On this edition of the CoastLine Candidate Interviews, we meet one of three Republicans seeking three seats on Brunswick County’s Board of Education.
There are five members on the Board – one representing each district in Brunswick County. The four-year terms are staggered, and elections are held every two years. In 2016, Districts 1, 2, and 4 have open seats. No Democrats filed for District 1, however, which means that Republican Ed Lemon has no formal opposition. Write-in candidates are permitted.
In District 2, Catherine Cooke will face Democrat Sharon Woodard Crawford.
In District 4, Republican Ellen Milligan edged out long-time board member Shirley Babson who had served on the Board for 24 years – albeit during two different time frames. Milligan faces Democrat Marty Mentzer.
Ed Lemon and Ellen Milligan had both planned to appear on this edition of CoastLine, but both candidates backed out of their appearances the day before. Catherine Cooke opted to pre-record her segment. We’ll meet her in part two.
We’re about to meet the man who is Chairman of Brunswick County’s Republican Party. Joe Agovino is also an officer on the Board of Dosher Memorial Hospital in Southport.
The majority of registered voters in Brunswick County, 35,000, are Republicans. Unaffiliated voters make up the next largest category at 32,000, and registered Democrats make up the third group at just shy of 27,000 people. Nearly 82,000 residents in the county are white, almost 9,000 are black, less than a thousand are Hispanic and about 3300 fall into a category called “other”.
Segment One: Joe Agovino, Chairman of the Brunswick County Republican Party
Check back for an updated transcript...
Segment Two: Catherine Cooke, Republican Incumbent, Brunswick County's Board of Education, District 2
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Your family is very much a part of the Brunswick County [landscape]. You’ve lived there for many years. Your husband, Marty Cooke, serves on Brunswick County’s Board of Commissioners. Your children have been in the Brunswick County schools. What has that taught you about what’s needed in the Brunswick County school system?
Catherine Cooke: When I first came on the Board in 2008, all of our children were in school, ranging from, gosh, I guess that middle school, some of them might even have been in elementary school. But since then, one of them has graduated from Brunswick County schools and is now a first-year teacher in the schools as a deaf and hard of hearing teacher, so she travels to different schools as the need arises for each student she works with.
RLH: In the public school system?
Catherine Cooke: Right, in Brunswick County. My second daughter is studying in college, and then I have two children at West Brunswick High School. When I started off as a board member, I was just interested in how things worked, honestly, because even being a parent, you still don’t know how all the things work, if you have a problem. You know how to go to a teacher or a principal, but it was just trying to figure out how to make changes if there were changes that were needed. The first thing I’ve come to understand is that change is very slow. Things that you think, “Oh, I can just go in and fix this,” it’s a very slow process, but the main job of a school board member is to form policy and see that it’s carried out. So that’s really the role of an elected board member. Being a parent, then, I’m obviously familiar with what goes on in the schools because my children are active in the schools and I have interaction with their teachers and the administration. So it’s just been a learning experience to see how a school operates on the local, state, and federal level and how ingrained all that is, and how it is really a hard thing to make change in the schools.
RLH: So then, when you think about that learning curve and the fact that you’re completing your second term—that’s eight years of service on the Board—what kinds of things do you think you’ll be able to do in a third term that you might not have understood as well in your first term?
Catherine Cooke: I guess the main thing that I have focused on more as time has gone on is getting services for children who need them. We have a daughter who has struggled with depression, and it has been a long road for the last couple of years to try to get the services that she needed. We did everything we could for her. We homeschooled. We pulled her out. We’ve tried lots of different thing. I know there are people who have said, “I don’t know why you’ve homeschooled your children when you’re on the Board of Education for public schools,” but every child has different needs, and it’s really not a one-size-fits-all. For her, we needed to do something different, and in the end, the public school system was the one that helped us out, and she’s now back, integrated into regular classes. They were the ones who actually helped get her tested and get some things going that would help her. As a whole, it’s been a real struggle for our family, but we’re coming out on the other end of it. That is my hope, that through that experience, I’ll be able to help parents who don’t know how to make the connections because even after eight years [on the school board], I didn’t know what she needed. It took me two years to figure out help was right at the back door, just making those connections. Mental health is such a huge issue in our county, aside from the drug issue that’s going on, but mental health is such a big issue, and it’s probably going to be increasing as we go, and it’s just a matter of making the connections and getting the resources for parents who don’t know what’s out there.
RLH: Are the resources there or does the Brunswick county school system need to provide more?
Catherine Cooke: They are there, and I think it’s just a matter of making them known so a parent can break down those walls of mental illness and say, you know, “I really need help.” Because it still has such a stigma. We had a real challenge from the community when we wanted to put a day treatment center in at Bolivia Elementary School, and there was so much uproar about having “these children” in our schools.
RLH: What does that mean?
