Update (Sept. 13): Langage in this article has been updated following concerns expressed by Jessica Winger including removing the phrases "parents first" and connotations that Winger and Moore are running as a bloc. These changes were made in response to Winger's Letter to the Editor, which also features a response from the News + Record.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly indicated CCS board Chairman Gary Leonard was usually the lone voice on the board encouraging a return to optional masking during COVID. It was actually board member David Hamm who was that lone voice. Leonard was an early advocate for a return to in-person learning for Chatham County Schools. The story has been updated to reflect this information, the News + Record apologizes for this error, which was made during the editing process of the story.
School board elections across the country have become political battlegrounds and barometers of polarization, with issues like the teaching of Critical Race Theory, COVID safety measures and parent involvement in the classroom becoming common refrains in sometimes-stormy public meetings
In Chatham County, there are three school board seats on November’s ballot. In Dist. 3, incumbent Democrat Del Turner — who’s held the seat since 2010 — faces two challengers: Jessica Winger of Pittsboro and Clifford Stickney of Siler City. Winger, who has four children in Chatham County Schools, has been a vocal proponent of an optional school masking policy and actively advocated for a return to in-person learning while CCS was in a hybrid or remote learning schedule.
Meanwhile, in Dist. 5, incumbent Gary Leonard, who is the board’s chairperson, faces Timothy Moore. Leonard, a former athletic director and coach at Chatham Central High School, was first elected in 2010. Moore, a Texas native and U.S. Army veteran, has joined Winger in campaigning with calls for increased parent transparency in board policy-making.
Stickney is running as an unaffiliated candidate for BOE, unlike Winger and Moore who are both Republican candidates.
Dist. 4 BOE incumbent Jane Allen Wilson is also up for reelection but appears alone on November’s ballot. Wilson was expected to be challenged in an organized write-in campaign by another Republican, Wendy Copelan, who was seeking office as part of a with Winger and Moore. Board of Elections Director Pandora Paschal previously told the News + Record that Copelan told her she wasn’t going to pursue the write-in campaign.
The News + Record spoke to two of the challenging candidates about their reasons for running and their goals if they were elected to office.
Motivation for seeking office
Moore is a political newcomer. He works in logistics in Siler City at Siemens Healthineers and is a former parent and current grandparent of students in the Chatham County Schools system. His granddaughter attends Chatham Charter School, and he says seeing her school have much higher scores and performance than public schools in the county made him consider why that may be the case.
“Our youth are our future and a lot of the issues we see in our country right now are reflected in how we are teaching them,” Moore said. “The U.S. is getting outpaced in education by other countries. We aren’t in the top 20 in the core curriculum of reading, writing or mathematics.”
The crux of Moore’s platform is improving on those outputs in Chatham County. He believes N.C. and the country at large are struggling to produce viable job candidates because of lackluster performance in those core areas.
“There are a lot of emotional discussions surrounding our schools right now,” Moore said. “But the bottom line is we are just not producing the skills we need to be competitive in a global market.”
He said the focus of education needs to be on the core subject areas — reading, writing and math — because he believes school is about preparing students for the future and setting them up for careers.
“There’s a lot of other things we can look at, but if we haven’t conquered the reading, writing and mathematics then you’re not producing an adequate skillset,” Moore said. “It has to be focused. I look at programs like One Chatham or whatever it may be and those are fine, but unless you focus on the key three elements, anything you do outside of that is not going to help the student.”
Winger says her motivations for seeking a board seat are based on her personal experience as a mother in CCS. She said she saw firsthand the hardships of virtual learning during COVID lockdowns and what she describes as a lack of transparency and responsiveness from the school board.
When students were first welcomed back to the school building in 2021, Winger signed up to be an elementary school substitute teacher in CCS, which she says was an eye-opening experience.
“Seeing where our schools are at confirmed some things and revealed a lot to me,” Winger said. “I never had an intention to run for school board. I’ve always tried to be supportive of the schools and be involved.”
Winger said her involvement stepped up during the pandemic because her children were “drowning at home” doing virtual learning. She said her involvement in the PTA and in the classroom couldn’t turn the levers of power toward a more in-person learning experience. It was then that Winger decided to attend CCS Board of Education meetings.
“I started attending to be a voice for parents,” she said. “It was really discouraging to see a lack of conversation and questioning about what was happening… And what I found was a disconnect between the school board and the parents, and really the whole community.”
During the height of the pandemic, Winger was outspoken at board meetings in support of less masking in schools and promoted a return to in-person learning.
While the board of education is nonpartisan, Winger and Moore have attended candidate events with the Chatham County Republican Party and openly identify as Republicans. And both said among their top priorities if elected to the board is addressing what they believe is a lack of transparency between the school board and the parents, with both adding that the school board should serve as a liaison between the schools and the community at large.
Winger said any time she has tried to offer a parent perspective at a school board meeting she felt pushed aside or dismissed, which she believes diminished trust between some parents and the school district.
