Moore County voters this month will eliminate one of the five Board of Education candidates running for two at-large seats in a race that could ultimately shift the board’s voting dynamics.
There are three seats on the Moore County Board of Education up for grabs this November: two at-large seats open to any county resident, and the District III seat representing northern Moore County. All three are elected countywide.
Libby Carter and Ed Dennison, who have served in the school board’s at-large seats for seven and 12 years, respectively, are not running for re-election. Vying to replace them are five newcomers: Ken Benway, Pauline Bruno, Robin Calcutt, Forrest Leach and Rollie Sampson.
Board of Education races are nonpartisan, but primaries are required when the number of candidates exceeds twice the number of available seats. The top four vote-getters in the May 17 primary will move to the general election in November, when the District III race will also be contested between Shannon Davis and incumbent Pam Thompson.
Candidates in the at-large race offer a combination of experiences in the military and in the field of education.
Benway and Bruno are running as a slate in alignment with the three board members elected in 2020. Those board members — Robert Levy, David Hensley and Philip Holmes — opposed face mask requirements, waged debates over social studies curriculum and Critical Race Theory and obstructed social-emotional learning surveys with allegedly “communist” leanings over the last 18 months. But the three have routinely found themselves in a minority voting bloc against the other board members.
Calcutt, a career Moore County Schools educator and administrator, and Sampson, who currently works as the district’s military family liaison, are also running mates on a platform based on boosting teacher morale and rebuilding schools’ culture after the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, and addressing state funding shortfalls while moving away from partisan politics.
Leach, a Seven Lakes resident, did not respond to multiple requests by The Pilot for an interview.
A native of Massachusetts, Ken Benway moved to Whispering Pines in 2004 from Fayetteville after retiring from a 27-year career as an Army officer and Green Beret. Benway helps run two organizations dedicated to supporting veterans in pursuit of public office, and is now running his own first campaign.
Benway points to Moore County Schools’ 2021 state test scores, which showed that just under half of the district’s students do math on grade level, as evidence that the schools are falling short. The district’s reading scores were slightly better, but overall last spring’s testing showed that students across North Carolina fell behind in reading and math during the pandemic.
But Benway said that in addition to the academic backslide, he’s running because of “a very clear ideological challenge” that’s played out in school board meetings across the nation over the last year or so.
“I think that school boards across the country have become flashpoints where Judeo-Christianity and Marxism are facing off toe-to-toe, and only one is going to win,” said Benway. “We’re hoping it’s going to be us, certainly, on the Judeo-Christian side, because the trophy is the kids. Whoever wins gets our kids.”
Those battles over how schools should deal with race and racism in social studies curriculum trickled down to the Moore County school board, as have debates over surveys gauging students’ opinions of their school environment and the content of children’s and young adult novels on the shelves of school libraries.
If elected, Benway said he plans to push for an overhaul in Moore County Schools’ strategic plan, the goals and objectives that each board adopts to guide the work of administrators and staff, to erase “collectivist aspects” like reference to students as global citizens.
“I believe that everybody ought to be a Renaissance person, man or woman, ‘be all you can be’ as the Army used to say. I think we want to create the conditions where kids can excel to the extent of their potential,” he said.
To that end, it’s his goal to reduce the number of students on each teacher’s roster. That’s something the current board has tried to accomplish since it cut teachers to balance the budget in 2018, but Benway thinks it can be accomplished without additional revenue by cutting district-level positions.
“We have more independence I think here in Moore County, at the county level and the school system than we like to think,” said Benway.
He also wants to move toward expanding Moore County Schools’ police force so that more schools have a full-time dedicated officer, and toward offering teachers bonuses based on students’ performance. Whether that “performance” should be measured entirely based on state test scores would be a matter for further exploration.
“How you express that in a manageable process I’m not certain yet. But there’s got to be more than just tests to evaluate the student,” Benway said. “The teacher is the best person to evaluate that student, but at the end they’ve got to make the grade to graduate from high school.”
When the school board started hearing concerns about social studies curriculum and Critical Race Theory last spring, one of the most consistent voices was Pauline Bruno’s.
Bruno, who was president of the Moore Republican Women at the time, gathered petitions from residents fearful that theories dealing with the role of racism in the country’s legal institutions had trickled down to primary and secondary school. Last year the furor pushed the school board to adopt an “equality and nondiscrimination” policy that narrowed how teachers can handle those topics.
Bruno held certification as a special education teacher in Connecticut before moving to Pinehurst in 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s in reading education.
“I think we have absolutely great teachers here. I think our teachers are phenomenal,” she said. “I think they’re putting too much of a burden on our teachers to teach all the social stuff when the teachers need to teach the core subjects.”
Bruno said that her primary concern is getting more students to grade-level faster, especially minority students. At many schools, a much lower proportion of minorities perform at grade level than their white peers.
“If anybody should be pounding the doors down at the public schools, it should be the Black community. They should be pounding on the windows,” she said.
“I do understand that we graduate great kids, and they have great careers, and they get great scholarships, but it’s not everybody. These kids are going to learn no matter where they go to school.”
If elected, Bruno plans to advocate for a shift away from the use of technology and digitally based learning activities before fourth grade. Third grade is considered a proving ground for students struggling to obtain age-appropriate literacy skills. Students not on grade level by that point are more likely to remain behind for the remainder of their schooling.
