ROCKINGHAM — Candidates for county commissioner and school board laid out their platforms and took questions from residents Thursday night at the Ashley Chapel Community Center.
The forum covered a range of topics. For the candidates for the Richmond County Board of Commissioners, the issue of county water access became the focal point. For the Board of Education candidates, it was school safety and teacher pay.
The information included below is divided up by how the candidates introduced themselves to the audience and by the answers they gave to questions from moderator Richard Nicholson, chairman of the Ashley Chapel Board of Directors, or audience members.
The introductions have been summarized to conserve space, but include key points or quotes. The responses to the question and answer portion have been separated by the question topic. If a candidate is not included under a topic it is because they did not provide an answer, but that does not necessarily mean they didn’t have one.
Some of the responses may have been edited for length or clarity. The Daily Journal cannot independently verify the truth of every claim made.
Absent from the forum were incumbent Commissioners Herb Long and Ben Moss, and school board candidate J.L. McCullers. District Attorney Reece Saunders, who is running for re-election unopposed, also was not present. The introductions for the other candidates who are running unopposed, Sheriff James Clemmons and Clerk of Superior Court Vickie Daniel, are not included.
The introductions, which appeared in print Saturday, have been reproduced at the bottom.
Question and Answer
QUESTION No. 1, for school board candidates — Nicholson: With the rise in school violence, what are your plans to ensure the safety of our children without turning our school setting into a semi-detention center? What will you do to support student mental health while this is happening?
Irene Pittman Aiken:
Aiken touted the work that has been done at RCS to increase security over the months since the Parkland shooting, which included putting in new cameras, “buzz-in” doors, and other measures that have been kept out of public knowledge. She said it’s hard to prepare for every situation, partly because “some of the mass shootings lately have been outside.”
“We can come up with a lot of good ideas, and you do not want to hear this, but to fund it we would have to get rid of 10 teachers, we’d have to get rid of 10 something. It’s very hard to fund these things, well, we are definitely trying,” Aiken said. She added that RCS needs more psychologists, psychiatrists and mentors.
Campbell said that safety and mental health go hand in hand when it comes to bullying. He related to this issue with a recent incident in which his 13-year-old daughter was “thrown on the floor,” had her hair pulled, and “she was stomped and she was kicked” and he said nobody helped her.
“But my thing is this, with mental health working with these kids, maybe it can help overcome some of these anxieties and this anger they have within them so this won’t happen,” Campbell said. “So if you can deal with the kids and get the mental health care, and proper mental health training — if you can get them feeling better about themselves, the anger will disappear and you won’t have things like that to happen.”
Mason returned to his statement in his introduction that he wants to hire people from Richmond County, saying that the people and organizations best suited to address the mental health issues of Richmond County students, or at least the ones who should have the first opportunity to try, are those from Richmond County.
”I want to work with organizations that provided mental health to kids that were in the Richmond County community. Once again, I’m all about Richmond County,” Mason said. “We don’t need someone to come from outside to the inside to provide services to our kids that don’t have a vested interest in our kids. We need someone that can come in and work with our kids that understands our kids, that understands our community and that’s what I attempted to do when I was principal.”
On the security question, Mason said that it won’t matter how much security you put at a school, you can’t predict every attempt to cause harm, but “we can reduce the damage that that shooter may cause or might do.” He said that RCS is doing this harm reduction by providing resource officers as a deterrent.
Bobbie Sue Ormsby:
Ormsby reflected on the fear she had for the children at her school when she was principal, saying, “when they leave your house in the morning and they get on that bus or you put them in your car and you take them … you think your child is safe,” but said the danger is all over the news. She said the board is “doing all we can” to train teachers to handle a violent situation, using resource officers, though “we’ve got to work everywhere” to make a difference because the problems are connected to drugs and other issues in the home.
“The teachers have a huge responsibility on them. They go in and they try to teach but in the back of their mind, you know, you’re always thinking of what could happen,” Ormsby said. “But I want you to know that Richmond County Schools is doing everything they can, we’re on top of it.”
Statha Gilliam Osborne:
Osborne made the point that, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and highlighted a story that a sheriff’s deputy told her about a kindergartner who plays a violent video game every day. “It starts in the home and then they bring it to school,” she said, referring to video games as a factor in the violence in schools. She said that schools need more counselors and programs that let them interact with positive mentors, like high school football players.
“Let (the players) come in and love on these kids and they’ll look up to them,” Osborne said. “We’ve got to get these kids to love each other and mentoring is the best way.”
She added that “buzz-in” doors are the first step but “we’ve got a lot to do” to protect children at school.
