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With Cartner gone, schools must make different choices

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By Peter Thomson
Columnist

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Last week, the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education accepted Superintendent Larry Cartner’s resignation. From the outside it appears to be either a case of a professional administrator burn-out from working in a system with insolvable problems, or a school board saying “No mas” it’s time to move on. Either way the remaining leaders are having to dig out from an ugly situation of not enough teachers, money or parental confidence.

The state of North Carolina has allowed teachers’ salaries and benefits to fall into the bottom quarter of the nation. Our rich counties supplement teacher’s pay and provide needed technology, but here in the northeast school districts can’t afford it. You add a system that demands test results, values systemic learning rather than individual initiative and devalues classroom teachers, it becomes increasingly difficult to find highly qualified staff. But then schools in surrounding counties are doing better than Elizabeth City-Pasquotank, so you have to wonder.

It is still very possible to get a good education here. Proof is that some graduates go on to prestigious universities and find good jobs. Test scores are pulled down by a large underperforming student segment. Administrators say parents have become uninvolved while parents say the system is unfriendly: that the rules are designed for easy administration, not for learning. Some parents blame NEAAAT (the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies) for taking money that “belongs” to the school system. While NEAAAT is a convenient whipping boy, fact is it accounts for only about 10 percent of the students that have left the ECPPS. Ninety percent who opt out are home-schooled or go to private academies. That’s where the money has gone.

The cost of an underperforming school system is profound. When kids “skate” through they are undermining their future and the town’s. Vision 20/20 called our school ratings our major economic problem, making it difficult for our businesses and institutions to attract qualified professionals. Candidates get excited, look into the school system and decide we’re not for them.

So moving forward how do we make it work?

As we search for a new superintendent we should look to one that has an appetite for taking on under-performing schools and making them work. Let’s admit the system needs change and find a professional who can do that job while motivating parent/partners to get involved. Our ideal should be to create a system that attracts families, not repels them.

NEAAAT itself is a resource we can tap into. As many know, the school’s board chairman, Joe Peel, first offered the STEM school concept to ECPPS and was turned down, then offered a collaboration that would provide money to our system and was turned down again. The ECPPS Board of Education should regard Peel and CEO Andrew Harris as local resources from whom they can draw expertise and help seeking outside funding. Working together makes a lot of sense.

Lastly, in this era of extremely tight money, we may well have to prioritize funding. To get great teachers one has to pay them well and provide a structure that allows them to produce better students. This surely is our priority, and if that means hard choices are needed as to how many administrators we have or what kind of extra-curricular activities are funded, that’s the situation we find ourselves in.

ECPPS has a core of good, caring and qualified folks that need our support. With new leadership, new priorities and an attentive school board we can and should use this moment as an opportunity to create a system we can all be proud of.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.

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