The Macon County Board of Education on Sept. 6 conducted interviews for the two candidates for the job of director of schools.
The event at the Macon County High School auditorium was sparsely attended but Facebook Live recorded about 5,000 viewers to the event.
Candidates Shawn Carter and Rick Duffer each answered the same questions and each had two hours to separately respond.
The first question for both men: tell us about yourself.
Carter began with noting how he has called the area home since childhood. He was born and raised in Macon County, with more than 30 years of experience in the school system.
“I had simple parents with a value on education,” Carter said. His family has a worked history in the school system. He is married with two children, and he said he instilled in his children the value of education, honesty and hard work.
His experience has all been in Macon County. He served as a teacher, school principal and his current role of supervisor of instruction.
Carter encouraged the board to see him in the following way. “I believe principals need to spend as much time as possible not behind a desk, but in all areas of the school. I encourage the principals, administrators and the director to engage with the students and teachers in the classrooms and halls. That is where you get firsthand knowledge if your plans and goals are working and can learn where the system needs improvement.”
Duffer began with being from the area, in nearby Westmoreland. He graduated from Westmoreland High School. His first job was at Westmoreland Middle School as a teacher in general science and coach. Other school positions took him to work in Portland and Beech schools.
He is the principal of Westmoreland High School. His family is an education family as well. His son is the assistant principal at Station Camp High School. Duffer’s wife is a teacher.
His focus is on academics, with sports and clubs being an important part of a well-rounded student. “Education is the priority. Anything else is an added bonus,” Duffer said.
Throughout his career, Duffer has mentored troubled students, and began programs to encourage teachers to stay involved with them. “Sometimes these young men and women don’t get much mentoring or coaching at home. I encourage the teachers to provide those positive examples,” Duffer said.
Duffer spoke at length about the state’s criteria for schools, teachers, and students. He noted to the Board that as a principal he has access to those rankings. Macon County has several level 5 teachers, but many are at level 1.
Westmoreland High School is a level 5 school when compared to Macon County High. “I brought the data to show you all,” Duffer said. “I can provide that to you at the end of this meeting.
“One of my first priorities is to evaluate your teachers and put a plan in place to raise their level. It won’t be overnight, but it is a start.”
The board asked what is the best way to get funding and planning for a new elementary school, convincing the county commissioners and the taxpayers how?
Carter began directly by saying “reduce the size of the school you are wanting to build. The size you are proposing is too large, and will result in higher costs. That can easily be fixed by limiting the number of grades there. The pickup and drop off will be a nightmare. A school only has so many doors to safety exit the kids in and out. Traffic will be problematic and worse than it is now.”
He said school size should consider what the principals input is. He or she is the only one that can tell you.
“Keeping in mind that I believe if a principal can’t spend a significant amount of time getting to know the teachers and students, it will be too large,” Carter said. “It is important for the principal to be seen by the students. His or her leadership needs to be clear; and they should lead by example.
Duffer began by asking what tax dollars do we currently have, how much more do we need and what dollars will the new school bring in.
“Then, we calculate the numbers as to what can we afford to build,” he said. “And, how many students are sufficient for the size. Is it 500 or 1,500? Once we have those numbers, we can proceed ahead with building everything we can.”
Duffer said “based on who I have talked to, there are sufficient funds to get this project started. Then start planning for the next need.”
The board asked, what are your visions and goals for the school system?
“No. 1, help students succeed,” Carter said. “That is the priority. If they succeed, that means that we have managed the process well enough to raise achievement levels. With the right people in the right jobs, with goals to raise achievement levels, is reasonable and can be done. Student success also includes making the students feel proud of their community.
“In this process, we instill in the students a desire to come back to Macon County after college and enrich those here at home. This will require help from the government and residents by bringing more industry and companies to the area for our graduates,” Carter said.
Duffer said “we can improve the system without spending a dime. I have access to the state standards. This data is only available to a few. With that information, I can review the whole system and note with the state standards the student performance and growth of teachers.”
Looking at the performance numbers, Duffer said he has concluded many Macon County teachers perform on the state standard of level 1. Level 5 teachers are optimal. “You have several level 1 and level 5 teachers. The goal is to have lower performing teachers to shadow and learn from the level 5 instructors.”
It was noted that Duffer believed these changes will increase the students’ performance. Duffer said “don’t let kids fool you, they really do want structure and guidance. By showing students what opportunities are available, you can lead them down the right path.”
Duffer finished by saying “I won’t go to the county commissioners and ask for a dime, until you raise the teachers from level 1 to level 5 for the school system.”
