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Stakeholders cited school safety, vocational education, facility needs and transparency as key issues for Rhyan Breen to address if he’s elected to represent District 7 on the Wilson County school board.
About two-dozen people attended Breen’s town hall meeting at the Eagle Farms subdivision’s clubhouse Friday afternoon, taking part in a spirited discussion on ways to improve the county’s public school system.
“My whole mandate is to do the will of the people,” said Breen, a father of two and attorney at Farris & Farris who is making his first bid for elected office.“We need to return to people who are elected officials actually representing us. That’s how all this was set up, and we’ve lost sight of that. People get elected and they feel like they get to do what they want. That is not how our system of government was established.”
Friday’s town hall served as an opportunity for Breen to hear concerns and gather consensus from community members, and the informal roundtable discussion yielded more than an hour of feedback.
Demetrius Smith teaches in Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools after 17 years as a Wilson County educator, including stints at Margaret Hearne, Vinson-Bynum and Gardners elementary schools. He said administrators abruptly assigning art, music and physical education teachers to new schools led to his decision to teach in Nash County.
“I guess the first thing would be the trust that I’m not going to be constantly moved everywhere or that I would know before school started,” Smith said.
The veteran teacher said colleagues in the school system are hesitant to publicly advocate for needed improvements because they fear retribution from top-level administrators.
“I have friends who didn’t come tonight because they felt like they would get in trouble in Wilson County from the central office if they came here and said something that might have gotten back to them,” Smith said. “From central office, we need to know that they’re going to support us as teachers.”
Other speakers pointed to the dropout rate and suggested a vocational high school where students could earn a high school diploma and an occupational certificate. Unlike the Wilson Early College Academy and Wilson Academy of Applied Technology where seats are limited, participants said the vocational model should be widely available.
School safety was also a hot-button issue following the Parkland High School massacre in February that claimed 17 lives. Breen said Wilson schools need physical security upgrades and added that the state must invest in school psychologists to intervene when students display symptoms of mental and behavioral health problems.
The Wilson County Board of Education received criticism for its public comment policy, which requires people to sign up by noon on the Friday before the Monday monthly meeting in order to address the board and limits each speaker to three minutes at the podium.
“It is imperative to me that this school board be open, transparent and receptive to all the people it serves,” said Breen, who has called for the three-day registration deadline to be repealed.
Participants expressed skepticism that unanimous school board votes occur spontaneously and said they believe decisions are being made behind closed doors.
“I’m not the guy who’s going to tell you I have a plan to fix everything,” Breen said. “What I can do and what I can promise is that everything done in the dark is now going to be brought into the light.”
Breen is one of three candidates for the District 7 seat being vacated by incumbent Robin Flinn. He’s competing with N.C. Department of Public Instruction consultant Stephanie Cyrus and businessman Wayne Willingham for the job.
If elected, Breen pledged to provide his constituents with the same zealous representation he gives his clients in the courtroom.
“My entire job is to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves,” he said. “My job is to bring justice for those who feel disenfranchised either by the state or by people they believe have done them wrong. My entire job is to be an advocate for the people I represent. What I’m willing to do on the school board is to continue to be that advocate, just in an elected position. My job is to do the will of the people.”