By MARK JURKOWITZ
Outer Banks Sentinel
There was an orderly and amiable — but perhaps not so subtle — changing of the guard at the leadership level of the Dare County Board of Education last week.
With only new board member David Twiddy dissenting, Bea Basnight was elected chair of the seven-member board at a July 20 meeting, replacing Ben Sproul, who had led that body for the past three years. Sproul, a close ally of Superintendent Sue Burgess whose name was not placed in nomination, cited a career change and commuting as a key reason for his decision not to seek the chairmanship.
Margaret Lawler was elected to succeed Basnight as vice-chair at the meeting, which also included the swearing in of two newly elected members, Twiddy and Mary Ellon Ballance.
The old and new chairs took pains to downplay any sense of an in-house coup. The change of leadership is “all with my blessing,” Sproul told the Sentinel.
“People think it was a hostile takeover. It was not a hostile takeover,” Basnight stated. “It was a group decision…I was encouraged to be the chair.”
In a Sentinel interview late last week, Basnight suggested she would put her own stamp on the board, steering the body to become more active, engaged and transparent. Responding to criticism that the board often seems to be in lockstep with the school administration rather than exercising oversight, she acknowledged that, “I think that is the perception and I would like to change that perception.”
“That’s one reason I think I would like the board to be more involved in knowing what’s going on,” she added. “I want them to be engaged…I feel very strongly that we all need to be involved and to know what’s going on in the schools.”
Basnight summed up her mandate for the board as one of “transparency, knowing what’s going on, being the people that are in charge….My vision for our board is we’re going to be involved, we’re going to hit the ground running and we’re going to try and look at projects and get things done in a timely manner.”
Now retired, Basnight noted that she would have the luxury of devoting plenty of time to her duties. And she has a few ideas on how to increase the board’s engagement with the schools and the public.
“I think that [board members] will probably meet more often…perhaps in informal ways,” she noted, adding that she’d also like a more robust interaction with parents and others during the public comment part of the regular board meetings.
“I’d love for us to have more time for the public to ask more questions, to talk to us…I think my style will be different…I think I’ll just be inclusive and will involve anybody.”
Basnight comes at the job from an educator’s perspective. She taught at Manteo Elementary School for 35 years before being elected to the board in 2008 and then serving as Sproul’s vice-chair for the past two years.
“I have spent my whole life working with teachers in a team,” she said. “So I’m very used to working together with other people.”
Not surprisingly, she is a big advocate for better teacher pay, telling a public forum back in February that she would “organize a bus trip to Raleigh…and say ‘our teachers need a raise.’”
In the wake of the recent legislative session, Basnight said that lawmakers in Raleigh “are making strides in teacher pay,” including approving new raises that average out to 4.7 percent.
But, she added, “I think teachers need to be paid a lot more than they’re paid.”
On another matter — the state formula for grading schools that relies more heavily on testing than student growth — Basnight cites her own classroom background. “As a teacher I think that’s unfair,” she asserted. “I look at the grades of some of the schools and I say that is not reflective of what I know goes on in those schools and those classrooms.”
“Truly,” she continued, “I think we over-test our students.”
Another educational priority, she said, is making sure students who may not be bound for higher education are being served by the system: “We just need to offer more career courses. We’d like to think every child wants to go to college…We really have to focus on offering a path for every student.”
One significant item on the agenda for the new board could be contract negotiations with Superintendent Burgess, who has held that position for 16 years. Her contract expires in June 2017, and Basnight said “negotiations haven’t started because we have a new board coming on.”
Asked if she had any insight into whether Burgess wanted a new contract, Basnight added: “I have not had a conversation with her about that.”
One negotiating environment that Basnight believes has clearly improved is the relationship between the Dare Board of Education and Dare Board of Commissioners. Until perhaps last year, fiscal negotiations between the two groups had been marked by conflict and tension.
Basnight credited the “five-on-five committee that was created” to bring representatives of the schools and county sides together for meetings for greatly enhancing the relationship and easing the way for a “very smooth” budget process.
“We have worked so well together,” she continued. “I really think we’re in a good place with the commissioners right now.”