The board continued with this question. What steps are needed to get test scores where they need to be?
Carter said “start at the central office. It will be easier to make change starting there. The supervisors need to be visible. Make goals clear that there should not be seven hours of instruction time. It should be a full schedule to enrich students.”
Carter insisted principals are key to implement change.
Duffer’s remarks to this question flow from his comments during the previous question.
Duffer suggested “identify the level 1 thru level 5 teachers from the state standards. Process those standards and see where the changes are needed.”
The process, he said, changed Westmoreland High School to a level 5 school. Duffer said “the standards from the state helped us to implement the goals to succeed.”
What are your top 5 priorities?
Carter listed his in order. “Priority No. 1 is to build smart space for the students and teachers since they are busting at the seams with the growth of population of students. “No. 2, protect instruction time. We need a full day of quality instruction.”
Carter noted in his third priority that the system needs accountability at all levels.
No. 4 in Carter’s list was to review and implement hiring practices to bring successful and goal-oriented staff to the system.
Finally, he said to address discipline issues and incorporate, where needed, a structure for consistent discipline.
Duffer started off discussing the state standards. Bringing Macon County Schools up from level 1. It won’t be an overnight process, but work toward achieving level 5. “We must provide good schools with strong scores.”
Funding for elementary schools that are needed: Duffer spoke of needing to work together to provide the commissioners with the the information required to make good decisions.
Change the view of the public on the differences between the central office and the teaching staff. “The employees need to exhibit that we are a team. Show we are all together,” he said.
Continuing on the changes needed for the public, Duffer said “everyone must have a heart to do what it takes to lead the students. They must be willing to jump in wherever needed.”
Duffer spoke briefly on the need for staff to pitch in. He discussed how he felt the need to clean up a grape juice spill in the hall. “You must work where needed to keep the school safe and adding to their learning environment.”
Duffer concluded this with “be a servant to everyone.”
Duffer went to his next priority of creating an environment of education for the county. “Start a cycle of good schools and families will want to move here. If they move here, we need a community of employers wanting these employees. These changes add to new home-building and tax revenues of their purchases. It will be a cycle of stronger schools, build a stronger community.”
The board asked why should we choose you?
Carter began with his dedication to the community, but more important his dedication to the 30-year career working for the school system.
“I have the same values as the community desires in the schools,” he said. “I have valued education my entire life. My parents raised me valuing those things and the importance of working hard. I will not lie to you. I will tell you the truth even if you don’t want to hear it. Strong communications are required.”
Duffer said no one deserves the role.
“You need to determine what you’re seeking. What is the outcome you want from this person,” Duffer said. “If it is strengthening the testing and performance levels, I’m it. If it is to build a stronger community inside and outside the classroom, select me.”
Duffer ended by saying “look at a man’s past and it will tell you what he will do in the future. Those are the men you give a chance to.”
The board addressed the notion of conservative or liberal practices.
“I am conservative,” Carter said. “I believe you be as transparent as you can with everyone, including the county commissioners, with whom I have a good relationship with. This also includes the city government.
“I also trust the system, that we can achieve success with those practices.”
Duffer spoke at length about his conservative beliefs. He believes that a sales tax revenue works best with conservative principles.
“The finances we have now are sufficient right now to start some of the projects: a vocational center and new elementary school,” Duffer said.
Conservative principles Duffer noted should include a three-year contract.
“The first year includes observation, the second year is the implementation of those needs. In the third year, you evaluate the effectiveness. Going from a level 1 school to a level 5 will show the commissioners and public what they are investing in.”
The school system has had some criticism lately. The board asked the candidates how they can improve community relationships.
Carter advised the board that he does not follow social media. But, Carter said, he hears quite a lot.
He believes in being honest with the public. “They ask questions, answer them,” he said.
Improvement of the websites for the different schools, as well as the systems site.
Duffer believes the board has been taking some punches lately. He believes in constant communications with parents so adults can train a child.’ Dealing appropriately with the parents can lead to a productive educational environment for the child,” he said.
The board wanted to know how they would get started with plans for a vocational school.
Carter started off by saying “vocational schools are as good as college. It is just a different avenue for education. TCAT in Red Boiling Springs is important. We need the support of the community and commissioners to continue this important avenue of education.
“The need for electricians, plumbers, and others could really benefit from the school system educating them.”
Carter said this also includes creating employment opportunities for all types of industries. “We will need to work closely with the county commissioners on these goals.”
Duffer agreed that it is important for vocational opportunities in the educational realm.
“If we can provide those educational opportunities, we can create a culture of students wanting to live here, and not leave the community,” he said. “These programs show students the opportunities for a college degree or vocational certificate. Society will need the students with both types of educational opportunities.”
