IndyWeek Interview

Shaun Pollenz – Wake County Board of Education

Name as it appears on the ballot: Shaun Pollenz

Campaign website: www.shaunforschoolboard.com or www.facebook.com/shaunforthekids

Phone number: (202) 905-3182

Email: spollenz@gmail.com

Years lived in the county: 20+

1. What do you believe are the three most important issues facing the Board of Education? What are your priorities for addressing these issues?

My absolute top priority, if elected, will be to restore the K-8 year-round academic intervention and support services that my opponent voted to eliminate when she was Chair of the Board of Education in 1998.  This is the reason why I decided to run for office this year.  I could not believe that Wake County no longer provided summertime academic intervention for struggling students.  My mother teaches 8thgrade English in District 3 here in Wake County and has students who are reading on a third, fourth, and fifth grade level.  How did that happen?  Why is she expected to get them up to an 8th grade level by year end or she and the school get a lower grade?  This system makes no sense, particularly when Wake County has no programs in place (besides the terribly inadequate, state-mandated Read to Achieve program for K-3 students) to help our students keep pace and reach their potential.  Instead of addressing a student’s needs when they arise, we just move our students along to the next grade and hope for a better result next year.  Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, so we must do better to help our students right away when we see them struggling instead of passing them along to the next grade and hoping for the best.

My second priority will be to help end the school-to-prison pipeline.  We’ve been under federal investigation in Wake County for 8 years due to our discriminatory outcomes in student discipline.  Black/Brown students, and males, are disproportionately suspended from our schools in such shocking numbers that the federal government has to be involved.  That’s disturbing.  I’ve read the old policies as well as the most recent version adopted by the policy committee and I’m not surprised that we are still under investigation.  The problem here is implicit bias, and we’ve failed to take meaningful steps to eliminate it here in Wake County.  The solution is to rewrite our policy to include guidelines for how we, as a school system, expect our teachers and administrators to evaluate student behavior.  We must include all of the aggravating and mitigating factors that the disciplinarian may consider when making their decision.  This is very similar to what I see in, for example, a DWI sentencing courtroom.  It is very easy to predict how judge will sentence a guilty defendant because the system is set up so well that it considers every possible outcome.  When we write our policies this way, we remove any ability for adults to impose their own implicit bias upon our students. By dictating which factors are relevant when determining how to discipline, we control the outcome in advance.

My third priority will be to enforce the 10-year-old, $730 million judgment in Wake County Superior Court which entitles school systems across the state to collect monies owed from the State of North Carolina. Wake County is owed $70 million of this judgment, plus interest, and we have a legal right to enforce this judgment at any time.  The NCGA has this money squirreled away, so the recession is no longer a barrier to collection.  It’s time we take what we are owed and reinvest that money back into our schools.  We have been fighting for years now over where to get the money for counselors, nurses, and other support staff.  Well, I just found it.  If we enforce this judgment, we should have the money to fund these positions for at least a decade.  And all we have to do is assert our legal right.  If elected, I’ll insist that the attorneys working for the school system stop playing nice and start getting real.  That’s our money.  It was misappropriated by the State almost 20 years ago, back when I was a WCPSS student.  Now I want back what was taken from my education so that I can give it to these kids today.  That’s not asking a lot.  In fact, it’s just enforcing a lawful judgment from Wake County Superior Court.  Helping our students get the support staff they need should be this Board’s priority, as well. 

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective Board of Education member? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

First, I am a K-12 product of the modern WCPSS (post-1976).  If elected, I’d be the only person on the Board who attended modern Wake County schools.  I think this is important as I have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like being a student here in Wake County.  I was one of the first students to attend year-round school in Wake County in 1993 when they opened Morrisville Elementary.  I have personally experience the benefits of a year-round education. I also attended one of our oldest magnet schools, Martin Middle.  Having access to extra academic programming made me realize the importance of spreading these programs to ALL of our students, not just a lucky few.  The student perspective is often overlooked when determining how we should do things here in Wake County, but I believe the student perspective is too important to ignore, and I am well-suited to advocate for our kids.

