Moore County residents will have distinct options when they go to the polls to choose a representative for the District 4 seat on the Moore County Board of Education: an incumbent driven by the experience of teachers and students, and a challenger who wants to take a business-oriented approach to running the school district.
Betty Wells Brown was first elected to the school board in 2016 after a 40-year career in education. She retired in 2015 from the School of Education at UNC-Pembroke, where she taught reading education with a concentration in addressing learning disabilities.
Running against Brown is David Hensley, a retired Marine Corps officer who now owns several companies based in the Sandhills, including Quantico Tactical in Hoke County. His two children attend Pinecrest High School.
District 4 includes Pinecrest, the new Southern Pines Elementary School, McDeeds Creek Elementary and Sandhills Farm Life Elementary. Both Brown and Hensley live in Southern Pines.
Betty Wells Brown
As a sitting board member for the last four years, Brown has helped lead the school district through a pivotal bond referendum; getting construction underway on the three elementary schools funded through that referendum; and countywide redistricting to balance enrollment in both new and existing schools for the next few years. She said that’s been a gratifying experience as an educator who has long been concerned about the condition of rural North Carolina’s segregation-era buildings.
“When I moved back to North Carolina about 20 years ago ... coming into some of the old schools in Scotland County and Moore County and Hoke County, I was appalled at the state that they were in,” Brown said.
“I felt that people were being stagnant and nothing was moving forward, so to be able to move forward makes me very proud that we were able to push enough that people realized we needed these things done.”
But effectively educating children goes beyond state-of-the-art campuses. If re-elected, Brown said that she’ll be concerned with teacher recruitment, support systems for struggling students, and keeping class sizes in check.
“I’ve taught classes that have had 12 to 15 students and I’ve taught classes that have had 45 students. Trust me, 12 to 15 is a lot easier,” she said. “It’s not only easier, it’s that you can get to the children and see what’s happening with them and realize that there are things that are going on in their worlds.”
Moore County Schools is already competing for a dwindling number of teachers working in North Carolina. That shortage is due both to education’s fall in popularity as a career choice for college students and higher rates of teachers who leave the profession after a few years.
Brown said that she saw many of her classes at UNC-Pembroke fall from more than 20 students to less than 10 in the years before she retired in 2015.
“We’re seeing that happen because of the amount of work that’s required for teachers,” she said. “People don’t think they do a lot of work, but they really do.”
For Moore County Schools’ part, the district has worked to keep the teachers that it has by giving them more latitude to teach the state standards in the way they choose and paying closer attention to individual schools’ climate and culture.
When it comes to the running of the schools, Brown said that, despite some differences in their educational philosophies and backgrounds, Superintendent Bob Grimesey is among the best administrators she’s encountered in her career.
“Dr. Grimesey ranks in the top five primarily because he genuinely cares about what he does,” she said. “The other part is he is one of the most open superintendents as far as answering questions.”
But Moore County Schools has come under fire in the last year from some of its critics for the number of schools that receive “C” and “D” grades on North Carolina’s annual School Report Cards. Those grades are largely based on the proportion of students at each school who perform at grade level on standardized end-of-year tests.
No updated grades will be forthcoming for 2020, since the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close their doors before those tests were administered, but in 2019 the district had four “D,” eight “C,” and eight “B” rated schools of the 20 schools where students are tested.
Along with other critics of that grading system, Brown said that it doesn’t give fair weight to students’ demonstrated growth during the year.
“I have fought with DPI and the State Board of Education on this. In any work that I’ve done with them, I’ve let my voice be heard on this … I hate the fact that right now one test decides this,” she said.
“Growth means a lot, because that shows that we are taking a child from a non-reader to a reader — and when you can do that, then you’ve had some success. These schools that are Cs and Ds may not have the grade, but they’re showing growth.”
This year, Moore County Schools enrolled three of those “D”-rated schools — Aberdeen Elementary, Robbins Elementary and Southern Middle — in the state’s “Restart” school reform model. The fourth, Elise Middle, is not eligible since it just fell to a “”D” rating in 2019.
Brown said that the program gives individual schools autonomy, similar to North Carolina’s charter schools, in managing their own budgets. Within that, schools can find ways to better meet the needs of students who have fallen behind.