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
First, Carter noted his intelligence along with being honest and hard-working.
He continued with “loyalty and the firsthand knowledge of what is needed in the school system.”
Carter ended his strengths of being economically sound.
For weaknesses, Carter conveyed that he needs to be more open and approachable. “This includes making people feel more comfortable around me,” he said. “Lastly, I need to not bite off more than I can handle.”
Duffer opened with the fact that he is a perfectionist and detail-oriented. He remarked that he worries about things others cannot see due to his attention to details.
“You’ll find that I go directly to work,” he said, which he added allows him to be an excellent planner and a hard worker.
“Being a perfectionist, though a strength, can leave me frustrated, because things don’t always happen fast enough for me,” Duffer said. “I need to learn to be more patient, that not everything can be fixed right now.”
What is the priority, sports or education?
“Education is key,” Carter said, adding that “education is the No. 1 priority. Athletics are nice, and can teach important things for a well-rounded student, but academics will not be sacrificed. With full instructional time completed, these groups, clubs or sports add to a student’s overall well being. And that’s great as long as they can maintain good grades in their classes.”
Duffer commented that as long as the other activities are respectful of the academic program, he has no problem with it. “But academics are always the priority. A strong academic culture is necessary for the other activities to support or benefit the student,” he said.
Can you state to us some examples of how you maximized students’ success or performance?
Carter explained that as an elementary school principal, reading scores were down.
“I developed a program where for every book a child read, it added to different accomplishments for them,” he said. “The program increased the number of books they read. With the achievements met, we worked with the Sounds to give free tickets to those who met their goals.”
It provided them with expanded educational activities, and a nice reward for their success.
Duffer expanded on his level 5 goals from earlier. “Within the standards the state provided, we began to see a subgroup of students who were not as successful as they had been in previous years,” he said. “I held a meeting with the teachers to discuss this subgroup. Many of those students were deprived of strong leadership at home, or from a group that suffered from economic hardships.
“I asked each teacher to pick one or two students, and for them to make that student a priority. From asking how they are today, to how did you do in that test, are signs that show that those students matter. They may not get that at home, but they do with my staff.”
The board asked how are you with delegation?
Carter said delegation is necessary. “Knowing the employee strengths by getting out of your office and spending time with them is valuable in determining their assets,” he said. “If you participate with them, especially if a budgetary component is tied to it, delegation will become an easier task.”
Duffer said with standards in place, the process of delegation is a relatively easy task. “If the staff member is doing a good job, step back and get out of their way,” he said.
How are you with pressures and deadlines?
“I have never had the need to ask for a deadline extension,” Carter said. “I handle things well. I’ve found if I stay on task then deadlines are always achievable.”
Duffer said he meets deadlines by putting pressure on himself. “I am a man of my word, and you will always find me on time or early,” he said.
The board expressed what are the best ways to cut expenses without taking a way from education.
Carter commented that “currently, the majority of the monetary issues deal with space issues. The elementary schools are busting at the seams. To cut expenses, be realistic about what is actually needed.”
Carter said Fairlane Elementary School is out of room, “Central is busting, Westside is busting, and LES is very close,” he said. “Determine what is viable based on class size, and build from that.”
Duffer said there is enough funding available to get started. “We will use a formula, as I discussed earlier, to see what is absolutely necessary for the students right now.”
The board wanted to know what each candidate would do to improve the ability to hire and recruit employees?
Carter started with one word, respect. “Several teachers are needed not just here, but all over the state,” he said. “We need to increase our ability to recruit, and that can happen before students leave for college.”
He said that starting with students early on about the rewards of teaching, the schedule and retirement policy. “We need to instill that teaching is a rewarding career choice,” Carter said.
“How do we improve the pay scale to entice teachers,” Duffer said. “We discuss that it is not just a paycheck. We show them the vast benefits the school system offers, that is as valuable as a paycheck.”
Additionally, Duffer said better representation at job fairs and promoting it is a career choice internally to students.
The board inquired how each candidate would motivate employees?
Carter said praise is a motivator. “Good employees deserve good feedback. Positive reinforcement usually results in higher teacher results. Salary of course is a motivator, but staff will always want more. If we engage them with recognition, it lets them know that everyone is valued, and not just the educators. This creates a valued culture that benefits all.”
Duffer began with the idea that if “motivation is lacking, raises and incentives are not enough. Provide goals that are reachable for fulfillment. Encouragement is a key motivator. And, if they are working for the right reasons, motivation will be sufficient enough.”