Hillary MacKenzie

Hillary MacKenzie is the new chair of the Orange County schools Board of Education.

One could easily say that when Hillary MacKenzie took over as chair of the Orange County Board of Education, she was taking on the toughest job in the area. But, while MacKenzie may agree about the toughness of the task, she would likely argue that she is a member of a strong team that is up to the challenge. Things are moving quickly (see related story on this page) and have already changed since MacKenzie spoke with the News of Orange about the role of the BOE.

How long have you been on the Orange County Board of Education? I was elected in 2018 and am beginning my third year on the school board, along with Sarah Smylie and Will Atherton, who were also elected for the first time in the 2018 cycle. Brenda Stephens was re-elected then and is beginning her 19th year on the board; Carrie Doyle, Jennifer Moore and Bonnie Hauser have just joined our team. Our board has a good mix of experience and new ideas.

Obviously, everything with regard to board of education missions is dependent on whether and how schools reopen in the fall. With that in mind, how will the BOE approach this school year? How is it different from past school years? How is it the same? In many ways, our district is doing what we do best right now: striving to provide the best access to education and enrichment opportunities to every single child that enrolls in our district regardless of circumstances. As a public school system, we have the distinction and expectation to meet the needs of our diverse learning community, which includes: certified teachers, support services, nutrition, and a range of therapies and enrichment. While this year looks different than any before, the same energy and enthusiasm from teachers, parents and students will keep OCS pushing forward in a positive way. One example of an opportunity that now exists for all OCS students is our new Virtual Academy. (For the latest update on reopening and our Virtual Academy, please visit www.orangecountyfirst.com)  

As board chair, what can other board members expect from you? What can the community expect from you? Vice Chair Stephens and I are deeply committed to the integrity of school board governance and to working with our colleagues as a successful team. In the coming weeks, the community will see us spend a bit of time around goal setting as well as adopting group norms and expectations, so that the overall function of our team is an asset to the district rather than a distraction. 

Some things that the public can expect from me as the board chair are frequent community updates and meeting summaries, virtual office hours, thoughtful agenda setting, strong support and respect for teachers and staff, and steadfast commitment to equity and transparency throughout our district. 

What do you see are the strengths of the board? I’m glad you asked this question because I am so inspired by my colleagues and the diverse skills and experience we collectively bring to the board. Combined, we have three previous teachers, many parents of students in the district, a technology executive, an accounting expert, a previous Guardian ad Litem, community organizers, an expert in human resources, a librarian, leaders within faith communities, a scientist, folks with strong writing and communication backgrounds, and the President of the North Carolina School Boards Association is a sitting member of our board. Most importantly, this board is extremely involved in various aspects of the community, actively requests stakeholder feedback in the decision-making process, values the voices of our students, families, teachers and staff, and seven out of seven of us are here because we are committed to the best interests of children in our community. 

What do you believe can be gained from work that has come from trying to navigate the COVID crisis? Painful periods of life are the times that we grow the most as we challenge ourselves to expand beyond the status quo of our comfort zones. This is absolutely true for our district during Covid, and I am truly confident that we will be stronger on the other side of this crisis. 

• The lessons we have learned about remote and virtual learning will expand our offerings in future years.

• I’d like to see some of the personal touches from our 2020 graduation ceremonies be carried into future years when it is safe to return to the Dean Dome.

• The school board is collaborating with families, students, teachers and staff at a level and frequency that I haven’t experienced before but hope to maintain. 

• The public seems to have a heightened awareness of how critical public schools are to the well-being of our students and the function of our economy. I hope that we will have some new activist energy in the state around supporting teachers and funding public education.

How do you respond to parents, students and OCS staff members who approach you with their concerns about reopening schools? The most important thing the school board can do right now is listen to the spectrum of concerns, fears and needs about how school will operate during the pandemic. We don’t yet have all of the answers that the community needs and that is incredibly challenging for everyone involved. However, collaborating with staff, families, students and community members has helped us understand which concerns and needs are rising most frequently and how the information can be communicated to stakeholders most effectively.  

Do you have kids? If so, how many? What are your personal concerns and hopes for them — if they’re still in school — amid the COVID situation?  What are you personal concerns and hopes for the school system outside of the COVID situation? As a member of the school board, I have 7500 kids. I worry about their health and safety, what they’re going to eat today, their mental and spiritual wellbeing, whether they are making and keeping friends, the progress they’re each making academically, whether they’re receiving individualized support, and whether they will grow up to be kind, productive members of society. 

My deepest hope for Orange County Schools is that we arrive at a time when academic outcomes cannot be predicted by race and socioeconomic status and that every student and staff member feels that their inherent worth and dignity is honored by the way the district operates. 

As for the two that call me mom and all the children in Orange County Schools, my hope is that they arrive on the other side of this pandemic with greater compassion and understanding that the health and wellbeing of every member of our community hinges on our individual commitments to the collective good.