The run to run the Buncombe County schools

Personnel shortages, new buildings, funding, testing, No Child Left Behind; the county school board faces the same issues highlighted nationally, plus a few of our own. From English as a second language to coming up with money for nurses and new schools, the Buncombe County Board of Education makes the decisions that affect our children every day — and help determine how they’re prepared for the future.

The seven-member school board includes one representative from each of the six districts plus an at-large member. School-board members serve four-year terms, and all Buncombe County voters who live outside the district lines for the Asheville City Schools get to indicate their choices for all seven slots. Because the board terms are staggered, however, voters will cast ballots for just four of those seats this year. Incumbents Bob Embler (North Buncombe District) and Wendell Begley (Owen District) are running unopposed.

(Students living in Asheville attend the Asheville City Schools, whose five-member board of education is appointed by City Council.)

The two candidates for the Roberson District, incumbent Dianne Shepherd and hopeful David Arpin, have a number of things in common. Both have children who attended county schools, and both have been heavily involved in the school system as volunteers (including serving as PTA president). Both are aware of the effects of the overall growth of the student population and the increasing number of of non-English-speaking students; both emphasize the school system’s need to secure state funding in order to help it grow.

“This is the future,” says Shepherd about the changing face of Buncombe’s schools. Having already served two four-year terms, Shepherd believes a stronger parent/school partnership is needed to help students whose first language isn’t English make the adjustment to English-speaking classrooms. She also applauds the school-by-school analysis designed to let each district make decisions based on the particular needs of its students. The initiative, she says, will begin this fall, when the districts begin meeting with parents to help determine needs.

Shepherd, a lifelong Buncombe County resident, is the human-resources director for Arden Woods, a retirement facility. So far, her work with the school board has reinforced her belief that one of the biggest problems facing the Buncombe County Schools is one of human resources. “I am very concerned that we don’t have enough teacher assistants,” she says. Both Shepherd and Arpin say they’re alarmed by the shortage of nurses in public schools.

And although media reports nationwide focus on teacher shortages, Shepherd says the local problem is a lack of qualified candidates for school principal; she’d like the training program for prospective principals to beef up recruitment efforts.

But despite the challenges, Shepherd also notes with pride that the county school system includes more “schools of excellence” every year, as rated by the state.

David Arpin, a chiropractor and 18-year Buncombe County resident, cites his prior involvement with the schools and his relationships with school officials as qualifications that have prepared him for serving on the school board.

“I have a great deal of energy to put forth into this program,” he declares.

Arpin says he’s concerned that some national trends, such as testing, may be threatening schools. “We may be getting too involved with testing,” he observes, forcing teachers to teach to the test rather than focusing on the material itself. He worries that teachers may find themselves on uncertain ground if their students don’t score well on the tests. “Quite honestly, their jobs may be in jeopardy,” he says.

Having seen student demographics shift, Arpin hopes to change the way schools handle the ESL population; he’d like to see these students integrated into regular classrooms more quickly.

And as the county’s overall student population continues to grow, more facilities are required (which, in turn, requires more money) — a need that’s not lost on either candidate.

Neither candidate took a firm stand on the ongoing national creationism versus Darwinism debate, deferring such choices to others. “I’m not sure we should impose our personal beliefs, as educators, either on students or parents,” said Arpin. And Shepherd said she would continue to support the educational curriculum handed down by the state.

David F. Arpin

Age: 56
Address: 22 Fox Hollow Court, Arden
Occupation: Chiropractor
Years in Buncombe County: 18
Education: Doctorate in chiropractic, Logan College; bachelor’s degrees in science, music education
Political party: Declined to give party affiliation
Political experience: None

Dianne Shepherd

Age: 58
Address: 101 Poppy Lane, Asheville
Occupation: Human-resources director, Arden Woods retirement facility
Years in Buncombe County: Lifelong resident
Education: B.A., Western Carolina University
Political party: Declined to give party affiliation
Political experience: Two terms on Buncombe County Board of Education

In the race for the at-large seat, incumbent Paul J. “Dusty” Pless is squaring off against Asheville resident Grant Millin. Pless maintains that his education and teaching experience (he taught for three years before opening a retail business) are what set him apart from his opponent. When asked the same question, Millin said the main difference is his “progressive point of view that cutting our children short [due to] budgetary matters is not a priority.”

As for changes in the school system, Millin would like to see “improvements in the health-and-welfare aspects [such as cafeteria food and recreational opportunities] of the children’s lives in our schools.” Pless says he’s proud of the changes he’s helped implement during his tenure on the board, citing the Middle College option now available to students who “can’t find a niche in a traditional high-school setting.” The Middle College, run in conjunction with A-B Tech, gives high-school students who might otherwise drop out a chance to complete their degree, he explains, noting that he’s proud of the program’s success rate.

Both candidates see the growing numbers of ESL students as one of the biggest challenges facing the system. Millin observes that these second-language learners are “part of America’s future,” adding, “We need to embrace ESL programs in a generous way.” Pless points out, “Obviously, we need more ESL teachers and aides, as well as new technology that can assist us in the [teaching] process.” At present, notes Pless, there are “42 or 43 languages spoken in the school system.”

Asked about the creationism vs. Darwinism debate, both candidates prefaced their answers by noting that, to date, the controversy has yet to rear its head in the local schools. But if it did, said Millin, “Religion needs to stay out of public schools. … Science is science.” Pless, meanwhile, responded, “I think you can explore both, but how it is presented is the most important thing.”

To a considerable extent, the direction of the county school system ultimately rests in the school board’s hands — but on Nov. 2, voters will weigh in on whether the board itself needs a change of direction or the steady hand of experience. And with the future at stake, casting a ballot in this race will be anything but elementary.

Grant Millin

Age: 39
Address: 26-1/2 Wagon Road, Asheville
Occupation: Photographer/graduate student
Education: B.A., UNCA; pursuing master’s degree in political science
Political party: Democrat
Political experience: Campaign volunteer, activist

Paul J. “Dusty” Pless

Age: 52
Address: 1921 Hendersonville Road, Asheville
Occupation: Convenience store owner
Education: B.S. in special education, master’s degree in education
Political party: Democrat
Political experience: One term on the Buncombe County Board of Education, campaign volunteer

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