“We felt the parent perspective was pushed to the side,” Winger said. “It was always ‘OK, we hear you, we don’t care.’ That was extremely frustrating.”
Leonard, the board’s chairperson, disagreed with that assessment. The Dist. 5 incumbent said he understood that certain agenda items at board meetings aren’t necessarily met with long debates or conversations, but that’s because a lot of discussion goes on before and after meetings between district staff, administrators and board members.
“I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’m consistently out in the community and I try to be as approachable as possible,” Leonard said. “I try to find answers to everyone’s questions. I feel like I try to be as transparent as I can be.”
Leonard is in his third term and has worked in education for more than 40 years. While on the board, Leonard said he was proud he helped hire three different superintendents for the district and increased the county supplement for teacher pay.
“The goal of the board is to help the students as much as possible, and I believe we do that,” Leonard said. “I like to work with people and find middle ground in any problems we encounter to try and find solutions to those problems.”
Winger’s opponent, Del Turner, also said the idea that the board lacks transparency was unfair. Turner said the board provides ample opportunity for participation of all stakeholders.
“When people come to public comment and they have an issue, it’s not discussed inside the board room,” she said. “If we stopped to discuss every concern that a parent brought to public comment, we’d be there all night.”
The Dist. 3 incumbent pointed to events like the One Chatham Community Engagement event and listening tours with the school board and Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson as moments where the board was out in the community.
“We’ve had these events where anyone in the community, any stakeholder can attend,” Turner said. “Ms. Winger was not there.”
Turner said the district makes every effort possible to notify community members and parents of meetings and events to try and improve communication.
Since she joined the board, Turner has been a vocal advocate for AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college readiness program aimed at closing the achievement gap. She says overall she’s proud of what the board has done in her three terms because she believes she’s helped move the district forward.
“I have expectations for the outcomes of these new programs like AVID and I want to be there to see it,” Turner said. “I want to see the outcomes of the visions that I had.”
Turner said she’s seeking another term on the board because she has pushed for changes like AVID for the last decade and wants to see those plans come to fruition.
Winger and Moore say they each want transparency at every level of the school, including more openness about lesson plans and curriculum so that parents know what teachers are sharing in the classroom.
This would mean allowing parents to opt their children out of certain lessons if they disagree with the lesson plans.
“Parents are a child’s primary teacher,” Moore said. “We need to trust parents first to make the decisions that are best for their children.”
He said communities are best off when parents have a voice in education. Winger agreed, saying “politics should be left out of the classroom.”
Leonard said parent involvement is important in the school community, but he believes the board has actively made strides to increase that involvement. He pointed to the recent creation of the CCS Parent Advisory Committee, where a parent from each school can provide input to the superintendent, staff and administrators.
“There are always going to be some [parents] that feel like they don’t have that opportunity,” Leonard said. “But we try to give people every opportunity we possibly can for them to get involved and we will continue to do more of that.”
Winger said the Parent Advisory Committee doesn’t go far enough because it isn’t open to all parents in CCS and the parents are chosen by district staff. She believes trust has been lost between the community and the board because of what she sees as a lack of input during the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to let teachers do their job, but this is also where transparency becomes important,” Winger said. “Parents shouldn’t be blindsided. This is where that clear communication is super important.”
She said teachers should allow for parent conversations about curriculum and lesson plans because clear communication is imperative to transparent education.
‘They came making demands’
Turner said the first time she recalls Winger attending a board meeting was during COVID-19, where Winger was a vocal advocate to end masking in schools.
“They came making demands,” Turner said of Winger and a group of parents. “We got insulted, got called stupid, and they said we weren’t looking at the science and all this kind of thing.”
Turner said while she understood Winger’s opinion on the matter, she would not allow a group of a dozen parents to make decisions on behalf of the 9,000 students in the district and their parents.
“Twelve parents can’t arbitrarily represent the some 18,000 parents in the district,” Turner said. “That was a point of contention. A small group of people felt that we should do what they asked, but we could not do that for the safety of the children.”
Decisions made about school operations were made in the interest of public health, Turner said. She believes the track record of the district should speak for itself because it’s one of the few school systems in the region that did not cease operations during the pandemic.
National conversations surrounding curriculum transparency and parent involvement have been rebutted by many teachers and school officials. They say the law in the United States has long supported the idea that education should prepare young people to think for themselves, even if it differs from their parents.
“We’re not teaching CRT,” Leonard, who was one of the first board members to vote for a return to in-person learning, said. “We are trying to take care of each individual child that we work with. We want to do the best job we can with each one socially and emotionally … I do this job to help look after children and I don’t know if there is a higher calling than that.”
Moore and Winger would be the only Republicans on the board if elected. They said their viewpoints would offer a needed different perspective on the approach to education. They said because the BOE is nonpartisan, they do not believe the different political viewpoints would hinder the progress of the board.
The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 14, and early voting in Chatham County begins on Oct. 20. For more information about the upcoming election visit www.chathamcountync.gov/elections.
The News + Record expects to host two candidate forums for all open offices, including the CCS Board of Education seats, in September and October.