“My opinion, and this is what I’m going to bring up, first through third grade, get rid of the computers,” said Bruno. “Go back to the textbooks where parents know ‘We’re on Page One tonight, tomorrow we’ll be on Page Three.’ We have to go back to the old-fashioned basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.”
Like Benway, Bruno is skeptical of the school board’s consistent requests for an increase in Moore County Schools’ local operating budget. As a board member she said she’d like to see a detailed “line-item” budget every year.
“I disagree with ‘We need more money, we need more money.’ The United States has been throwing money since the 70s at schools. I don’t believe, in my opinion, that it really helps,” she said.
“I’m all for teachers, I was a teacher my whole life. I’m all for teachers, I understand what they do, I know how hard they work. I think we have to make life easier for the teachers.”
Robin Calcutt grew up in Pinehurst, the daughter of an elementary school teacher and a fireman, and now lives in Southern Pines.
She started teaching in 1984 at Elise and Westmoore, dividing her time between multiple schools like many electives teachers still do. Calcutt went on to become a lead teacher for instructional technology at Union Pines, a forerunner of today’s digital integration facilitators. She later served as a principal at New Century and West Pine middle schools and retired from Moore County Schools in 2018 as director of planning, accountability and research.
“I had such a variety of opportunities and jobs within Moore County Schools, I wasn’t bored,” said Calcutt. “I was all over the county and served in different capacities, so I had so much variety I didn’t feel the need to move and go anywhere else.”
Calcutt holds a doctoral degree in education leadership and now teaches at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, where she’s chair of the education department. Supervising college students getting their first teaching experiences in public schools around the region gave her a front-row seat to what happened when the pandemic set in two years ago.
Even student teachers, who were no longer allowed into the schools, had to pinch hit to put together packets to send home and help transition to virtual learning. Calcutt decided to run for school board when the district came under fire for how it handled reopening during the pandemic.
That criticism evolved into debates over everyday classroom teachings — which Calcutt says her former colleagues interpreted as a vote of no confidence from some board members and residents.
“I started hearing that cry for help and I started seeing the sad faces on our teachers and hearing they were planning on leaving, then I started to see my friends take jobs in other districts,” she said.
“I knew I had to step up for them and for the students and paint a clear picture of what’s been going on in our schools and to be the voice of reason and experience. Our community has to support our public schools and not believe all the rhetoric and chaos that’s going on in the political realm.”
If elected, Calcutt said that her first priority would be to repair relationships between teachers, staff and parents by making greater use of district-level parent advisory councils representing various demographics, as well as involving more parents in each school’s improvement team.
“We’ve got to have a culture of collaboration and trust and confidence. We’ve got to make sure that our teachers feel supported, that we continue to do good work,” she said. “So we’ve got to continually work on that culture. That includes a culture for our parents. I think our parents are feeling left out of the work of the schools and we’ve got to revisit that.”
Rollie Sampson became Moore County Schools’ first district military family liaison in 2017, 12 years after her husband’s Army career brought her here.
Sampson herself previously served, leaving active duty as a first lieutenant after an injury. As a military spouse she thrust herself into advocating for students and community youth organizations wherever she lived.
As military family liaison, Sampson has helped the district identify its military-connected students, receive more federal aid and allocate resources accordingly. She also helps smooth those students’ transitions in and out of the district, especially when it comes to building high school transcripts toward graduation despite attending high schools in different states. She’s planning to leave the position by the fall, or as soon as the district hires a replacement.
Sampson also earned a master’s degree in counseling while working for the schools. She said she started to consider running for the Board of Education last year, when the board started to devote more attention to national controversies than local matters.
She said that she isn’t the only school staff member who feels that the board’s newer members are out of touch with what’s “actually happening in the schools.” including several dozen vacant teaching positions and the effect of budget cuts on the day-to-day workings of the schools.
“When they say we need to save money, let’s talk about how much we’ve already trimmed off our budget. Our population is going up while our revenue that we get from the county and state is not,” she said. “I think we’re missing those conversations at the school board level.”
Those cuts have included popular year-round and dual language programs, as well as teaching positions in fourth grade and up that have led to ballooning class sizes in those grades.
“We need to be adamant as a school district and a community that we want those resources returned that were taken from our classrooms a decade ago,” said Sampson. “We want our teaching assistants back, we want our class sizes reduced, and that is a Raleigh issue.”
When it comes to improving students’ test scores, Sampson said that the solutions to those problems should be identified by teachers.
“I think if you really want to see improvement in the classroom, you go to the person that is the subject matter expert and ask them what they need,” she said.
As a board member, Sampson pledged to thoroughly research matters that come before the board and listen to all perspectives before making a decision or even offering an opinion.
“When I hear about a controversial situation, I have a responsibility to make sure I engage with parties on both sides of the issue before making a public statement which may not have all the correct information,” she said.
“I hear comments made before somebody has taken the time to do their due diligence as a board member to really ensure they have all the facts. Even if there are facts that align with what I believe, I have a responsibility to leave my personal preferences outside of that board.”
Early voting is currently underway at the Moore County Agricultural Center in Carthage and at the Aberdeen Recreation Station. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 14.