An educational experience

When voters cast their ballots in the millennium’s first election, they’ll be faced with a dizzying array of choices: Who do we send to Washington? Who do we send to Raleigh? But at least nine candidates are asking for your vote so that they can stay right here in Buncombe County.

These nine are vying for four seats on the Buncombe County School Board. And while the White House has the power and the state House affects the lives of seven million North Carolinians, in terms of local impact the school board casts a pretty lengthy shadow.

To put things in perspective, the Buncombe County school system has an annual budget of $155 million; its school buses travel more than 12,000 miles every day, it’s the second-largest employer in the county, and it’s bigger than 98.5 percent of the 16,000 public-school districts in the country.

Many politicians like to talk about their education proposals, but those ideas are only part of larger social agendas. School-board candidates, on the other hand, have but one item on their agendas: education.

In our increasingly complex world, however, education is no stranger to controversy. Our school systems are becoming microcosms in which society’s myriad problems are acted out like a morality play. The Erwin High School mascot debate, public prayer at football games, the increased frequency of shootings and other violence in schools, the assimilation of immigrant students — these are not just newspaper headlines, but everyday issues dealt with by school-board members, teachers, administrators and students.

The Buncombe County School Board has seven seats: one representing each of the six districts, plus an at-large seat. Board members serve staggered four-year terms, and Buncombe County voters can choose candidates in all the district races. This year, one seat will go to an at-large candidate: Michael R. Kryzanek, Paul J. “Dusty” Pless Jr., William “Dolph” Robinson or Ron Shulby. One seat is up for grabs in the North Buncombe District, but it will be grabbed by J. Robert “Bob” Embler, who’s running unopposed. The third seat available is in the Owen District, with newcomer Mark Crawford trying to oust incumbent M. Wendell Begley. The fourth seat is in the Roberson District, where incumbent Dianne P. Shepherd is facing a challenge by Doris P. Freeman.

Here are brief profiles of the candidates in this non-partisan race, along with excerpts from their responses to several key questions posed recently by Xpress. (William “Dolph” Robinson was unavailable for an interview before press time.)

At-large candidates

Michael R. Kryzanek: In his first run for public office, Kryzanek is looking to bring his experience as a local businessman (he’s the general manager of the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort) to the school board in an effort to foster a relationship between local businesses and the schools. Kryzanek feels that both would benefit from such a partnership, with businesses providing much-needed resources (such as technology) that will help produce a more proficient work force. Kryzanek serves on the Asheville Civic Center Task Force and is involved with the Asheville Sister Cities Program. He points out that his position on the executive board of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce will help him implement his goal of increasing the level of business involvement in the school system. As for educational experience, Kryzanek highlights his active role in parent/teacher organizations and his position as an adjunct teacher at A-B Tech. He believes the Buncombe County school system’s greatest strength is its overall quality of education, citing high standardized test scores as proof. What does Kryzanek see as the greatest challenge facing our schools? “It’s the lack of an infusion of community interest and assistance in the system.”

Paul J. “Dusty” Pless Jr.: This Asheville resident and convenience-store owner is making his first run for the school board. His 16-year involvement with the Buncombe County school system includes volunteer work with various PTOs, a stint as chair of the T.C. Roberson Education Foundation and a seat on the committee for the construction-bond referendum (1996-99). Pless, the current president of the Asheville Optimist Club, is also involved with the Eblen Charitable Foundation. He sees technology as the system’s greatest challenge: “At the high-school level, we are woefully short [on technology],” he notes. “I would like to see businesses become more involved and help us with this issue.” Asked about the school system’s greatest strength, Pless had a simple reply: “Their people.”

Ron Shulby: Shulby holds a master’s degree in counseling and is a licensed marriage and family counselor in Asheville. “[I’ve] worked with children and parents at every single school in Buncombe County,” he points out. “I believe in children and education. I have the time, energy and the desire to help them.” Shulby’s educational experience includes serving on the Buncombe County school system’s Career Assessment Advisory Board and on the Advisory Committee for the graduate department of counseling and education at Western Carolina University. He also highlights his work with PTOs and parent-education programs that focus on children of divorced parents. In addition, Shulby volunteers his time to help train Buncombe County school counselors. He feels the system’s greatest strength is “the equality. … The moneys from the bond issue have been used in an equitable manner; there is a sense of fairness throughout the county for resources and assets.” In Shulby’s opinion, the greatest challenge facing the system is growth: “In the last 10 years, the school system has grown from 4 million square feet of buildings to 5 million square feet … and it’s still overcrowded. I’ve seen large closets used as meeting rooms.”

