LENOIR — Currently there are four seats up for election on the seven-member Caldwell County Board of Education. Six Republican candidates are vying for those seats in the upcoming primary election, with three incumbents running in what will be the school board’s first partisan election.

Those GOP candidates include: Incumbents Joe Sims, William (BJ) Fore and Teresa Branch, and challengers Mark Gerson, Kam Harmon and Sara Greer Koenig. Democrat Elaine Setzer-Maxwell is unopposed and will automatically be on the general ballot.

In an interview with the News-Topic this week, the candidates expressed their platforms in an effort to separate themselves from opposition.

“I have a passion for education, specifically Caldwell County schools,” said Teresa Branch talking about why she is running for school board. “My parents were educated here, my aunts and uncles, my sisters and my children and grandchildren. We have multiple generations of good experiences at Caldwell County schools”

Branch says that her background as a student, an employee, and as a partner with the schools with SmartStart, as well as being a current board member, has prepared her to run for school board.

“I bring all those experiences to every decision I make,” said Branch. “I try to make sure every decision I make is focused on what is best for our kids and learning.”

Branch said what sets her apart are her experiences in education from bus driver, to teacher, to director, her inquisitive nature, the positive connections she has with the community, and her passion for the schools.

“I am not afraid to ask questions at all, including have we looked at the data,” said Branch. “I am very curious and inquisitive and will ask the tough questions that need to be asked.”

“I have lived here in Caldwell County all my life and I know folks throughout the county,” said Branch. “I think those relationships through my life have kept me connected with people that make it comfortable for people to come and have a conversation with me, and I am a good link of communication between families and the school system and the employees.”

Branch said being fiscally savvy is important to the school system.

“I also try to focus on smart spending and not to do things the same way just because it is the same way we have always done it,” said Branch. “It is not only important to analyze the budget but to analyze the ending and effectiveness of how we are spending money to make sure we are getting the bang for our bucks.

“I don’t think any one of us have all the answers. I don’t think I have all the answers, but I think that when we get a group of people together, then all of us are smarter than any one of us,“ she added.

Her vision for the schools also includes hiring and retaining qualified employees and continuing growing the CTE program.

“I am also very pleased that there has been a difference in the last few years in the principals getting their teacher allotments early,” said Branch. “Which is so important in getting those people who are just graduating from college, so the principals can interview those candidates an make those hires.

“We are very proud of our career and technical education (CTE) program and the work they are doing in finding avenues for students who feel that a four-year degree is not what they need at the moment,” continued Branch about the opportunities for graduating seniors in the community.

Branch said one of her priorities is to increase parental involvement.

“It has to start in the preschool years,” said Branch. “Making sure that parents know the opportunities in Caldwell County Schools, and they can get involved early and once their child is involved in pre-K or elementary school, finding ways to involve parents and finding ways to make them to want to be involved,” said Branch.

She said her vision for the schools is to make sure that every student who graduates is ready for the next step in their lives, whether that is becoming an entrepreneur and staring their own small business, going into a technical field where they need certification, like a mechanic or a plumber, or an electrician, or going to college.

She said she envisions the schools continuing to work with the community college to help find the right fit for the kids and that each child taking classes in high school.

“For years and years, the economy was based on furniture, but today we have a more diversified economy and there is lot of opportunities for kids in our county,” said Branch. “We are partnering with the economic develop committee to make sure that teachers, community members and students know all the great opportunities here in Caldwell County.”

Appointed last year, Fore is facing his second election. He said he’s running for school board because it’s his way to give back to the community. He said he wants to keep conservative values in the school system and help prepare students to have a successful life by ensuring a quality education.

Fore said that one of his attributes is personal knowledge of all the different communities in Caldwell County and the unique needs of each community.

“I have worked in this county in law enforcement for years. Each community functions differently. Each area has their own unique personality,” said Fore.

He feels his other attributes, including his ability to work with others and to network and form relationships, are beneficial.

“I’m a mediator and I think that gives me an edge in our meetings,” said Fore.

Fore said he has several priorities including addressing mental health issues among students, ensuring safe schools, and hiring and retaining the best employees.

“They [the students] should be able to go to school and not worry about things [like safety],” said Fore talking about providing safety on campus.

Fore said his vision for the schools involves focusing on students to help prepare them for the future.

“I want to make sure we are preparing our kids for success in life,” said Fore.