Second, my mother is an 8th grade English teacher here in District 3, at Wakefield Middle.  Being raised by a teacher, you better believe I’ve been hearing all about the daily struggles of being an educator since I was a kid.  I was raised on that struggle.  For me, this race is personal.   Now I’ve got friends that I grew up with here in Wake County who became educators.  A new generation is dealing with the same old problems, but we’re not here for that mess. If elected, I will be a strong voice for teachers and make sure that their perspectives are being considered BEFORE the Board makes major decisions.  For example, we have a LOT of very upset middle school teachers right now who are dealing with a brand new curriculum this year.    Why were they not included in the discussion or decision-making process about how their classrooms would be run?  It’s reckless to exclude these voices from the process, and I will make sure we listen to the teachers FIRST, before we decide anything that affects how they operate their classrooms.  They are the experts, and we should listen to and respect them.   Respect for the teaching profession has been on the decline for years, and not coincidentally fewer and fewer young folks aspire to become teachers.  We must reverse this trend, and that begins with electing strong advocates for teachers.  I am a strong advocate for teachers and hope that my voice will be amplified on behalf of our teachers if I am elected in District 3.

Third, if elected, I would be the only attorney serving on the school board.  I run my own small practice here in Raleigh dealing with criminal defense and securities litigation issues.  I’ve already explained how important it is to have someone with my base of knowledge and skill set on the school board.   As mentioned, we’ve been under federal investigation for 8 years for discriminatory student discipline practices, and my experience as a criminal defense attorney has given me insight into how we can address this problem.  Also as mentioned, we have $70 million, plus interest, that we are lawfully entitled to collect from the NCGA at any time.  As a securities fraud litigation attorney, I know how to enforce a judgment.  I’d be happy to call up the Sheriff and bring him down to the NCGA to enforce that judgment and get our school system a nice check on the spot.  It’s irresponsible for us to ignore this opportunity when our children are being underserved. 

Another legal issue facing the school board is the lawsuit filed by my friends at Legal Aid NC, for whom I’ve been fortunate enough to do pro bono legal work in conjunction with The Child’s Advocate.  Essentially, Legal Aid’s lawsuit claims that WCPSS does not provide a free and adequate public education to students with special needs, as required by our NC Constitution.  Their claim is believable because we know that our schools don’t have the resources available to hire all the necessary counselors, nurses, and support staff to handle all of our most vulnerable students’ needs, and because we’ve seen the school system’s propensity to overuse out-of-school suspensions, particularly when dealing with vulnerable student populations.  It is vital that we put an attorney on the school board so that there is a strong voice bringing light to these issues, one that will keep the spotlight focused where it needs to be focused. 

Finally, as an attorney on the school board, I will work to ensure full 1st Amendment protections to any speakers who wish address the school board in a public setting.  No longer will “personal matters” be deemed inappropriate for public commentary.  The current board and current school board attorneys are enforcing public commentary rules that clearly violate the First Amendment.  When I saw a mother told she cannot speak on her own daughter’s experience being sexually assaulted in one of OUR schools, that the conversation needed to take place behind closed doors, I was outraged.  Policies like the one our school board is trying to enforce have been overturned by court after court as violations of our free speech rights, and I am disgusted that our school board supports silencing the community they serve with prior restraints on free speech.  If elected, I will immediately call for our free speech rights to be respected and restored so that all parents can defend their own children’s interests in public, as necessary.

3. If you are challenging an incumbent, what decisions have the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are an incumbent, what in your record and experience do you believe merits another term?

The reason I decided to enter this race was because my opponent led the charge as Chair of the Board of Education in 1998 to eliminate summer school for our K-8 students.  For 15 years, until 2013, if a student failed their classes and their EOGs, the school system would, with few exceptions, opt for ‘social promotion’ and move that struggling student right up to the next grade without any immediate academic intervention or support services whatsoever.  In fact, that student would be rewarded with a long summer break, plenty of time to experience ‘summer learning loss,’ causing them to fall even further behind, year after year.

 In 2013, the State implemented a program called ‘Read to Achieve,’ which targets K-3 students who are struggling to learn to read. The program has proven wildly inefficient, resulting in a full 5 point decrease in 5 years in 3rd grade EOG pass rates (from 60.8% to 55.8%), and has led to an 11.3 retention rate for our 3rd grade students in Wake County.  We are doing a TERRIBLE JOB teaching our kids how to read, and we’re still completely ignoring 4th-8th graders who are struggling.  This system is ridiculous, particularly when both schools and teachers receive grades of their own for how well they get kids achieving on grade level.  What is my mom supposed to do about kids who read on a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade level when they get to her 8th grade class?  How is she supposed to work miracles in a classroom of 30+ students when the previous 8 years of education was insufficient to prepare her students to reach grade level expectations? By the time they get to my mom’s classroom, it may be too late to bring these kids up to speed.  Many will continue to fall further behind and are destined to drop out.  Instead of letting these kids fall through the cracks, we have to identify these students in Pre-K or Kindergarten and schedule them for extra help right away.  We have to invest resources to provide immediate and targeted academic intervention and support for our most vulnerable students. We cannot continue passing our students up to the next grade, with long summer breaks in between, when what they really need is one-on-one academic intervention.  Every student deserves to reach their potential, and we should strive to give our students every tool they need to be successful.