North Buncombe District

And the winner is … J. Robert “Bob” Embler. Although Xpress usually refrains from venturing into the often-muddy realm of political prognostication, this race — with a single candidate running unopposed — seems like a safe call. So we’ll go out on a limb and predict that Embler will win by a landslide. (Remember, you read it here first.)

One look at Embler’s resume might explain why he ran unchallenged for the North Buncombe District seat. Although he has never served on the school board, he has some 37 years’ experience in the Buncombe County school system. Embler has worn many hats during that time, serving as principal, teacher and personnel administrator. He also worked as a school custodian (while in high school) and, most recently, as a school-bus driver. And though he has officially retired, Embler still substitute-teaches when he can. To Embler, the county school system’s greatest strength is the supportive community and the high quality of the staff. The system’s biggest challenge? Embler points to the high dropout rate, noting that increased parent involvement is the key to addressing this problem.

Owen District

M. Wendell Begley: With 16 years of experience on the Buncombe County School Board, Begley is seeking a fifth four-year term. As president of the Black Mountain Savings Bank, Begley feels that he has the financial background to deal with the budgetary questions the board must face each year. As he puts it, “With my experience in the bank, I can be a good, positive influence in moving our system forward.” Begley is looking to extend his tenure on the school board because he feels the Buncombe County school system has accomplished great things, and he wants to help make it not only one of the best in the state, but one of the best in the Southeast. As for the system’s greatest strength, Begley explains: “Looking at the battery of testing we do, we’ve proven to be one of the top 10 systems in the state, yet in the last three years we’ve averaged 80th (out of 110 systems) in per-pupil expenditures. That’s well below the state average. We’re getting a big bang for our buck.” Begley, too, sees addressing the dropout rate as the system’s biggest challenge, along with attracting qualified and talented teachers. “Sixty-eight percent of our teachers have 16 years or more [of experience] in the system,” he points out. “We need to come up with aggressive ways to target new teachers.”

Mark Crawford: Real-estate agent Mark Crawford is making his first run for the Buncombe County School Board. Making changes in the school system’s budget would be one of Crawford’s top priorities. “I’ve gone through the entire budget and have found close to $943,000 that I felt was either useless or wasteful spending,” he reveals. The first thing he would eliminate is the stipend each school-board member receives (about $3,000). “Why should we get this?” he asked. “I believe, at this level, service should be free. If you’re going to help your community, do it for the right reasons.” Crawford is a member of the Black Mountain Parks and Recreation Commission and has worked as a substitute teacher in the county schools. The West Point graduate feels that discipline in the classroom is the system’s greatest challenge. He proposes a pilot program for high-school students who have been suspended from school. “With [the] faculty and staff in place at the Juvenile Evaluation Center, we can form the basis for a boot-camp-style school for everyone [who is suspended]. Many of these kids tend to look at a suspension as a form of vacation; there’s no real academic accountability or progression,” he says. Two words describe the Buncombe County school system’s greatest strength, according to Crawford: “dedicated teachers.”

Roberson District

Doris P. Freeman: This Asheville homemaker is making her second run for the Buncombe County School Board. Her last attempt (four years ago, for an at-large seat) was unsuccessful, but that hasn’t deterred Freeman. “I want to remain active in schools,” she emphasizes. “I’ve been involved with children all of my life.” Freeman was the first local director of the Foster Grandparent Program. Now in its 10th year, the program places senior citizens in schools to act as mentors to young people. She has also served as president of the Estes Elementary School PTO, and currently serves on the United Way Citizens’ Review Panel. Freeman cites the Buncombe County school system’s high standardized test scores as its greatest strength, praising “the excellent administration and staff. The teachers working with these children deserve a lot of credit.” The high dropout rate also tops her list of challenges. She advocates curriculum reform and improving the schools’ vocational and technical training programs. “We need to be making connections between the [students’] studies and the real world,” she reasons. “My main goal is to see each child leave school with a marketable skill.”

