Friday, September 02, 2022

Questions To the Watauga School Board Candidates -- Asked and Answered


Michael Ackerman,
former candidate for Congress

On or about August 18, Jay Fenwick and the other candidates for the Watauga County Board of Education received a letter from Michael Ackerman with nine questions. He requested -- more like demanded really -- answers to those nine questions by a date certain (today, I think) and said he would publish all the answers in a letter to the editor to the local press.

Ackerman is a persistant activist for flipping education in Watauga Couty. He's a regular at public comment time in front of the school board. He was really stirred up about the mask mandate. He's perhaps most infamous for the "scare tactics" he pulled on the school board back in February. He took the podium and said: "With great sadness and resolve I do stand before you tonight and inform you that you have left us with no other option but to serve each of you with letters of intent to file claims against your surety bonds.”

It was all nonsense, of course. Which Jay Fenwick exposed here.

When Ackerman ran against Virginia Foxx in the Republican primary in May, he hosted frequent Facebook Live events and often referred to the Watauga School Board as his number one cause in politics. Why he was running against Foxx was never very clear.

Jay Fenwick answered Ackerman's nine questions, and they, along with the original questions, are reproduced verbatim below, preceded by the intercepted cover letter that Fenwick sent to Ackerman:

Mr. Ackerman,

I thank you for the opportunity to address these questions for you and others that may be interested. However, I have concerns about your plans for publication. You vaguely ask for answers to be short and concise in anticipation of publication restrictions. Yet most of these questions are quite politically charged which necessitates a fuller explanation. I think information for the electorate should be more expansive, not less. The electorate needs more depth of understanding to make these important decisions.

Respectfully, Jay Fenwick.


Ackerman Q1) Based on what you now know, do you believe a forced mask mandate was the right decision for our students?


I stand by my decisions on requiring masks during the COVID outbreak for the safety of our students, our employees, the families of our students and employees, and the community at large. My decisions were based on the advice and recommendations of our national, state, and local health professionals. I am grateful that we did not have any school closures during the two full years of COVID. We did not have any outbreak clusters in schools during the very contagious times when masks were being worn. We did not have any student or staff members die due to COVID, and had only a very few cases that might be considered severe. Many school districts that made decisions different than ours unfortunately did suffer through some of these painful consequences.

Ackerman Q2) Would you support a forced mask mandate for our students in the future?  If yes, briefly describe under what circumstances.

As in the past, I would be guided primarily by the advice and recommendations of the appropriate medical professionals. I continue to believe that mask wearing is an effective layer of protection against transmission of sickness. If another new, highly contagious virus were to present itself, or another virulent strain of an existing virus, then I could foresee needing this layer of protection again. 

Ackerman Q3) We have seen a growing number of educators in this country feeling it necessary to discuss intimate details of their personal lives with their students.  Is this something you support, or would you rather see educators maintain a strictly professional relationship with their students?

All of us are of course aware that personal interaction cannot cross the line into inappropriate intimacy. WCS has clear policies on staff-student relations and the professionalism expected. Principals and directors review these policies with staff each year. However, a professional relationship can also be a personal one; these are not mutually exclusive. I think it has always been a strength of WCS that our teachers care so deeply about their students. They attend student sporting events, artistic performances, etc. They laugh, cry, and celebrate with their students. I think most of our teachers would say that they love their students like their own children.

Ackerman Q4) Do you support the teaching of any kind of sexuality (hetero, homo, bi,or trans) to students preK-6th grade?

None of these words appear in any state curriculum standard or related curriculum documents such as planning guides. We expect our teachers to follow the state's curriculum standards and I believe that they do because they are education professionals.

Ackerman Q5) Do you support teaching sexuality outside of the realm of biological health education for grades 7-8?

I do not see any reason for teaching sexuality outside of the Healthful Living curriculum. I am not aware of any curriculum standards outside of Healthful Living that cover topics related to sexuality.

Ackerman Q6) The American Federation of Teachers has created a "card" to help educators keep secrets from the parents of their students regarding gender identity.  Is this something you support?

I am not aware of any use of a "card" such as this in our schools. But to answer your question I did some research into this, and believe the question misrepresents the facts involved. This "card" is more fully identified as a "student information card." It was not created to help teachers keep secrets from parents. It was created as a resource for teachers' professional consideration as they begin a new school year. High quality teaching and learning requires a relationship of trust. To learn effectively, students must feel safe to make mistakes. Building this relationship of trust takes time, and it begins on day 1. Like it or not, students may tell their friends or teachers things that they have not yet shared with their families. Teachers and counselors are professionals and know how to help students think about challenging personal issues and guiding them to involve and inform their families themselves. And obviously serious matters would be brought to the parents attention immediately. 

Ackerman Q7) There has been discussion at the federal level to tie certain federal funds for public schools to CRT/Gender Identity curriculum.  Would you accept those funds for the district with those stipulations, or would you refuse those funds?

This question also misrepresents the facts. The federal Department of Education (DOE) does not dictate or mandate curriculum, and in fact is barred by statute from doing so. What you are likely referring to is an event in the spring of 2021 when the DOE proposed, for public comment, two priorities for history and civics education. Identifying these as priorities would later enable grant programs to support those areas. In the proposal, there were a couple of works provided as examples that have come under scrutiny including "The 1619 Project." These works were not mandated and the priorities themselves were not any type of mandate or curriculum. Regarding strings attached to funding, we are always open to consideration of funding options outside of the normal state and local allocation processes. But we do scrutinize those opportunities and have refused some offered funds due to potential questions of appropriateness. 

Ackerman Q8) Would you support and implement live streaming of all school board meetings so that parents who cannot attend can at least observe the meetings?

I am open to conversation on this issue. 

Ackerman Q9) Would you support and implement some sort of vehicle to allow parents more participation in school board meetings, or create some sort of public forums on a regular basis where parents could ask the board specific questions and get answers?

This past year the board has listened to many people during the public comment portion of its monthly meeting. Being responsive to some of those requests, we moved the public comment forward in the agenda and highlighted specific topics as separate agenda items. Our current meeting rules allow 3 minutes for speakers, but this has not quite been enough time for many speakers. I would support increasing the speaker's time to provide a greater opportunity for them to convey their full thoughts. And, I would support a small panel of board members and administrators to visit schools for informal listening sessions between the regular board meetings. As we face controversial topics we need to hear from as wide a cross-section of people as we can, and the monthly Monday meeting at the board office may be inconvenient for many.


Jay Fenwick
Member, Watauga Board of Education

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