On security, Richardson touted the work RCS is currently doing. He also thanked the sheriff for his guidance on security. “Security is an ongoing thing,” he said. “The schools are more secure today than they were two months ago.”
On mental health, Richardson said it is “one of the most important and neglected things that we have in public schools.” He says the blame doesn’t lie with the school system for not caring about it, it lies with the General Assembly for not providing the funds to address the issue. He said the school system needs more counselors and therapists, but also noted that kids are only in school for 36 hours out of the 168 hours in a week, “so the home has got to have some responsibility,” he said.
“I don’t know any teachers that I’ve seen that wouldn’t take the time to sit down and talk to Joe or Susie about their personal problem,” Richardson said.
QUESTION No. 2, for the candidates for county commissioner — Nicholson: Our unemployment rate has dropped to about 6 percent. It was at about 12 percent in 2012, so it has dropped greatly. My question is, now that our unemployment rate has dropped to 6 percent, what are your plans for economic development in this county to help bring the 28 percent of our households that’s living below the poverty level up to the rate of inflation?
Bostic discussed the trend of young people graduating from local schools but not coming back to the area once they have their diplomas or degrees. He said that in order to attract new industry and create overall growth, Richmond County needs to focus on what it already does well, starting with leveraging Richmond Community College’s connections.
“What I’ve said before is that we have to look at what we have already,” Bostic said. “What we have already is a community college that is second to none that has an engineering program that is directly connected to North Carolina A&T State University, which is my alma mater, as well as N.C. State. This is what you call a bartering chip.”
Bostic said the future will be in engineering and computer science, and that now is the time to be “intentionally aggressive” about bringing in “brilliant minds” rather than being complacent.
Watkins noted that some unemployment statistics don’t count people who aren’t looking for work and how that data needs to be factored in when assessing the county’s financial standing. He also said added the context that the Board of Commissioners is responsible for 22 percent of the funding for public schools in their respective counties, and are also responsible for community college funds.
“I think it’s important that we do everything we can to support education to the best that we can,” Watkins said. The best programs to support, he said, are those that train students for specific jobs, adding that if economic development is done in a “comprehensive” way, it can address poverty and related issues.
Covington said the question related back to the school board’s question, in that “if our mental health issues are not taken care of, we’re not going to be able to deal with our adult employment.” She said through her work with at-risk children, she believes “behavior modification” using pills can solve mental health problems in the county.
“I know they say the unemployment rate is better but the people I know that were unemployed are still unemployed and I know we have a community college — lots of people sign up but they do not finish and we need to have people enrolling that are going to finish and who will have the skills that the many jobs that we have here in Richmond County will require,” Covington said.
She also mentioned Congressman Robert Pittenger who “brags all the time” about his support for the National Rifle Association and guns, saying, “As long as we have that, we’re going to be welcoming people to this county who want to use them.”
Bryant said that there are plenty of jobs to be had, but too many people can’t pass a drug test. “It’s a problem,” he said. “We’ve got to start back with the families and our church and become loving of people. I can understand if a person can’t get a job, then he’s got to do some way to survive, and he may drop down to selling drugs.” The solution, he said, is getting more mentors like Richmond County native and retired NFL player Perry Williams, who was present for the forum.
“As a family person, as a (member of) the older generation, we’ve got to help these little kids learn to love everybody — that’s it. You can’t just be ugly to people,” Bryant said, urging residents to help their neighbors and go back to church. He urged getting back to what “used to work for our generation,” like prayer in schools and saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
Entwistle agreed with Bryant that it takes getting “back to basics” to improve economic standing. He referred to his work with Habitat for Humanity, which has showed him the value to a young person’s mental health if they are given the opportunity to work hard to accomplish a goal. “I would like to see more kids be involved in activities like construction … and accomplishing and doing as opposed to having idle time,” Entwistle said.
QUESTION No. 3, by audience member for school board candidates: What are your plans on increasing teacher pay?
She said teacher pay is set at the state level and that she brings this issue up in her frequent visits with state legislators. At the county level, she said commissioners have the power to set the teacher’s supplement and that the school board has already submitted a budget proposal to increase the supplement.
“The only way we can do all these wonderful things for students is through these great teachers we have,” Aiken said.
Richardson said fair wages for teachers can help bring in new teachers and keep the ones the county has, and blamed the General Assembly for misleading figures on what teacher pay really is.
“This is not going to be popular but I’m going to put it right where it is — the state legislature has cut, cut, cut all over the place,” he said. “They’re saying the average salaries for teachers in the state of North Carolina is $51,000 and that’s a lie,” accusing the legislature of inflating that number by counting supplements as salary, so that they could avoid making real change to the salaries themselves.