Bringing back the year-round academic intervention and support services that my opponent voted to eliminate in 1998 when she was Chair of the school board will be my top priority if elected.  In fact, it is literally the reason I decided to run for office this year.

4. Research, including a report from the NC Justice Center, suggests that North Carolina’s schools are becoming more segregated by race and economic status. What do you think is driving this trend, and do you think this is an issue WCPSS needs to address? Please explain your answer.

I think there are at least 3 reasons for this problem.  First, we had a crazy Board of Education in 2009 who worked to undo years of integration efforts in just a couple of years.  We are still putting the pieces back together from the damage this runaway board caused. 

Second, the voucher program and charter schools have contributed to a “white flight” from our public schools into private and charter schools.   Charter and private schools have a higher proportion of white students than does our public school system, and this disparity will only continue to grow as we allow more school choice options.  To combat this, we must hold our charter and voucher schools to high standards and demand that they be racially inclusive.

Third, why would anyone expect our schools to be well-integrated when our society is so segregated?  Do we live in fully integrated neighborhoods?  Do we attend the same churches?  No.  It’s absurd, therefore, to place unreasonable burdens on our kids to make up for our own failures as adults.  Even when we do have racially and economically diverse schools, those schools are still internally segregated.  They are not inclusive environments.  Take a look at any cafeteria and you’ll see tables full of black students and tables full of white students.  Sure, there are examples in every school of students crossing racial boundaries to forge new friendships, but, by and large, birds of a feather still flock together. 

If we are going to change how our society functions, we need help from our city and county leaders.  We need initiatives to integrate our neighborhoods, preserving historical populations while including new groups.  We need more affordable housing in unexpected areas.  We need white people moving to black neighborhoods, and black people moving to white neighborhoods.  We need churches doing events with other churches, integrating our centers of worship. To be clear, I do support efforts to keep our schools diverse, but we need a whole heck of a lot more than just a longer bus ride for some unlucky students to get the job done effectively.  

5. What effects do you believe the popularity of charter schools is having on the school system? Is it exacerbating segregation or draining resources from neighborhood schools, as some critics contend?

Charter schools are absolutely partly to blame for our growing diversity issues.  Private school vouchers also contribute to the issue.  These schools do not have to share our community’s concern about diverse classrooms.   These schools tend to take only the best and brightest students, or those with the greatest financial means to contribute to their school community.  This leaves behind students with special needs, minority students, students with discipline issues, students who struggle to achieve on grade level.  The students left behind require more resources and attention to educate than the average student who attends a charter or private voucher school.  That means the stress and burden on WCPSS continues to grow as enrollment in private and charter schools increase.

That doesn’t mean that we should abandon our love of private and charter schools.  They absolutely have a role to play in educating our kids.  I believe that, if we are able to regulate these schools and ensure fair and impartial access to these schools, we can minimize their negative impact on the WCPSS while maximizing their benefit to our community at large.  These schools should work in compliment with our public school system, instead of causing it stress.

After all, we’re all in this together.  We all benefit from a strong public school system.

6. In light of recent funding debates, some Wake County commissioners have suggested shifting school-tax authority to the Board of Education. Do you think this is a worthwhile idea? Why or why not?

As a potential member of the school board, I’d be happy to handle the taxing issue at the school board level.  I understand that there is some evidence that this forces school boards to be more judicious in their spending habits, and I’m all about our school board reining in costs, particularly when it comes to capital construction costs for new schools.  We spend more money on schools than anything else in our budget.  The WCPSS budget is $1.6 billion, for example, but the entire county budget is only $1.1 billion. While we absolutely need to spend that much for our students’ success, we also need to spend less on building new schools and more on the programs we need to help our students be successful.  That’s one reason why I support year-round, multi-track schools. They save us about 25% overhead costs per school.  For every 4 traditional calendar schools we build, we’d only need 3 year-round schools.  Those savings can be reinvested in our schools, providing excellent track-out camps, year-round academic intervention and support services, additional staff (counselors, nurses, & support staff), fully funded classrooms, etc. 

