Wake School Board District 1: Tom Benton

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Tom Benton

District: Wake School Board, District 1
Age: 62
Occupation: Retired school principal, now education consultant
City of Residence: Zebulon
Incumbent: Yes

Do you have children in the district? If so, explain.

No, my children are grown, but both of them did graduate from East Wake High School, which is in the district, and both of their husbands graduated from East Wake.

The school board has been divided over partisan politics in recent years. How do you think that’s affected how the district has been run?

I do think it’s been an issue at times, probably not as great of an issue as the public perception of it is. I was very pleased to find that when I went on the Board in February there was a much more cohesive group from both parties that were honestly trying to do what they think is best for kids. And I’ve said that frequently, we have the same goals based on philosophies; we sometimes differ on the way to get there. When that’s done responsibly and professionally, that’s positive.

What do you think about the current reassignment plan and what would you do, if anything to change it?

I am very enthusiastic about the new assignment policy. It’s built on four key cornerstones: academic achievement, proximity, stability, and efficient use of facilities. Some people have tried to interpret that as we’re going to go back to quotas and large-scale bussing. But no, if you read the plan carefully it does talk about how the assignment plan is to be used as reasonable in trying to keep schools from having a heavy number of low socioeconomic students. And any Board that doesn’t look at that, I think, is not doing what they need to do. The two things that I like very, very much in it is that proximity is a key part, so the closer you live to the school, the more likely you are to go to it, and stability is a key part. This is what parents have told us: that once a child starts in a school they need to continue there through that school’s graduation. So if you start kindergarten in one Elementary school, you need to finish fifth grade in that school.

What is your main priority for the new superintendent for the next year or two?

The key thing is to bring a focus back to everybody, from Board down to Central Office to schools, on academic achievement. I think the latest graduation rates were a wake-up call. Through the fault of no one person I think there’s some evidence of some of the turmoil that we’ve had at the top over the past four years. But that’s always job number one: to make sure that the entire system, from Board-level down to teachers in the classroom, are focusing on student achievement. Second of all, a very immediate goal is that he’s got to get in and start working to get the bond approved. Without a bond being approved, we’re going to be out of space within about a year or 18 months, so it’s critical that we do that to ensure that we’re providing safe and effective classrooms for students. And it’s not just students moving in, but there are large numbers of schools needing renovations. Third thing is to work with the Board in restoring public confidence to Wake County public schools. So those would be my main three things.

Do you support the proposed school bond? And, if so, what are your priorities for spending that money?

In meeting with the County Commissioners we actually documented and established a need for over $2 billion in bonds, or rather construction money, bonds is the wrong word to use there. That is based on making sure that in five years we don’t have a larger percentage of students in mobile classrooms than we presently have. The present plan would call for us actually staying even with the percent of students in mobile classrooms, and renovating a large number of buildings that are beginning to age out. If you look at the history of construction in Wake County, there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent of our schools were built in the 50s or 60s. So they’re obviously aging out. Some of them are into their second or third renovations. So the need has definitely been documented, and even if some of the opponents have said that growth is not where we think it will be, that prediction for growth comes out of a planning department in county government, not Wake County Schools. So that’s not our prediction, that’s the Wake County’s prediction. Most feel that with the economy finally picking up, that’s a conservative prediction. But even if something happened and we didn’t need new space, there still is ample need for renovations.

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