He blames low salaries for the 30 percent drop in enrollment in education degree programs at universities.
Ormsby echoed Richardson’s comments saying, “We’ve got to go to Raleigh” to make change and that the statistics on teacher salaries are “all a lie.”
“Don’t think that we’re not working, we are,” she said of the efforts to increase teacher supplements. She said that because of the low supplements in the county, teachers from out of state who come to Richmond County to train don’t stay in the area.
QUESTION No. 4, by audience member for candidates for Board of Commissioners: I would like to know what is your plan to make sure that county residents who don’t have running water get running water? We’re putting meters in that have locks on them and the water is muddy, the water goes off. What are old old people that don’t have a cut-off valve going to do to get that water cut off if something happens?
Bryant told the woman to let him know where she is that the water is dirty. He said that there is a schedule in place to provide county water to the farther reaches of the county.
“We have a lot of old systems and if you don’t have a loop in the system, you get some bad water — you get stagnated water. They try to keep them drained but all you’ve got to do is call,” Bryant said, adding that with the new digital system, the water can be cut off immediately by a computer once you call the county. “If you’re having a problem, please let me know and I’ll try to see if I can help.”
Entwistle offered to give out his cell phone number and “meet anybody, anywhere, anytime and buy them a cup of coffee and talk about any Richmond County issue and get to the bottom of that issue.”
Same audience member: I asked when are you going to give the neighborhoods that don’t have running water water? What are you going to do about the mud?
Bryant said, “Before I leave, I’ll get your address and give you an answer.”
** QUESTION No. 5 from (different) audience member for candidates for Board of Commissioners: When I have a problem with my water and call to get it adjusted, they tell me that I should wait until it gets worse because I can only get my rate adjusted once a year. What if I have a problem twice a year?
Bryant told the audience member and anyone having a similar problem to call his business, Bryant’s Turf and Landscaping, and “I will try to get it solved.”
**NOTE: County Clerk Dena Cook confirmed Friday that it has been county policy since 2003 that county water customers can only receive an adjustment to their bill once every three years. The adjusted rate is calculated by splitting the highest recorded water bill in half and adding that amount to the customer’s six month average bill, and the county covers the remaining balance, according to section XVIII(E) of the water department’s Rules and Regulations which can be found at this link: https://www.richmondnc.com/DocumentCenter/View/1786/Rules-and-Regulations-for-Water-Dept-2017.
QUESTION No. 6, from audience member Voyner McDonald for the candidate for Board of Commissioners: That issue actually happened. I was given the run around and it was my responsibility to find out where the water leak was but couldn’t find it. I invited the water department to take a look. Shortly after that there was an accident where a car damaged my water line causing it to burst. I was stuck with a $536 bill when normally the bill is between $20 and $30. I had no control over that but the bill was my responsibility and I think that is not right.
Bryant referred to his introductory comment on the “theory of water” saying, “I told you how important water is,” and again told McDonald that he would try his best to find out what happened in her case.
Bostic said the reason for all these issues is that the county’s water infrastructure is outdated and failing. “What I urge all of you guys to do is you have to plug places like the county commissioners, that’s fine with (Bryant’s) particular response, but if you don’t stay on your commissioner this thing will slide. We can’t continue to let a situation like this slide,” Bostic said.
Bostic told a story of a woman whom he spoke to who ran her water for five minutes and it started to fill up with “crap.”
“This is not Flint, Michigan,” Bostic said. “We should have representation that care enough to make sure that the water that we drink — this is fundamental fairness that we’re talking about.”
Watkins said that the issue McDonald brought up where she was made responsible for a situation outside of her control stems from policy.
“So it might be a situation where from a policy perspective those things can be addressed and eliminated not only in your individual case but prevent it from happening for other people,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to have good walking-around sense and I think that’s what people expect.”
• Irene Pittman Aiken is running for her third term on the Richmond County Board of Education. She talked about her connection toRichmond County, being from Rockingham, teaching in Richmond and later training teachers who now work in the county as a professorof teacher education at UNC Pembroke for 24 years.
“My whole life is about education,” she said. Aiken also touted her record as a member of the board, saying that Richmond CountySchools are headed in the “right direction,” noting that the system’s Algebra 2 scores were second in the state last school year.
• Pat Campbell is running for political office for the first time. He touted his local roots, going to high school in Richmond County andthen returning after college because “… my love here is for the county.” His platform is, “every child should be first.” Campbell said helearned that 64 percent of students in Richmond County are at or below poverty level and that if elected, he will take a “whole-child”approach to the issue and create programs that can “pick up the slack” in what students are getting at home to give everyone an equalopportunity to succeed. He also expressed the goal of keeping the board transparent.