Dianne P. Shepherd: This first-term school-board member is acting manager of the Avery’s View Retirement Community by day. Her educational experience includes stints as president of three of the county’s PTOs and a position on the Advisory Council for Career Education. She’s a member of the North Carolina School Board Association board of directors. Additionally, she has worked with the Buncombe County Parent-Teacher Council and the Children’s Medical Pharmacy (an arm of the Eblen Charitable Foundation). “I have experience, fairness and a lot to offer,” notes Shepherd. She cites “our people” as the school system’s greatest strength. The biggest challenge? “Finding financial resources to do what we need to do. We need to tighten our budget as much as we can.”

The questions

Mountain Xpress: One issue being debated across the political spectrum in the many races for public office is that of school-voucher programs. While, as a member of the school board, you won’t be in a position to initiate such a program, you may be asked to implement one. How do you feel about the voucher program?

Kryzanek: I believe in public education, and I’m against vouchers. If you want to send your child to private school, that’s your choice, but it shouldn’t be subsidized.

Pless: I’m in favor of a pilot program to see if having the money [in the form of a voucher] follow a student from a failing school to a private school makes a difference. Basically, I’m not in favor of a voucher system, but maybe we can learn from it.

Shulby: I’m a strong advocate of the public-school system and the diversity of the programs they offer. I see vouchers as benefiting the higher-income families. I don’t believe mid- to lower-income families can take advantage of the voucher system. The vouchers may not pay all of the tuition to a private school, and they won’t pay for transportation.

Embler: I’m opposed to it. I’m totally a public-school person. Vouchers will limit funds, and we need every penny. If we go with a voucher system, we will dilute the money we need.

Begley: I’m opposed. There are some plausible arguments, such as school systems who aren’t willing to adapt. Our system adapts. Vouchers are only viable in systems that don’t adapt.

Crawford: I support it, with a caveat. Vouchers provide opportunities for kids who wouldn’t be able to escape a system that often brands them as predestined to fail. School systems often use a broad-brush approach in dealing with kids. My caveat is that we must remember that our priority is to ensure the best education possible for all of the kids in the system.

Freeman: I’m not for vouchers [that will] make the rich richer. But I can see a voucher, temporarily used, to get a child back to grade level. I’m against vouchers if they’re going to be used by parents who simply want a private-school education paid for by the state.

Shepherd: I’m a strong advocate of public education, and I feel we need to use our resources to better that system.

MX: Language-minority students represent the fastest-growing segment of our student population. These students, mainly from Mexico and the Ukraine, require intensive training in English as a second language. Recently, some middle-school Spanish teachers have been reassigned as ESL teachers to address this need. Some parents are upset by this action, in that it deprives some middle-school students of their opportunity to study Spanish. Additionally, some argue that this is just putting a Band-Aid on a growing problem. How would you propose meeting the needs of this burgeoning population?

Kryzanek: Given the resources available, this may be a Band-Aid, but it’s the best Band-Aid available now. We need to support our ESL program and our foreign-language programs, particularly Spanish. An answer to this could be found in a business partnership.

Pless: There are 600-plus students with limited English proficiency in our school system — 65 in one elementary school. How can we not address their needs? This is a priority. For now, if we have to eliminate Spanish at the middle-school level, then that’s the way it must be. There’s a real lack of funding.

Shulby: We are not meeting their needs. The state mandates that we test all students under the ABC Initiatives [covering reading, writing and math] within two years. This is a test administered in English. We need certified ESL teachers working with these children. We shouldn’t have to lose Spanish teachers to do this.

Embler: People need to learn the English language. We need to serve these children the best way we can. It’s a funding issue.

Begley: These students must get a strong, solid education in reading skills and math. We’ve had to redirect resources to make sure it’s an equitable process. Conversion is the immediate answer, I would assume, because of the needs we are targeting. A challenge to public education is the ability to adapt.