“Aberdeen Elementary is now using some of their money for a behaviorist because they have a large number of students who come from places that, right now parents are struggling because they’re without jobs.” Brown said.
“Some of them have anger issues, some of them have self-esteem issues … One of the things that they’re finding is that, with testing, if the students get better about how they feel about themselves, they do better on tests, and learning occurs when they’re feeling better about themselves because they’re not sitting there worrying.”
David Hensley has been one of Moore County Schools’ leading critics since he and a dozen others spoke in 2019 to oppose the board’s routine extension of Superintendent Bob Grimesey’s contract from 2022 to 2023. Those state-issued School Report Cards are chief among his concerns, along with the district’s perennial budgetary woes, which Hensley blames on poor financial decisions.
“I have been a vocal critic of the Board of Education for numerous reasons, mainly mismanagement,” he said. “Quite frankly they’re out of their league.”
Hensley said that the school board should operate more along the lines of a company’s board of directors, representing all taxpayers in its oversight of the district and selecting school leaders based primarily on performance. He takes issue with the district’s decision to name Aberdeen Elementary Principal Dante Poole as leader of the new school in light of its “D” rating.
His own experience as one of four children raised by a single mother has given Hensley an appreciation of education as a path to prosperity — and strong objection to socioeconomic explanations of low student achievement.
“There are lots and lots of people who are successfully educated minorities and children from poor backgrounds,” said Hensley. “I came from a poor background and served in the Marine Corps with tons of people who lived under bridges who 20 years later came out of the Marine Corps with a PhD.”
But at the end of the day, the school board’s sole hiring role is over the position of superintendent.
“His most important job is to produce academic results, and academic results have at best gone sideways since (Grimesey’s) been here,” said Hensley.
“I don’t think they should have renewed Dr. Grimesey’s contract until he started producing results and it seems awfully reckless to do it two or three years early. That might be the norm, if you’re hitting all your goals and objectives and I see improvement, but I haven’t seen improvement.”
Along with taking a more stringent approach to that process, Hensley said that if elected he would take a highly involved role in the nuts-and-bolts of district operations and openly raise “alternative viewpoints.”
“If I’m on the Board of Education, I’m going to look at everything from food safety to academics to land deals,” he said.
As a candidate, he’s developed a reputation for airing those viewpoints on social media, disputing that Moore County teachers should receive pay raises and suggesting a year ago that parents upset by the redistricting process demonstrate outside board members’ homes.
Hensley wouldn’t have a role in the management or funding of charter schools as a member of the Moore County Board of Education, but he’s a proponent of school choice as a mechanism for competition. To that end, he said he’d be open to eliminating residence-based attendance districts entirely and making individual public schools “compete” to attract the best students.
“If a school is a D-rated school and continues to be a D-rated school, then their enrollment will go down and enrollment will go up at B-rated schools and someone will figure out we’ve got to replace this (principal),” said Hensley. “So competition is good. Choice is good.”
He’s also critical of how Moore County Schools has handled the construction of new schools and sale of old buildings. The 2018 bond referendum to fund construction of the new Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst schools sailed through with 80 percent of the vote.
Had he been on the board, Hensley said he would have voted against building the Pinehurst school on the existing Dundee Road campus and spending $3 million on a temporary school site. He would instead have suggested saving most of that money by asking Pinehurst to foot the bill or donate village property for the new school — or else building on cheaper land elsewhere.
“I’ve been successful in business and you do that by, one thing, you build teams and you do win-wins. You can’t be successful in business if you don’t do things that everybody benefits from. Contrary to popular belief, I can do that,” Hensley said. “It’s very important that alternative ideas be brought up. I’ve never heard anyone tell the Village of Pinehurst ‘We want to build you a nice school … but we’re not going to add $4 million to it.’”
If elected, Hensley also plans to press the board to consider retaining ownership of the Southern Pines Elementary campus on May Street. The board is currently considering a private sale to Moore Montessori Community School for just over $1 million, but doesn’t plan to act until the end of the year.
Hensley said he’d like to see that campus leased to a successful charter school in exchange for renovations.
“That’s a crown jewel,” he said. “I’m a conservative, but that should remain the property of the citizens of Moore County.”