Featured photo: (L-R) Marc Ridgill, Crissy Pratt, Tim Andrew, Matthew Kuennen

With the filing period finally coming to a close on March 4, Guilford County has a complete list of candidates for all of its elected offices including Guilford County School Board, which will have two Republican primaries in May.

The first race concerns District 2, where Republican incumbent Anita Sharpe did not file for re-election, paving the way for two other Republican candidates — Crissy Pratt of High Point and Marc Ridgill of Liberty — to run against each other. District 2 covers the very bottom edge of Guilford County, including Pleasant Garden as well as Jamestown.

The other Republican primary will take place in District 6, currently represented by Democrat Khem Irby who is running unopposed. The Republicans facing off to run against Irby in the November general election are Tim Andrew and Matthew Kuennen. District 6 covers the western portion of Guilford County, starting towards the center with Western Middle and High Schools then stretching towards the northwest to pick up Colfax as well as southwest to Northwood Elementary.

Marc Ridgill

Both Pratt and Andrew are running as part of a candidate slate called New Vision, New Direction, put together by the local conservative group Take Back Our Schools. Another candidate running on the slate is District 4 incumbent Linda Welborn (R), who has no primary challenger.

TCB reached out to all of the primary school board candidates for this article but did not hear back from Marc Ridgill despite multiple emails and phone calls. Ridgill is a registered Republican and former Greensboro police officer who worked in Guilford County schools as an SRO. In 2020, TCB reported on comments Ridgill made on Facebook that likened Black Lives Matter protests to anarchy and felonies. He has previously run for Greensboro City Council and Guilford County School Board, in 2015 and 2018 respectively, losing both times in the general election.

A focus on student performance

Of the four Republican candidates facing off in the two primaries, Crissy Pratt of District 2 is the only one with a public school educator’s background. Pratt told TCB in a statement that she holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a Master of Education in instructional technology, and is a national board-certified teacher. She taught in Washington, DC public schools and has experience in online education. As a former educator, Pratt said that what concerns her the most about Guilford County Schools is student performance.

Crissy Pratt

“The entire purpose of a school system is to educate students, and right now, we are failing at doing that,” Pratt said. “Nearly 40 percent of our students were not passing the end of grade/end of course exams before the pandemic started. With all of the chaos of the past two years, our students are even further behind.”

A look at data compiled by the NC Dept. of Public Instruction backs up Pratt’s assertion. Data from the 2018-19 school year shows that 48 percent of Guilford County Schools’ students were not proficient in math, compared to 41 percent for the state as a whole. For language arts and reading, the gap was a bit closer with 26 percent of GCS students exhibiting just Level 1 proficiency compared to 23 percent statewide. For the 2020-21 school year, the percentage of students who tested as not proficient in different subjects from math to reading to science grew significantly in Guilford County, but nearby school districts such as Forsyth County also showed significant learning loss. Guilford County also continues to have a higher graduation rate than the state average as well as a higher AP placement rate. Matthew Kuennen, who is running for school board in District 6, placed blame on online learning during the pandemic. In his statement, he noted that the policies put in place by the current school board were “draconian” and were “not based in science.”

As an associate professor of exercise science at High Point University since 2015, Kuennen said he’s seen the direct effects of the learning loss incurred by GCS students in his classroom.

Matthew Kuennen

“As a faculty member in the Congdon School of Health Sciences at High Point University, I have personally witnessed how these reductions in math and science scores have negatively impacted college readiness in our freshman cohort,” he wrote. “Across the state, we are seeing an increased need for 00 level (non-credit/remedial) courses as a means to address these learning deficits. There are instances where incoming freshman need a year or more of remedial coursework before they are considered to be college-ready. These problems are widely recognized, and we need educators with innovative strategies to ensure they don’t carry forward and contribute to life-long learning loss.”

Tim Andrew, who works as a project manager and is running against Kuennen in the primary, echoed his opponent’s concerns about learning loss.

“We need to focus on the fundamentals of education,” Andrew said. “Our test scores are not great. Our math and English EOG scores have been trending downward. In 2019, 44 percent of students were not proficient in reading (grades 3-8). Many young graduates lack the academic skills necessary to do well in the workforce or in the military. Quality of education must be our main effort.”

To remedy this, he suggested that the board should devote more time during its meetings to monitor student progress.

A push for more transparency, in and out of the classroom

Another issue Andrew mentioned in his response was the lack of information about the board’s authority and responsibilities compared to the superintendent’s. In fact, one of the main talking points of Take Back Our Schools, the group that Andrew is aligned with, has been its misunderstanding about the role of a school district superintendent. Last year, that lack of understanding led some who are associated with the group to target Superintendent Sharon Contreras directly, as reported by TCB. They accused Contreras of “abusing her powers” and using it to enact mask mandates as well as other COVID-19 protective measures. However, as evidenced by TCB’s reporting, the school board voted temporarily to increase Contreras’ powers so she could act expeditiously to enact policies related to COVID-19. Nora Carr, the chief of staff for the school district, told TCB that the school board had the authority to vote to rescind Contreras’ powers at any time and that Contreras hadn’t used her emergency authority once during the pandemic.

Tim Andrew

In addition to transparency within the school board, Kuennen also pushed for transparency within the classroom, noting that “parents have the right to know what’s being taught to their children.”