“We have to watch what is going on in the world, so we can adapt education and offer those services to all the kids,” said Fore talking about the positive benefits of the school system’s collaboration with CCC&TI, EDC, and CTE in preparing students for the future.

His vision also includes securing autonomy for local districts from state control and maintaining a policy of transparency.

“Move local control away from the state,” said Fore. “Each region’s schools’ needs in North Carolina are different. Our needs are different from the coast and mountains.” said Fore.

“I want transparency on the board,” said Fore. “If it’s a vote, I will say something. I will say how I voted and why I voted, because I represent them [the community].”

Fore said preparing kids to have a good life, to make a living, be successful and stay here in Caldwell County is part of his vision for Caldwell County Schools.

“I listen to parents, teachers, and community leaders,” said Fore. “I gather all the information I can to make the best informed decisions for our children.”

Gerson believes the local school system should go in a more conservative direction.

“The school board needs to do a better job of pushing back on what is coming from the governor,” said Gerson, talking about one of the reasons why he is running for school board.

Gerson and his family moved here eight years ago from Oregon due to what he described as an increasingly anti-Christian and anti-family atmosphere.

Gerson, who has a kindergartner enrolled in Caldwell County Schools and another child who will start school next year, says that he doesn’t like the direction that schools are taking, particularly on presenting information on sexuality.

He said his running for the Board of Education because he feels the current board does not fight hard enough to protect the children and the parents. He pointed to the mask mandate as an example and said the attempted suicide rate during the mask mandate was up 51% nationwide.

Parental involvement is one of Gerson’s priorities.

“We want parents back in our schools,” said Gerson.

He said that he felt the school system should be more inclusive to parents. If elected, he says he would support more parental involvement and listen to parents’ concerns and needs.

“I’m passionate about this. I’m not doing it for the money, or business connections,” said Gerson. “It will take a tremendous amount of time, but I’m passionate about protecting the kids and the parents.”

He says current board members do not reply, or take action, to address parental concerns.

“I’ve spoken to the board before and they have ignored me,” said Gerson.

Gerson said his experience owning and operating a school in the Philippines, where he taught, trained faculty, and worked with students, his experience as a third-grade teacher, as well as his experience as a real estate investor and businessman have prepared him to serve as school board member.

Gerson said one of his attributes is his willingness to stand ground on the issues that matter to parents and the community.

“I am willing to truly lead the charge,” said Gerson. “I’m not afraid to ruffle some feathers.”

For Gerson it is getting back to focusing on the basics.

“The main vision has to be pretty consistent — teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic,” said Gerson. “Not teaching sexual orientation and critical race theory.”

Gerson said his vision also involves listening and responding to parents’ needs.

Born and raised in Caldwell County, Kam Harmon has lived in the surrounding areas throughout his life. He says he was inspired to run for school board because of the board’s reliance on the North Carolina Safe Schools Toolkit.

“The school board is intrinsically tied to the School Toolkit that was set up by the teacher’s union and by the CDC,” said Harmon. “Basically, they [federal government] have tied COVID funding into the use of the Toolkit, so they [Caldwell County School Board] are going by the Toolkit. They [school board] only ended the mask mandate because the Toolkit said it was OK. As soon as the Toolkit says to do masks, kids will be back in masks.”

Harmon says he has a child who started kindergarten last year and it seemed like the school board ignored all the information they were given.

Harmon said being a parent has also prepared him to become a board member.

“Being a parent definitely gives you a little bit of insight in how you should approach things,” said Harmon.

Harmon also said the normalization of sexualization and critical race theory (CRT) are being introduced to kids at earlier stages and should not be in a public educational setting.

“The normalization of things that I don’t think should be in an educational setting is becoming a problem,” said Harmon talking about introducing early school age children to topics like gender identity and critical race theory (CRT). “It’s hard to find where these things are not being introduced to kids at earlier and earlier stages.”

“There is a lack of transparency from the board and no communication with parents anymore,” he continued, adding the board focuses on handing out awards and approving contracts.

Harmon, who has an education in nuclear medicine from CCC&TI, said his experience as a supervisor for Leviton, as well as being an entrepreneur, has helped to prepare him to serve on the school board.

“I’ve been in the position to make sure what I am in charge of is running smoothly,” said Harmon.

He doesn’t see himself as a politician.

“I don’t care about the politics,” said Harmon.

Harmon said one of his main priorities is transparency. He feels the school board should communicate with parents telling them what is happening and why.

Harmon’s vision for Caldwell County schools involves bring morality and innocence back to education. There shouldn’t be underlying agendas to a curriculum.

