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New Wake County school board members Cheryl Caulfield and Dr. Wing Ng will spend at least the next two years in the minority on the nine-member board.
Caulfield and Ng were among a group of conservative school board candidates who had campaigned on issues such as school safety, learning loss and promoting “parents’ rights.” But they were the only candidates out of nine endorsed by the Wake County Republican Party to win Wake school board seats in November’s election.
“It’s a different scenario than what we hoped for,” Ng said in an interview. “We worked well together over the course of the campaign. Since we share district lines in Wake Forest, we will try to represent the area that we both represent to the best of our ability. We share a very similar outlook on life.”
Both new board members say they will try to find common ground with their colleagues while standing firm on their core principles. Despite the GOP endorsement, Caulfield says she wants to keep partisan politics out of the board and the classroom.
“I do believe we can all come together and share ideas,” Caulfield said in an interview. “I’m not sure that our goals are as different as people may think.”
They’ll work with the seven board members who were endorsed by the Wake County Democratic Party. Wake school board races are officially non-partisan but the political parties are involved in the campaigns.
“Our community made it clear during our elections that Wake County residents believe in our public schools and understand the importance of having school board members who trust and respect public school staff as professionals,” Kristin Beller, immediate past president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, said at the last school board meeting.
There hasn’t been a conservative majority on the school board since the 2009 election led to a two-year reign.
Parochial school parent elected
On Nov. 8, voters re-elected school board members Chris Heagarty, Monika Johnson-Hostler and Lindsay Mahaffey and elected Tara Waters, who had joined the board in March to fill a vacancy. The other five board members didn’t run for reelection.
In addition to Caulfield and Ng, three other new members were elected: Lynn Edmonds, the outreach director for Public Schools First NC; Sam Hershey, a business owner and longtime school volunteer; and Tyler Swanson, a campaign strategist and former special-education teacher.
Caulfleld, 52, handles property management for private landlords. She is a longtime school volunteer whose two sons attend high school in the school district.
Ng, 54, is a physiatrist — a physician who is trained in physical medicine and rehabilitation. One daughter attends a parochial school and another daughter with special needs is home-schooled.
Typically, school board members have children who attend or attended public schools.
“My faith is very important for me and we wanted to have that kind of environment for learning,” Ng said. “I’m still a big proponent of public schools.”
Board members will be sworn into office Dec. 6.
School safety and special ed
Two of the areas that Caulfield and Ng say they think they can get action on are school safety and special-education services.
Ng said some older schools lack safety measures enjoyed by newer schools. Caulfield says Wake needs to address issues of bullying and lack of school discipline, which she said play a factor in why some teachers leave the profession.
“Bullying and discipline lead to school safety,” Caulfield said. “If we’re not in a safe environment for teachers to work, if we’re not a safe environment for students to learn, then we’re missing some points there.”
Improving special-education services is especially personal for Ng, who has a daughter with Down syndrome. Ng says dissatisfaction with the way the school district assessed his child is why he didn’t enroll her in the district.
“I want to make sure that we have a process for evaluation that has more input for parents and maybe some contextual inputs from the child’s assessment results so we have a true reflection of the child’s abilities so that we can put the child in the right learning environment,” said Ng, former vice chair of the North Carolina Council on Disabilities.
During the campaign, Caulfield and Ng had accused the school system of not listening to parents on issues such as COVID-19 medical decisions and what instructional materials are used. Both issues form part of the “parents’ rights” movement that conservative school board candidates campaigned on across the nation.
In addition to the GOP endorsement, both were backed by several conservative groups such as the N.C. Values Coalition, Moms for Liberty and the Carolina Teachers Alliance.
Both Caulfield and Ng say they would not support any requirement for Wake students to get a COVID vaccination. Wake and North Carolina public health officials recommend students get COVID shots but don’t require them in order to attend school.
“In regard to mandates, we need to be able to speak to our doctors about our medical choices and have that freedom to do so,” Caulfield said. “If somebody needs to do that, they should never feel uncomfortable doing that. But I do believe that we have the right to work with our doctors on our medial choices.”
Caulfield and Ng also say Wake needs to make sure that the books and instructional materials are age-appropriate.
Wake says it provides age-appropriate materials but some parents have charged that the district is providing obscene and pornographic books in school libraries.
Many of the questioned books have prominently featured LGBTQ characters and people of color. Those books have been defended by most school board members and school librarians as providing diverse representation.
“I know the kids nowadays are bombarded with what’s out there in the world,” Ng said. “All I’m asking for is provide a place in school where we can preserve that innocence just a little longer.”
Skeptical board members
The last school board meeting showed Caulfield and Ng are walking into an environment where their views put them at odds with the outgoing and new board majorities.
For instance, departing board member Christine Kushner said voters “for the most part rejected” false narratives and elected “a sound board.”
“Because of you, the important work of advocating for our students, for inclusion, for excellence in academics is going to continue,” Kushner said of the new board majority.
Board member Heather Scott had supported Caulfield’s opponent.
“I know that the majority of our new board is going to do everything they can to make sure that we can continue to improve the working conditions for you [school employees] because you serve our kiddos,” Scott said.
Board member Roxie Cash had supported one of Ng’s opponents to replace her. But she was conciliatory at the last board meeting, calling Ng “a great guy.”
“I welcome Dr. Ng to come into this seat,” Cash said. “I know he’ll do a great job, so I’m looking forward to what he brings to the board.”
‘Little bit of grace’
This election cycle is over, but five of the nine school board seats will be back on the ballot in 2024.
The N.C. Values Coalition, which had endorsed Caulfield and Ng, has announced plans to expand efforts to train and endorse school board candidates across the state.
In the meantime, Caulfield and Ng say they recognize that they’ll face skepticism over their positions.
“There is no way that anyone can indicate I do not care for each and every child or that I do not want to support staff,” Caulfield said. “I want to support our teachers and our children so that they can reach their true potential.”
Ng said he realizes he has to represent everyone, including those who didn’t vote for them.
“I’ll do the best I can,” Ng said. “I’m only human and I hope that people will have a little bit of grace with regard to me being on the board.”
This story was originally published November 25, 2022 8:00 AM.