Crawford: I’ve been trained in five different languages. The best physical training [for language study] is immersion, not ESL training. I’d rather have the middle-school Spanish teachers back. I’d like to see every new language-minority student schooled for one entire year in immersion — in the same classes as every other student. But we would give them a one-year pass; they would have no grades count against them. They would then get the chance to pass on to the next level or repeat the year.

Freeman: I feel we’re not meeting their needs. Criteria must be met. We should keep our Spanish teachers teaching Spanish. Teachers should be certified in what they teach. The state should give us the funding to attract ESL teachers who are certified.

Shepherd: [The language-minority students] are part of the system, and we’ve taken the first real steps. Curriculum specialists have addressed this in an appropriate way, and I have every confidence they will continue to do this. And I would be in favor of getting Spanish in the middle schools back on track.

MX: If, as a member of the school board, you were approached by a group of high-school students seeking to establish a gay, lesbian and bisexual student alliance on campus — in order to promote tolerance and understanding of alternative lifestyles — what would your opinion be?

Kryzanek: I would listen. The fact of the matter is that a certain percentage of our population is gay. We need to do things that promote acceptance. This is an issue of basic human dignity. It is time that we, as a society, stopped blaming people for who they are. We should hold people accountable for actions that harm others, and being gay doesn’t harm other people. I don’t know why some people feel so threatened by it.

Pless: It’s just like any other group. We’d have to provide them a venue to meet [in]. In my eyes, it’s just like the Chess Club or Pep Club. They could be recognized, provided they follow school guidelines.

Shulby: Within the state and federal guidelines, I would advocate for their right to promote tolerance.

Embler: We need to be fair with everyone. I’m not going to question your lifestyle, but I’m not going to promote it. This is an equality issue. I’d support it as long as it’s not something that breaks school rules.

Begley: For after-school hours, yes, I would permit it. But if the club — or any club — became a distraction to learning, I wouldn’t tolerate it. Teaching and learning are our focus.

Crawford: I have not made my mind up yet about this issue.

Freeman: That’s the million-dollar question! I’m not for advocating the gay-and-lesbian movement, but they have the right to come here. I’m against it at the high-school level.

Shepherd: On a personal level, to recognize them as a group, I would not be in favor of that. I think we’re doing a good job right now, with our character-education program, in recognizing and appreciating our differences without introducing another element.

MX: What do you think about the We Still Pray movement and the recent Supreme Court ruling on prayer in schools, v. , which held that ?

Kryzanek: As a member of the school board, I would follow what the federal government said to do. On a personal level, at business functions around here, it’s not uncommon to say a blessing before a function. It’s a delicate balance; there is a lot of diversity in Buncombe County. People want what’s best, but few people are willing to compromise or give ground.

Pless: I’m a Christian, but we have to uphold the law. I understand [the We Still Pray] movement. I support our superintendent, however. Praying at games in the South has been a tradition for as long as I can remember. When the court made the decision, people felt like it was Big Brother taking away another right. But our population has changed. We’re more diverse, and we must uphold the law.

Shulby: As a board member, I would have to uphold the law. We need to respect the rights of all students. I respect the We Still Pray movement and their dedication to Christianity and prayer.

Embler: I can pray anytime, anywhere I want to, but you don’t have to brag about praying. When you impose prayer on others, it hurts someone. Due to our diversity, there will be objections. The court has ruled, and we should follow their decision.

Begley: I took an oath to uphold the law; I will abide and follow it. I have no problem with the invocation at football games; it’s part of our culture. I never received complaints about it; I can recall maybe one complaint. It’s a shame so much energy is spent on these distractions, taking our attention away from the academic components.

Crawford: It’s good when people stand up for the things that they believe are moral and ethical. I don’t think the movement is divisive. But if we must allow one form of prayer, we must allow all forms of prayer. I’d uphold the law.

Freeman: I wish [the court] hadn’t handed down the decision. I do support We Still Pray. We live in the Bible Belt. Billy Graham lives here. I think prayer should be allowed at games. But I’m for equal opportunity for religious minorities.

Shepherd: Personally, I was disappointed by the court’s decision. I’m a Christian, but as a school board we must adhere to the law.

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