Catherine Cooke: “These children” are our children. “These children” could be your child. It could be anybody’s child. It was very upsetting to me because I couldn’t see what the fuss was about because these children need help just like any child with a physical handicap or a learning handicap. Just because they have a behavioral issue—and not all of them are behavioral issues—but I think we have such an increase in autism and different spectrums of autism that we’re still way behind on learning how to work with those children. I think it’s just a real focus that we’re going to need to look at in the years down the road because we have more and more children that are coming from broken homes, coming from situations that are not normally healthy, and they’re having to go to school and we’re having to figure out how to work with them when their little minds and bodies are just in another world when they get [to school].
RLH: So expanding resources for kids who might have a special need is one of your big priorities?
Catherine Cooke: Right.
RLH: What are two of your other major priorities for this upcoming term if you are to be reelected?
Catherine Cooke: We need to learn to read. [Laughs.] Now the state has mandated that by third grade [the children] have to read well. Well, we need to be reading by first grade. I mean, I learned to read in first grade. We need coming up with different plans, “Let’s try this program,” or, “Let’s try that program.” I understand there’s different tactics. There’s different reading programs, and we try to work with professional development and get the teachers trained in that, but if it worked thirty years ago, why have we had to change so many things? I personally don’t understand.
RLH: What is the answer to that? Why is it such a challenge?
Catherine Cooke: I don’t know, honestly, because we keep coming up with a different plan. When I was tutoring, back when my children were in elementary school, there was a program that we used, and I would take the kids out of the class, and it used phonetics. But that’s how I learned how to read and that’s how these children were learning to bridge that gap. I’m not an educator and I’m not a child psychologist, so I don’t know where the disconnect is.
RLH: But that’s one of the big rocks you want to put in the jar this next term.
Catherine Cooke: Right, because if you can’t read, you can’t do anything.
RLH: And what about a third priority?
Catherine Cooke: Making our teachers feel like they are important. They are the glue that holds the schools together. They are the first go-to for the child, and they have a lot on their plate. Like I said, with children coming from broken homes and grandparents raising children, they come to school a lot of times with so many detriments before they even walk in the door. The bus drivers are the first people they see every day and the last people they see before they go home. You know, making sure that they have what they need as far as resources, as far as keeping the morale up, whatever we need. I know we’ve had bonuses the past couple of years. You know, the state has gotten rid of the supplements and some of the longevity, so trying to do what we can, locally, to help the teachers.
RLH: And is that something that needs to come from Brunswick County?
Catherine Cooke: I guess so, but I think it also needs to come from within schools, each individual school, because they all have kind of their own flavor. Both of my two oldest daughters went to the early college high school, and they were the firebird family—that’s their motto. Each school kind of refers to themselves as a family unit, but they all have their own flavor, depending on the demographic of where they are in the county and what that particular school offers versus another school.
RLH: So you’re talking sort of obliquely about the teacher turnover rate, and the principal turnover rate is also very high, especially compared to the state as a whole. In Brunswick County, the rate is 16% compared to a statewide rate of 10%. Why might that be and how, as a school board member, could you help to change that?
Catherine Cooke: Honestly, I wasn’t familiar with the percentage of the principal turnover. I’ve tried to ask the teachers, you know, at their level, what do they need, but I really don’t know—if it’s something that we could have a forum, or have the principals and the teachers meet each week or each month, have the teachers meet. The PLCs are the small learning groups that each school has within the school—teachers, grade-level, school-wide. We have a group called, I believe it’s called TAC, [the Brunswick County Teacher Advisory Council], it’s a teacher group. Gosh, I wish I could remember the name of it. Anyway, basically it’s all the teachers of the year that meet together monthly and they discuss their concerns from each school, talk about it, and then go back to their schools and try to implement it. So, they’re a great resource to try to find out what the teacher needs and be the teachers’ voice. And then our teacher of the year usually comes each month to our school board meetings and brings a report about what’s going on and that kind of thing. Hopefully having that conversation with the teachers of the year, and then they go back to their schools and find out what they really need because if they don’t tell us, we don’t know how to address it.
RLH: Also, taking a look at the principals, only 5% of principals in Brunswick County have advanced degrees. Statewide, 21% of them do. Should that be a concern?
Catherine Cooke: If they’re performing, if their schools are doing well, I feel that on-the-job learning may be more advantageous than having a degree. Some of the ones that have proven themselves have gone to other schools within this system, so I don’t know— If they meet the qualifications, and I just trust the administration for that they know, and they know the dynamics of each school, and each school might need a different type of principal or someone with a different background to manage that school.
RLH: What do you think needs to be done about low-performing schools like Leland Middle, Cedar Grove Middle, Supply Elementary School, and Jessie Mae Monroe Rowe Elementary School?
Catherine Cooke: We had an interesting presentation last week at our committee meeting about what the DPI, [North Carolina Department of Public Instruction], mandates for low-performing schools. You can actually go online—I’m not sure how you’d access it—and actually look at each school that’s low-performing and all the hoops they have to jump through, all the reporting they’ve got to do, and then they have to report back to DPI. Two or three of the principals were there [at the committee meeting] who are in the low-performing schools and they said although it’s a very time-consuming, thorough, exhaustive thing that they’re having to go through, it has been very helpful because it’s brought conversation on board that they maybe haven’t had before and how to work within the school to get it up to speed, and then they have to report back to DPI.