“Parents should be able to see all of the curriculum, books, and other materials that are being used in the classes their children are taking,” Kuennen stated. “Parents should be able to access copies of the syllabi used in all of the courses their children are taking at the start of the academic year. That way, if there were concerns with any of the content that was included, those concerns could be addressed before they became a real-time issue in the classroom.”

Pratt also noted that “parents should have access to information about what is being taught in the schools and should have a place to voice concerns or ask questions.”

This line of argument has been popular amongst Republicans and conservatives nationwide. Using the cloak of concern about transparency, conservative parents and school boards across the country have gone as far as banning books on certain subjects, protesting the teaching of critical race theory (which is not taught in public schools) and attempting to water down sex education by banning conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation.

“Parents should be able to see all of the curriculum, books, and other materials that are being used in the classes their children are taking.”

While Kuennen did not respond to a question about his opinion on the wave of book bans, Andrew noted that he is “not for banning books per se, but we have to agree that some books are not age appropriate.”

Pratt directed TCB to her webpage on the topic, which notes that she too, does not believe in banning books, instead offering action items such as a set of criteria for rating books as well as a process to allow potentially controversial books to remain in libraries.

When it came to the topic of critical race theory, which is not taught in public schools, the candidates appeared to diverge a bit on their answers. Kuennen stated that he has “significant concerns about critical race theory being taught in schools” and argued that the theory “re-writes” the history of the United States. Pratt echoed Kuennen’s view on CRT by stating, “I do not believe that we should be teaching that students should be separated into two groups based on race: the oppressed and the oppressors.”

TCB has reported in the past how critical race theory is not taught in public schools and is thus not taught in Guilford County Schools. It is instead, a higher-education framework that acknowledges the existence of systemic racism and works to understand the way race is embedded in American society.

Andrew, who is the only Black Republican school board candidate running in a primary, gave a more measured response.

“Regarding critical race theory, it seems that different people have different views on its definition,” he wrote. “If you believe that critical race theory is simply teaching the uglier parts of American history, then I will agree with you that history should be taught. If you believe that critical race theory is a worldview that states that all aspects of life must be explained in terms of racial identities, then I would challenge that.”

Despite her objections to CRT, Pratt echoed Andrew’s position on teaching “the uglier parts of history.”

“I believe that we should be teaching an accurate version of history that reflects our country’s painful reality, which should include African-American history, Native American history and all of the history of our country,” Pratt wrote. “Our history has many ugly sides, and we should teach it honestly. We should be teaching our students to look at the events of history with a critical eye and we shouldn’t gloss over the ugly parts.”

“Regarding critical race theory, it seems that different people have different views on its definition.”

Kuennen, however, pushed back when asked about teaching African-American history in schools.

“If this was being considered, my first question would be, what course will they remove to allow this change to be made?” Kuennen asked. “My kids are part Caucasian American and part Native American, so my second question would be if there will also be an option for them to study in these areas? On the Caucasian side, they’re Irish, English, Danish, Czechoslovakian, German and Italian. So, perhaps some further separation, to allow for focused study in each of these areas? Of course you realize that I am being facetious here. But I’m doing it to make a point. To me, this question seeks to cause further division.”

Instead, he stated that he would support African-American history being taught within the context of North Carolinian history.

“Given the demographic makeup of North Carolina, I am confident there are many instances where African Americans made major contributions to the history of our great state,” Kuennen wrote. “If your question was intended to ask if we should include those contributions when we are teaching NC state history, then my answer is a resounding yes.”

On school discipline and the Jan. 6 insurrection

One of changes that Pratt mentioned she would push for if elected to the board was a “revision of the discipline policy to ensure that students are equitably and appropriately given consequences for their actions.”

“There are too many classroom disruptions, and we need our students to understand that their actions have consequences,” she stated.

In 2019, the Guilford County School Board passed a proposal that formalized a process for parents and students to appeal short-term suspensions. At the time, those in favor of the changes pointed out the racial disparities of student discipline in schools.

According to several studies conducted in the last decade, including a 2018 report by the US Government Accountability Office, Black students, boys and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in public schools. During the debates, one of the biggest opponents to the change in the disciplinary policy were those associated with Take Back Our Schools.

When asked about the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, the candidates either dodged the question or pushed back on the notion that there was an insurrection at all.

“2020 and 2021 were shameful years in our nation’s history,” Pratt stated. “There was extremely inappropriate behavior from both sides of the political aisle. As a nation, we should be focusing on healing and coming together as Americans.”

Andrew, on the other hand, dodged the question by stating, “[W]e’ve allowed politics to remove our focus from educating our children. I am committed to the concerns of the 17 precincts within District 6 regarding education.”

And lastly, but perhaps most radically, Kuennen objected to the description of the Jan. 6 riots as an insurrection at all.

“According to the United States Justice Department, there was no insurrection,” Kuennen wrote. “To date, ~225 defendants had been charged with assaulting, resisting or impeding law enforcement officers. 275 defendants have been charged with obstructing a congressional proceeding. ~40 defendants have been charged with some sort of conspiracy charge. 0 defendants have been charged with insurrection.”

“According to the United States Justice Department, there was no insurrection.”

While Kuennen’s assertion is technically true, in January, several individuals who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 were charged with seditious conspiracy. According to reporting by Vox, “seditious conspiracy occurs when two or more people work together to plan to overthrow the government or prevent the execution of its laws.” This week, news outlets reported that former Proud Boy leader, Enrique Tarrio, was charged in a federal indictment for his actions on Jan. 6.

Find more of TCB’s 2022 election coverage here.

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