“Teach them how to read, write, and do math,” said Harmon. “The private things should be for parents to talk about.”

He said schools can provide guidance and support for parents who feel overwhelmed about what to do.

“I have requested information from the school board, financial records for COVID money, and contracts over the past couple of years and zero response and spoke with records keeper, and nothing,” said Harmon.

“I don’t think everything is a political game,” he continued. “As far as education, it shouldn’t be based on how one party feels over the other. Our kids are not thinking along those lines. They are there [at school] to see friends, learn things that are relevant, and enjoy themselves. We have to be able to work together, or it will cause a big mess down the road.”

Newcomer Koenig hopes to introduce a new perspective

“I just want to bring a fresh perspective for parents who have children in the Caldwell County Schools system now,” said Koenig on why she is running for school board. “It is time for parents of my generation to step up and serve on the school board.”

Koenig is a 5th generation Caldwell County native.

“I grew up here my whole life and decided to raise my family here,” said Koenig. “It’s my town and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

She works full time as a child and education advocate and says she brings a parental perspective of someone who has dedicated her life to child and education policy.

Koenig said the school board is lacking a parental focus for those whose children are in the education system now. She says she brings the perspective of how issues are affecting students in real time.

“It’s important to bring transparency,” said Koenig. “I’m big on listening and hearing what people are saying and I bring that back to the table. Listening to your constituency is very important.”

Koenig said one of the pressing issues that needs priority is adolescent mental health.

“When you peel back away the hot button topics, like masking and curriculum, there are mental health issues,” said Koenig

In addition to mental health, she also believes there should be a focus on skilled trades education in the high schools.

“I really think we need to keep that [skilled trades] in the high school, as someone who took those classes,” said Koenig.

She feels it is important to strive to collaborate to retain teachers.

“We need to keep our best and brightest,” said Koenig. “We can’t have a great education system, if we aren’t retaining and bringing in quality educators here to stay.”

Koenig expressed that one of her attributes is her dedication to children and education.

“I have nothing to gain from it [board membership], except solely a better education system for my children and the children in Caldwell County,” said Koenig. “I truly have passion for children and education. I love my county and I want to give back everything that it has given me and make it better.”

“We are advancing policy that impacts the future,” she added.

Her vision of the schools includes quality skill trades programs and developing career and technical education (CTE) and extending opportunities for apprenticeships in fields like carpentry, plumbing, and HVAC, etc.

Sims contends he has skin in the game when it comes to Caldwell County Schools.

“I love Caldwell County Schools and Caldwell County itself,” said Sims, talking about why he is running for school board. “I, and my wife, are products of the school system. Our four kids went to the schools — and if there is anything I can do to improve or help the school system, that is what I want to do.”

Sims, a current school board member, was originally appointed to the school board 2013, he has run in two previous races. This is his third school board race.

Sims says he brings business experience to the board.

“I am not a politician — to me the only thing I am is an advocate for Caldwell County Schools — the students, the teachers, and the parents,” said Sims. “Everybody in the system is important — everybody has a role a play.

Sim says one of his attributes is a willingness to listen.

“I’m willing to listen and to reason. If we’re having a discussion, I want to have the facts,” said Sims. “I want to know why people on the board see things differently from me, because I want to understand.”

For Sims, clear concise communication is important.

“You need to make sure everything you are saying is as accurate as it can be,” said Sims. “The more I ask questions, the more I understand. I want to tell you how I see it, and you tell me how you see it. We don’t have to change the way we see it, but we can understand it.”

“Safety, first,” said Sims speaking about his priorities for the schools. “Make sure that the schools, student, and staff are safe. Have an environment where staff can work and teachers can teach.”

Another priority for Sims is making sure the school system is financially stable by maintaining a fund balance so if an emergency does arise it can be funded.

Sims said his vision for the schools is that the system continues to build on what is successful with an eye on improvements.

Another priority for Sims is helping prepare students for their next phase in life, whether it is a kindergartner moving forward to first grade, or a high school graduate preparing to enter the workforce, or college.

“Take each individual student and prepare them where they want to go and can go,” said Sims. “You want the student to have the opportunity to go out of our school system and prosper in life."

“I want what’s best for our schools,” he added. “I am going to learn, listen, and read to as much information as I can before a decision is made. And with that knowledge make the best decision available.

“I want our schools’ students to be successful and the parents, who send their kids to school to know that they have the best opportunity that they can have,” Sims continued.

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