for two days of in-person learning in January. Both middle and high school students would be split in half with one half attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be used for deep cleaning of school facilities. The school board is set to vote on a final reopening plan on Sept. 24.

As virtual learning continues for another few weeks, both candidates noted that access to technology and wi-fi remains an issue. Bardsley advocated for opening up community centers and churches for students who don’t have reliable internet access while Napper said having a public television station stream classes could have been an option.

“Accessibility in centers of the city is a discussion that needs to be hand but access in the county needs to be had too,” Napper said.

Diverging opinions on police in schools and school discipline

Both candidates fall along party lines when it comes to discipline in schools and policing of students.

Napper, who said she more closely aligns with the Democratic party, said that if officers are to be kept in schools, that the “programs need to be changed dramatically.”

“First off, I would like to see the training that they go through to be in schools to work with children,” Napper said. “I think they need to take a more medicine approach. In medicine, it is not on you to assume. You do not get to assume that the person you are dealing with fits any one box; you start at ground zero.”

Napper also said she would like to see the officers rotate out of schools regularly, which contradicts Republican sentiments that the officers provide valuable support by building relationships with students.

“You’re looking at people who are coming into these schools and they are seeing children at the worst times,” Napper said. “That gets to you after a while. These officers need to rotate out for their own mental wellbeing.”

Bardsley expressed strong support for officers in schools.

“I am 100 percent in support of having SROs in our schools,” she said. “They play a vital role in leadership, in relationship development with students, in deterring crime, as well as handling urgencies that do occur. The perceived negativity of SROs is wrong. They are there building relationships with students every day in a positive way. I think kids need to see that positive relationship with a person of the law. They are essential members of our community.”

Those concerned with officers in schools have said that the disparities that exist between how children of color are disciplined versus white students leads to a school to prison pipeline.

Bardsley pushed back on the notion and said Guilford County has discipline policies in place to maintain safety and peace in the schools. She also likened disciplinary policies in schools with what students will face in the workforce after graduation.

“We always have to think about where we’re heading for our kids,” Bardsley said. “We’re preparing them for careers. Kids have to know that some policies and behaviors are okay and some are not.”

Napper expressed that even if officers are in schools, they shouldn’t be armed.

“I do not think that the officer having a firearm is a deterrent,” she said. “Having an armed officer in schools is not stopping the crime and the things that need to be stopped.”

As a nurse, she said she was concerned about the margin of error that exists in high-tension situations in which an officer draws their firearm in a school setting.

“If they shoot in a crowded classroom of a gymnasium or auditorium, what or whom could you hit?” she asked. “I’ve seen what a child’s body looks like with bullet holes in it. It’s not something you want to see.”

The candidates also diverged when it came to their thoughts on the school board’s 5-4 decision to allow students and parents to appeal short-term suspensions. The decision, which was passed in late 2019, allows for students to appeal a short-term suspension decision by their principal up to the superintendent’s office.

“If you can prove your innocence, you absolutely have that right,” Napper said in support of the board’s narrow decision. “We do that in our judicial system. Why don’t we allow that for our students?”

Bardsley gave a long-winded answer that echoed her thoughts on school police officers. She talked about how discipline is necessary for students in schools and how it prepares students for the workforce.

“We have policies in place to help our students get ready for the real world,” she said.

More funding for school facilities is needed say both candidates

The candidates aligned on the need for more funding for school facilities. Both said that the $300 million approved by the county commissioners for a school bond is insufficient and that they would support a future school bond if elected to the board.

“Several of the schools on the facilities study are in my district,” Bardsley said. “I know that we need to update them, maintain them, have major repairs and in some cases, tear them down and build new ones…. Having worked in the schools firsthand, I dealt with that when I worked at Grimsley.”

Napper added that when her daughter was in second grade, her classroom heat wouldn’t turn off in the winter so the teacher had to open the windows to balance the temperature inside.

“Maintaining these schools is no different than maintaining a home,” she said. “If you keep only patching and doing the bare minimum, that’s how we got to where we are now. There’s only a certain amount of time you can keep doing this until things start to fall apart.”

On their priorities and they would lead the district

Bardsley said she has developed relationships within the school district in the 12 years she worked for Guilford County Schools and said that if elected, she would work to bolster the CTE programs to ensure student success past graduation.

“Our students will benefit if they can see career opportunities,” she said. “It helps students have visions for their future.”

She said she would also prioritize educator professional development and improving technology for teachers and students. She also supports an increase in supplemental pay for all district employees.

“I am better suited because I am an education leader with experience working with teachers and students and teaching teachers effective strategies,” she said. “I also have a business background where I’ll be able to help our county build relationships with local businesses. I understand finance, accounting and IT…. I think I’m an excellent candidate to serve.”

Napper said if she’s elected, she will focus on getting more nurses in schools to help students on a day-to-day basis and also advocated for mental health counseling for students.

“One thing that has really come up during COVID-19 is that we have a lot of students that might be living in abusive homes or be living with suicidal thoughts or depression,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the person that they are going to unload on is their teacher. I believe we need that for our teachers.”

As an unaffiliated candidate, Napper also said that she hopes to act as a mediator on the board and to view issues not from a political position, but from the viewpoint of what is best for students. She also wants to be able to communicate what the school board is doing so that everyone in the district can be knowledgeable. Her experience working with patients will come in handy there, she said.

“We found that most of our residents’ intake information at about a fifth or sixth grade level,” Napper said. “I believe that if we can clarify information between the county commissioners and our community and our school board, we can do a better job of pulling in more parents and students to be involved.”

As for her candidacy and road to election, Napper ended with a succinct message: “I do believe that you can always use a nurse doing a pandemic.”

Find more election coverage at triad-city-beat.com/category/election-2020.

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