Bond divides school board candidates in debate

kjahner@newsobserver.comSeptember 13, 2013 

School Board candidates Matt Scruggs and Monika Johnson-Hostler laugh during their debate at a candidate forum in Fuquay-Varina.

COURTESY PHOTO — Courtesy photo

Monika Johnson-Hostler and Matt Scruggs won’t decide the school bond measure; their race for the District 2 Wake County School Board seat will be decided in the same Oct. 8 election. But their views on the bond could decide their fate.

Opposing views of the proposed $810 million bond provided the starkest contrast between the two first-time political candidates at a candidate forum in Fuquay-Varina Tuesday. Scruggs, a Fuquay-Varina Republican, considers the bond a needless and irresponsible waste of taxpayer dollars, disagreeing with his Democratic opponent from Southeast Raleigh and all but one other school board candidate in four races.

They agreed on a number of other issues in a debate and comments afterward marked by a civil tone. But the difference in fiscal philosophy remains unsubtle as they vie for John Tedesco’s open seat in District 2, which includes Garner, most of Fuquay-Varina and part of Southeast Raleigh and Knightdale. Tedesco, a Republican, supports the bond.

Promoters say the bond, which would build 16 new schools, fully renovate six others and fund various other infrastructure and technology upgrades, is desperately needed to alleviate crowding schools amid projected growth and modernize schools. Wake County Public Schools has said the bond covers less than half the items on its list of pressing concerns.

“The reality is that in order to get our children a quality education...we are going to have to pay for it. Every child has to have a seat to receive a quality education. Unfortunately it is a tax burden,” Johnson-Hostler said, also advocated working toward a “one device per-child” reality regarding technology. Advocates also say education requirements in the state constitution could force them to borrow much of the money anyway, only at a higher cost.

Scruggs said growth numbers are typically inflated and that some schools remain underutilized because of assignment system flaws. He also said measures that could save millions have gone under-explored, such as pursuing private funds and slimming down design costs of the schools. He stressed his concern that as much money as possible “is going into our kids” rather than “into the schools.”

He did not have specific numbers of just how much he thinks could be trimmed from the bond, but he was certain needs could be met without tax-increasing debt. “We at least have to take our time with it.” (The proposed 5.53 cent increase would add $82.95 to the annual tax of a home valued at $150,000).

“That’s going to be a huge increase in our taxes. As a conservative, I do not agree with tax increases. I don’t like them,” Scruggs said. “There are better ways.”

Garner’s share

Garner, with enough schools to constitute more than half the district, would receive more than $180 million of nearly $940 million in projects that the bond would help fund. It would rebuild Garner Magnet High and Vandora Springs Elementary, build a new elementary school and provide other smaller upgrades. Scruggs said the town isn’t on board.

“From all the doors I’ve knocked on in Garner, they don’t support the bond either. They understand my point: that there’s different ways to (fund school upgrades and ease crowding),” Scruggs said.

Johnson-Hostler called Scruggs’ points legitimate concerns. But she heard feedback differently, indicating either that they were knocking on different doors or interpreting the same answers differently, or that the advocate and the salesman both made persuasive cases.

“People wanted to know how much,” she conceded. “But people really kept saying we’ve got to pay for education one way or the other. Growth is a reality; at what level we don’t know.”

Other issues

Tuesday’s debate also broached accountability and testing standards. Both called testing and accountability necessary realities, but felt having teachers “teach to the test” and be judged solely on that basis presented a problem to be combated. Both stressed their abilities and experience that made them apt to find creative solutions to stretch resources. Johnson-Hostler touted her experience running a funding-limited nonprofit, while Scruggs pointed to his business experience.

They also both advocated measurements of outcomes after children left high school to determine whether schools were succeeding, and voiced support for teachers.

Johnson-Hostler, a career advocate against sexual violence, is married to a teacher. Scruggs’ parents and a step-parent were teachers.

Scruggs, a commercial sales manager with CarQuest, separated himself by disagreeing with Common Core Standards, a federally supported initiative by the National Governors Association underway in North Carolina, among other states. It aims to get schools across state lines to strive toward a set of internationally competitive standards designed by academics and business leaders.

Johnson-Hostler said Garner had been “the most crystal clear on the need for the bond” and pushed for upgrading the high school in particular.

“The first parent’s door I knocked on, the first thing she said, ‘Did you know my child was (going to be) going to school in an old movie theater? Did you know there are 40 kids in one classroom at Garner High School? Did you know it’s busting at the seams?’” she said. “That was even before I said my name.”

Scruggs argued for more emphasis on neighborhood schools as a money-saving strategy while Johnson-Hostler said she had parents asking her to keep offering opportunities to bus kids to magnet schools. Scruggs also more forcefully promoted Career-Technical Education schools.

“A lot of people forget that not every child wants to go to college. Not every child wants to be a doctor or lawyer,” Scruggs said. “We do need plumbers and technicians, automotive technicians. They’re opening up a culinary school near the Garner area.”

Endorsements

The North Carolina Educators Association and Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams have endorsed Johnson-Hostler, who had a 3-1 financing lead as of last week, $6,995 to $2,085. Ann Campbell, a leader of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, donated $2,500 to her alone.

Scruggs was endorsed by the Wake County Republican Party. He said a scheduling conflict prevented him from attending the District 2 candidate forum at the Garner Performing Arts Center on Thursday.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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