If the school board had taxing authority, they may be more inclined to favor year-round schools since they’d have to bear the consequences for regular tax increases at the ballot box.  If the Board of Commissioners keeps taxing authority for themselves, however, I look forward to working with them in a friendly, collegial fashion to accomplish our mutually desired result of keeping WCPSS strong.  It shouldn’t matter who is charge of taxing.  What matters is how much do we need and how well are we managing our resources.

7. Assuming the Board of Commissioners retains taxing authority in the near term, what steps do you believe the Board of Education can or should take to repair the sometimes strained relationship with the commissioners over funding questions?

I’m very proud that the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education finally formed a joint committee to address long-term funding issues between the two elected bodies.  Joint committees are government 101, and frankly I was surprised to learn that a joint committee didn’t already exist between these two boards.  During the campaign, I’ve been able to forge relationships with most of the current County Commissioners, as well as the candidates running for those seats.  I am confident that I will have a positive working relationship with everyone on both Boards, as should be the standard for all of our elected officials.

One thing I’d like to see happen is for us to take this joint committee idea to the next level and form a statewide joint committee with members of all the local school boards and county commissions as well as members of our General Assembly so that we have a similar statewide effort to alleviate the uncertainties created by annual funding battles.  There is no reason that our leaders in the legislative branch should be on a different page than our local government bodies.  Education is a nonpartisan issue, and we should take steps to make sure that only responsible adults are in the room making decisions that affect our kids.  We need to work together in concert, not separately and in opposition.

8. In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year, what do you think should be done to make schools safer? Do you see preventing such shootings as a “school safety” issue?

First, I was a high school student when Columbine occurred.  Without question, not enough has been done to address the school violence issue in the last 20 years. That said, I must commend the current school board for recently taking steps to ensure that all of our schools have secured access swipe cards at all entrances, as well as cameras at every entrance and exit.  This is a big step in the right direction, but not enough.

Many of the other solutions to this epidemic of school violence need to derive from the legislative branch of government. The NCGA must pass tougher gun control laws, and I support criminal negligence charges against any parent who allows their own lawfully owned weapons to fall into the hands of a minor who then commits acts of violence with those weapons.  We must also advocate for stronger intervention rights for schools.  When a school sees a child in distress, they need the legal authority to act, to intervene immediately and seek mental health counseling for the troubled student.  We always hear about how the shooters were long troubled, that other students knew he needed help.  It’s long past time that we empower our schools to act as safety nets for those who do not receive the help they need at home.

Finally, I think all new schools being built should have a different design strategy than the open campuses we currently build.  When I went to France in middle school on an exchange program through Martin Middle School, I noticed that all of their schools are built courtyard style, with limited points of ingress and egress.  This design helps keep unwanted elements outside of the school environment.  Sometimes these school shooters are not students at all (Sandy Hook, for example).  We recently had a situation at one of our schools (Jones Dairy Elementary) where an adult male was making threats toward the school and was later found roaming the campus.  That man is now in jail, but the fact remains that our open campuses make them soft targets for violence.  Looking towards our long term future plans, we must design our buildings and campuses so that they keep our kids safe from external elements.

9. In a similar vein, do you support the placement of school resource officers in Wake schools? If so, what do you think their role should be? If not, what do you propose as an alternative?

I support school resource officers in upper level schools, but only because I’ve seen tremendous growth from these officers in how they interact with our students and conduct themselves in the school environment.  We heard a lot in the last several years about our students being mistreated, discriminated against, and even physically harmed by these officers…sometimes over something as simple as being in possession of an electronic device.  We’ve seen them drag students off, body slam them, and otherwise engage in reprehensible behavior.  But these were isolated incidents and the school board and Sheriff’s office have work together to train these SROs up and make sure they know how to act right when working in an educational environment.

Because of these significant and rapid improvements, I believe that the benefit of having the SROs on campus far outweighs the risks.  It is not a teacher or administrator’s job to deal with criminal activity on campus.  Having a dedicated SRO on campus helps our school staff focus on education and leaves the police work to experts. 

It is important to note, however, that my support for SROs is directly related to our Wake County District Attorney’s policy of keeping our students out of the criminal justice system.  Nobody in Wake County wants to see our kids criminalized, so the joint efforts between law enforcement, the legal system, and the school system to keep our kids out of the juvenile justice system for school-based offenses is a huge reason why the SRO program has the potential to be so valuable to our educational process.