• Daryl Mason, originally from Florida, has lived and worked in Richmond County for more than 30 years, starting as a physicaleducation teacher. He later became principal of Leak Street High School and served two years at Richmond Senior High School.
“We just need to first look in-house before we go out of our house to fill positions” at the schools so that teachers and staff with stronglocal connections have more opportunities to advance their careers, Mason said. “No matter what your socio-economic status, who yourparents are, I think everyone needs to be treated the same,” he added, referring to the students.
• Bobbie Sue Ormsby has served on the School Board for four years and was an eductor for more than 35 years as a teacher andadministrator. Ormsby said she “truly loves children” and has always tried to be fair, open, and there when she was needed. She toutedher record on the board, noting that the gap in proficiency at RCS in 2013 was 11.4 and is now it’s 3.4, which she called a “big, bigstep.”
“We don’t have a lot to work with” in terms of resources, Ormsby said, “so I think we have to work diligently with what we have.”
• Statha Gilliam Osborne is running for elected office for the first time. She is originally from Scotland County — a fact that drew a waveof groans from the audience — but lives in Rockingham and has been a music teacher for 38 years.
“We have students that are falling through the cracks” who don’t know how to read in kindergarten, she said, so she started a readingrecovery program at Washington Street Elementary School in January modeled after the one at L.J. Bell. She said every child who hasbeen a part of that program has improved their reading level by at least one grade level.
• Joe Richardson is running for his third term on the school board. He has worked in education in Richmond County for 35 years as ateacher and administrator. When considering a “shiny” new program, he said his first question has always been: “What will this do forthe children?” He also talked about his value of teachers, both hiring the right ones and supporting the current ones.
“The Board of Education serves a very important role … We take a look at the scores, we take a look at the teachers, the programs, thebudget, it’s a lot of responsibility … if you keep the child in mind you’re on the right track,” Richardson said.
• Tavares Bostic is running for his first elected office for the second time. Bostic is from Marston, went to North Carolina A&T StateUniversity and later the University of Pittsburgh for college. He said he sees the job of county commissioner as being able to “accuratelytell the story of the residents that you’re looking to represent,” and sees that some aren’t being heard.
“I echo the cries of the people that want jobs that’s just going to give them a livable wage so that they can come out from under theumbrella of scrutiny because they’ve had to take a handout or get governmental assistance,” Bostic said. “I echo the cries of the youngpeople here who feel like there’s nothing here for us …”
• Don Bryant is running for a third term as county commissioner. Bryant is from Hoffman and was a teacher for 30 years, and alsostarted Bryant’s Turf and Landscape in 1978. He said that when he was first elected, he ran on the “theory of water,” which was thatthe way to make the county grow was to improve the county’s water infrastructure. He said that since he was elected, the county hasdoubled the amount of water it produces.
“I want to bring industry in — we’ve done a good job — we’ve got plenty of jobs out there, we’ve got now to train these people to dothese jobs” by supporting job preparedness efforts at RCS and Richmond Community College, Bryant said.
• Peggy Covington is a former commissioner and said she does not make a lot of promises because “county commissioners do notmicro-manage, we all work together.” She brought up several issues she would address if elected: the needs of at-risk students, effortsto get rid of food stamps, struggling farmers, gangs, and the lack of community centers in rural communities.
“I am concerned that many of them say that in the classrooms they don’t even have books and a lot of their work is done bycomputer,” Covington said about at-risk students. “Well, when those students get home they don’t even have a computer and on theweekends they don’t have a computer either, so I am hoping that the school board is going to look at the at-risk kids and include themin those statistics that they present to us.”
• Jim Entwistle is running for his first elected office. Entwistle was born and raised in Richmond County and moved to Charleston, SouthCarolina, where he was a general contractor and family counselor. Entwistle said that in his work as a contractor, he saw the benefits awell-developed park system can have on keeping young people in the county.
“We need industry in Richmond County but we also need things for people to do while they’re here and a well-developed park systemwould bring people from other counties back … I recall the days when people came to Richmond County for various reasons and that’spart of what we need in Richmond County,” Entwistle said.
• Rick Watkins is running for his first elected office. Watkins is from Richmond County and has worked 27 years in the school district asan administrator and has been an assistant professor at Wingate University. He said he sees a need for more focus to be put oneconomic development and to “pay forward” the kindness and opportunities that he and his family have received from the community.
“I think that when we do a good job of bringing in business and industry, increasing our farming opportunities, and look for creative ways to build the economy in Richmond County, we all benefit from that … because we don’t have to carry all the tax burden andnobody likes to see their taxes go up,” Watkins said.