New Orange County Board of Education (BOE) Chair Will Atherton said he hasn’t been spending much time on social media lately.
His election to chair on May 6 happened in conjunction with former chair Brenda Stephens being ushered out of the position in a reorganization that came three meetings earlier than the annual vote in July. The vote was split 4-3 along gender lines, with the board’s four men voting for Atherton and the board’s three women voting for Stephens, leaving the BOE with some messy optics on their hands and the community questioning the early vote.
Atherton was one of those who recommended the early vote, due to, according to him, a few concerns that included a close connection on the part of Stephens to an ongoing investigation into a case of alleged racism at Cameron Park Elementary. The original investigation into the case was spearheaded by Brenda Stephen’s son, Orange County Schools Chief Communications Officer Seth Stephens.
Atherton said that Brenda Stephens refused to recuse herself from meetings dealing with the investigations into the case.
The intensity of BOE politics and community reactions have pushed Atherton — a relative newcomer to the board who was elected as a member in July 2018 — away from social media as he climbs into the role of chair amidst complicated BOE dynamics, the search for a new superintendent, racial equity concerns in Orange County Schools and redistricting among other issues.
A Louisiana native and father of four who works with the Clorox Company, Atherton said he is anticipating an overwhelming first few weeks as chair. He sat down with the News of Orange to talk last week’s reorganization, the superintendent search and future goals as he begins his time as chair.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NOC: As you take on the role of chair, what do you think are the main issues facing Orange County Schools?
Atherton: So the system right now has a lot of challenges we need to address. We have some [claims of racism] in the district — we have a private investigation into one of those opened up and we have another claim at a high school.
We have to close the interim superintendent search within 40 days because we have to have overlap before the current superintendent leaves. We have to fill the current superintendent position and find a permanent one, that’s about a six month process.
We are in the middle of a redistricting — that is going to be a huge undertaking. And then we also have some initiatives that we’re figuring out through the budgeting process, such as our racial equity director. We are also looking at getting our schools balanced with diversity.
There’s a vast number of things that we have to get done, and we’ve got a huge challenge, especially with the superintendent leaving.
On a side note, with all of this going on, we’ve got to attract a good superintendent.
NOC: Are you at all daunted as you move into this leadership role at a time when the district has so many different irons in the fire?
Atherton: Any one of those issues alone would be overwhelming to step into and to take on, but I got on the school board with the intention of helping all of our families in Orange County. I’m committed to doing that. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, and I think there’s a lot to get done, but I think if we stay focused on helping all the kids in Orange County, we can be successful. It’s just going to be overwhelming for awhile.
NOC: Moving on to the events of the last BOE meeting, why did you suggest moving the reorganization vote up three weeks?
Atherton: There are a couple of things I want to structure about the reorganization of the BOE. Every year there’s a reorganization and ours is in July. One of the board members was not going to be able to be in that July meeting and we had been talking about this early vote for a few months. We also knew we were going to have to do an election fo the vice chair and I thought, why wait? The last reason that I was looking for this vote — and the reason that probably brings with it the most questions — was that the former chair does have a major conflict of interest with an investigation at this point. It’s something that has been going on and that has been very frustrating.
The former chair called me and she discussed the reorganization and there was no surprise there.
NOC: In an article written by The News and Observer, you are quoted on Brenda Stephen’s behavior in closed session, which BOE rules prohibit discussing. How do you defend your decision to speak with a journalist about closed session?
Atherton: I was actually misquoted on that, so I’ll clarify. My statement was that the chair was asked to recuse herself and she refused. I think the article actually said in closed session, but that’s not exactly what I said. I said she had been asked to recuse herself and has been causing issues in closed session. The fine line we have there is that we cannot discuss the specifics of the closed session, or go into details about it. I feel what I said is something that was fact. This was one of those situations that, when I read the article, I went, “that’s not what I said.”
NOC: The votes for chair and vice chair last week were divided 4-3 along gender lines. What do you have to say in response to those who say that misogyny or racism played a part in this election?
Atherton: I’ve said this before. The reorganization had nothing to do with race or gender. When you look at the voting of the board, there’s only been two cases in the last year when the board hasn’t been fully aligned — this [chair vote], and part of the dress code policy. To say that a single instance of voting is racist or sexist is just not accurate.
NOC: With this election behind the board, do you think that you and the other members will be able to rally together to deal with some of the issues currently facing the district?
Atherton: I mean, at the end of the day, I believe that the board is going to come together and focus on these items, but it’s going to take everybody. We’re adults and we’ve got to figure out our common ground, which I believe is helping all kids.
NOC: With the [Cameron Park] investigation going on, the banning of the Confederate flag in the dress code a couple of years ago and social justice groups in town opening a dialogue on racism in Orange County Schools, what are your thoughts? Do you feel that racism is a problem in the district?
Atherton: Given the racial equity policy we’ve been working on, we do know that racism occurs. The problem is, one, knowing about it, and two, addressing it.
There’s a lot of unconscious bias out there, so there are a lot of things we’re looking at doing to help people understand that they can be doing things that don’t have intended meanings, but then there’s a result. We’re looking at ways to do these educations, for example the racial equity training — which I’ve attended and it was a very good education — and at ways to address it as soon as we see it. We also want to have trainings and a racial equity director and take other steps to help us be proactive instead of reactive. And until our test scores are unpredictable across groups of students, we haven’t addressed the problem.
In addition, we have to figure out how to engage our community, our teachers and our students too, because there is not a single solution. It’s not something the school can solve alone.
We have lots of diversity in our teaching assistants and we think that, instead of going outside to hire more people, this could be a pipeline and we could give these assistants money to help them get the training they need.
Some of the challenges are that it’s hard to attract someone young and just starting out to an area where taxes are very high. This is someone starting off with a low teacher’s income, and part of the challenge is making sure we have affordable housing so that people can actually live here. Everything around the community is a part of this.
NOC: In the search for a new superintendent, what quantities are you looking for in candidates for the position?
Atherton: I would prefer to know what the community and teachers want. The teachers are the people who are really affected. We want them here and excited and we want to make sure their needs are met and taken care of. We’re putting out surveys and we have also talked about holding some public forums.
For me personally, I want him to be a good communicator. He’s relaying information about the school system throughout the school and outside of the school. I also feel like he should be someone that the community sees and who is around and active. Lastly, for me, I’m looking for someone who is firm and who isn’t afraid to make the hard choices. Someone who is willing to deal with issues and understands what we’re going through.
NOC: What are your goals with the education spending within the 2019- 2020 budget?
Atherton: As an independent board member, it’s important to me that we progress with the racial equity director position.
Other items that are very important to me are the teaching assistant training and the grow your own program — giving teachers the ability to get a teaching degree — and also some incentive for teachers to come here, mainly pay raises. All of the items in the budget have to have some serious discussion to figure out what we do — what’s the order and what’s the impact. At the end of the day, I always ask “how does this affect the kids in the classroom?”