As long as we monitor our SROs closely and continue to improve on the program, I think the benefits outweigh the concerns.

10. Black students make up about a quarter of Wake County public school students, yet, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, are nearly eight times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Why isn’t WCPSS doing a better job of reaching students of color? Are racial disparities an issue you think the board of education needs to address?

I object to the premise of this question, as it suggests the problem lies with our black children and not with adults and the systemic racism that exists in almost every facet of our society.    The problem is not our black students, but how we interact and engage with our black students.  Implicit bias is at work everywhere in society, but the justice system has been having some noticeable success lately in dealing with this issue.  These recent successes deserve our attention, as they are directly relevant to fixing the problem in our school system.

I’ve already expressed how to address this issue in previous questions, noting that the problem stems primarily from the implicit bias that permeates every decision we, as humans, make.  Everyone suffers from implicit bias, but there are ways to craft our discipline policies to minimize or eliminate this bias.  As a criminal defense attorney, I have first-hand experience dealing with sentencing statutes that do an excellent job removing implicit bias from the decision-making process.   Applying this knowledge to our student discipline policies will absolutely improve our outcomes and make things more equitable in the school system.    We must include, for example, guidelines for how a disciplinarian will decide what punishment to impose.  If we make the outcomes predictable, then it becomes difficult for adults to allow their own bias to taint the process.   These guidelines must include a detailed list of aggravating and mitigating factors which would be relevant in making a decision on a student’s culpability.  If a student gets into a fight, we could consider if they’ve ever gotten in a fight before, for example.  Or we could see if they are passing their classes, if they are remorseful, if they are willing to attend counseling sessions, if they are willing to apologize.  All of these factors are relevant to determining appropriate discipline strategies, but race is most certainly not a relevant factor.  By listing all relevant factors and specifically excluding race from the process, we can take a huge step in the right direction in making sure that race is not a factor in determining whether a student receives an out-of-school suspension or some other punishment. 

Aside from implicit bias, our reflex reaction is to suspend students and remove them from the classroom environment when kids get into trouble.  This cannot be our default.  If a student is caught with marijuana in school, they deserve drug counseling and intervention, not to be suspended so they can stay home by themselves and, probably, smoke more marijuana.   If a student is being disrespectful, we should endeavor to find out why by using our counselors and support staff to build strong relationships with the student and to get to the root of their issues.  We shouldn’t send the kid home for 3 days to think about their behavior.  We should intervene.  At worst, we should be moving our most troubled students into our alternative schools so that they can get more one-on-one attention in a different type of school environment where they’ve got a better chance of “being reached.”

The board obviously needs to address the issues of racial disparity in our school system, and the 8-year-old federal investigation into this matter is proof enough that we haven’t been getting the job done.  It’s time for new leadership with new ideas on how to address this long-term issue.  

11. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.

I was one of the first students in Wake County to attend a multi-track year-round school back in 1993, when Wake County opened Morrisville Elementary.  I experienced the benefits of a year-round education first-hand and I am still a huge proponent of these schools for two big reasons.  First, they save us money.  A lot of money, in fact.  For every 4 traditional calendar schools that we build, we’d only need to build 3 schools if we simply made them year-round multi-track schools.  Factoring in overhead costs, we save about 25% cost for every school we open year-round.  With our constant growth, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars every decade, billions even over a long enough time period.  To control our costs and make sure we have enough money for staff and programming, we should continue investing in year-round education.

Second, year-round schools are proven to be more effective for our students than a traditional calendar.  Summer learning loss is a real issue, and it adversely affects ALL of our students, particularly those with limited resources to engage in other educational opportunities while on long summer vacations.  Summer learning loss not only contributes to the student achievement gap, it also forces our teachers to engage in remedial education to start every school year.  Instead of arriving at the next grade prepared to learn new information, teachers must begin the new school year reviewing last year’s curriculum to get kids back up to speed.  This is a waste of classroom time and is something we could minimize if our students stuck to a year-round academic schedule.   

Year-round schools have been proven to work better for our students and better for our wallets.  They are a win-win proposition for our community and I am proud to support them 100%.  In fact, I am also proud to say that my opponent supports them as well.  No matter who is elected from District 3, the school board will retain a strong advocate for common sense schools that save us money while helping our students thrive.

https://indyweek.com/news/elections/shaun-pollenz-wake-county-board-of-education/