Lefler, Almond discuss public school issues at GOP forum

Two candidates running for an at-large position on the Stanly County Board of Education spoke to voters at the recent GOP Forum at the Stanly County Agri-Civic Center.

Incumbent Dr. Rufus Lefler, a physician of 36 years, said he had no agenda or cause for running for re-election “except for the best education that all of our students can have.” He added the current board has tried to increase teacher and staff salaries, and has asked commissioners for additional funds for raises “but we’ve had no increase.”

Lefler said he and the board would work with commissioners and get along with them to work for the “best things our citizens can have.” He noted Stanly County Schools (SCS) needs new facilities.

Meghan Almond, a mother of three and graduate of West Stanly High School, ran previously for the District 1 spot on the board but lost to Dustin Lisk by 67 votes.

“I don’t normally accept defeat, so I decided to give it another run,” Almond said.

She said she has seen “the decay of our educational system” and noted SCS has “infrastructure issues, financial issues, staffing and bus shortages, and now the threat of school consolidation.”

Almond said “it’s time we have a representative that’s going to listen, to communicate to the citizens instead of doing what is the best interest of themselves.”

When asked specifically about school buildings, Almond said, “now we’re in a reactive state on fixing issues across the county,” adding SCS is buying “cheaper products” and regular citizens like herself can not pull up information on the budget.

“We have to be transparent, and it’s going to take somebody actually getting in there and seeing what the budget is before we can even make a move on what direction to go,” Almond said.

Almond said she favored community schools because they are “the heartbeat of the community” and those buildings should be fixed “in a manner that is not going to waste any more of taxpayers’ money.”

Lefler said the Board of Education does not have taxing authority and funding for facilities comes from county government. He noted a roof recently for West Stanly Middle cost $500,000. He said many of the 23 school buildings are 60 years or older.

Growth is coming on the western end of Stanly and in Albemarle, he said, and because of state mandates governing class sizes in grades kindergarten through third, the mandates “shrink our schools so we have less classrooms. That’s our number one priority.”

Lefler mentioned the school in Ridgecrest, having been closed for 12 years, needing “a lot of money to get back into the form for 2024” with regards to class sizes. He said the board needs to work with commissioners on a 20-year plan to refurbish schools.

Regarding staffing shortages, Lefler said less students are going into the profession. He said the state eliminated longevity pay and bonuses for advanced degrees. He said counties like Mecklenburg and Cabarrus have raised salary supplements 8% to 12% while SCS was denied a 6% supplement increase.

On busing shortages, Lefler said staggered start times for the schools has helped, and the county’s problem “is not as bad as the rest of the state, but if one driver is out, and one student or parent is inconvenienced, it’s not good.”

Almond said shortages were “obviously” because of teacher pay, noting Stanly is a Tier II county in distress rankings surrounded by Tier I counties which receive more federal funding.

She said she would “love to see public schools one day have no strings attached to our federal government, but again, this is the public sector.”

Almond said in talks she has had with teachers, discipline is a problem and schools “need the same rules across the county. Allowing each principal to do as they please is unacceptable. Having a no tolerance policy across the board will allow disruptive children to be removed while allowing the remaining children (to be) in a stable and productive learning environment.”

She also said teachers need to “get back to the basics” and teachers were “working overtime to test our children instead of teaching.”

The candidates were asked about the root causes and solutions for SCS school performance grades, with the moderator noting more than half of the schools received a D or an F.

Almond said low-performing schools were why she took her children out of the school system. She said despite having a no child left behind policy, “unfortunately, many children are being left behind,” and referred to common core standards as a “big problem” for the low scores.

“We are so focused on how a child performs that we have forgotten if they’re actually retaining the information to use later,” Almond said.

Almond said teacher tasks should be simplified, using textbooks to track progress, and “spend more time teaching than testing.”

She used the example teaching her children the last two years, saying her middle son in sixth grade now reads at a high-school level.

Lefler said proficiency “is closely tied to the household income of a community,” adding D and F schools are located “in areas that their household income is lower.”

“This is the public school system,” he said. “We can’t just make our own rules. We have got to go by what the state says. We can modify some, but we can’t ignore it.”

In his summation, Lefler said charter schools and public schools “don’t have to go by the same rules.” He asked the public to volunteer in schools, saying schools “will be happy to have you as a volunteer.”

Almond summarized her remarks by asking, “If the public school system is doing so well, why are so many people leaving it?” She added the system “is failing. We can try to sugarcoat it, we can try to make it look good, but it is failing.”