RLH: So you feel like that structure is in place, in terms of improving the schools.
Catherine Cooke: Right. We’ve had something within the county that’s been in place, but now, when the state comes in and looks at it, then there are some more exhaustive things and each teacher is responsible for certain parts of that, the principal is responsible, and together they work to try and figure out what kind of professional development they need or whatever they need to get it up to speed.
RLH: Do you support or oppose the proposed $152 million school bond, which is on the November ballot. Why or why not?
Catherine Cooke: At this time, I do not support it, primarily because I feel like we have not exhausted all the resources that we possibly could within the county. There’s some buildings that we’ve asked about over the years, whether we could utilize them or repurpose the buildings. The old hospital was on the block a couple of years ago, and we looked at that, and then that didn’t work out. There were some other buildings over in Southport. Because we’re still paying on the old bond, even though we don’t have a lot to pay off of it, I just felt like it was better to get that paid down a little bit more and then look at it. The county commissioners have worked with us when we’ve needed funding for our new addition at North Brunswick and other things. I just feel like a bond probably is in the future, but I’d prefer to look at it another two years down the road.
RLH: Have you considered the possibility that interest rates could go up significantly enough in two years that it would be much more costly to do it two years from now?
Catherine Cooke: That could be the case. That could be the case. We’ll just have to wait and see.
RLH: You think that’s a risk worth taking.
Catherine Cooke: I guess. For right now.
RLH: It was about three years ago that the school board engaged in a fierce debate over whether the presence of the book The Color Purple belonged in Brunswick County schools. You were a member of the Board at that time, and your husband Marty Cooke was one of the first Brunswick County Commissioners to respond to some of those concerns from parents. He expressed outrage that that book was being taught in the school system. You then read the book yourself. Can you talk about how you felt about that issue after you read the book, how the Board ultimately ruled, and how you feel about that decision now?
Catherine Cooke: I still wouldn’t allow my children to read it. I mean, as a parent. As soon as I started reading it, it has a lot of vulgar language, and it depicts a lot of scenes that I just don’t feel are healthy for a young person. It conjures up a lot of images that I just don’t feel are healthy. I didn’t enjoy reading it myself, but it is up to the parent to choose. You know, we have a process where if a parent decides that they don’t want their child to read a certain book, then they can opt out of that and the child can be given an alternative book. I know when my daughter was in fifth grade, there was a book that I was concerned about her reading because I just felt it was not age-appropriate, and she and another student ended up reading another book for their report, and they did that on their own. A lot of times, the parent doesn’t have time to read a book. There’s about two hundred books on the [AP] book list.
RLH: Do you remember what the name of the book was, that you saw your fifteen-year-old daughter reading and thought, “That’s not right for her”?
Catherine Cooke: Well, this would have been in elementary school, in fifth grade.
RLH: Oh, fifth grade, okay.
Catherine Cooke: Yes, fifth grade. The book she ended up reading was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I honestly cannot remember the name of the book, but it was normally a book that was read in seventh or eighth grade, but it was being read in fifth grade. Honestly, I just fail to remember the name of it.
RLH: So you thought it was inappropriate for that age level.
Catherine Cooke: Right, right. Because it had been taught normally in the middle school grades. It’s certainly a parent’s right to opt out of certain things. Some parents might want to opt out of the sex education programs. I know that’s another option that we have within the schools, but there are a lot of books. The argument was that if they didn’t read these books, then they’re not going to be prepared for the Advanced Placement exams, but on the Advanced Placement exams, it explicitly says, “Use any of these books or any other books that you’ve read.” So you know, the argument that they’re not going to be prepared for their Advanced Placement test, when the test clearly says [a student can use] the books that it references or any other books that you’ve read that you can discuss on the exam, so there’s a lot of options.
RLH: What is the difference between the role of the school board in a dispute like that and the role of educators within the school system?
Catherine Cooke: Just personal opinion, honestly. The board’s job is to provide policy and for the policy to be carried out. In that instance, although it became a lot of personal, opinion issues, still the process that came about was a board or a committee, and each year, we just got the new list last week, the committee will now be comprised of principals, teachers, parents, and students. So if a book comes up that’s objectionable again like that, then there will be a committee and it’ll go through a process. We really did not have a process in place at the time that was thorough. There just wasn’t anything in place. So after that, we put policy in place and then procedures that would follow if something else came up like that.
RLH: What do you think about some of the alternatives for kids who might otherwise go to the Brunswick County school system, in terms of the voucher program or charter schools? How do you feel about the voucher program?
Catherine Cooke: I think it’s the parent’s right to have a choice. We’ve had our children over the years in private school, and I’ve homeschooled them. Like I said, it’s not one-size-fits-all. I’m not opposed to the vouchers, and I’m not opposed to the charter schools. So I just support a parent’s choice.
RLH: Do you have any concern about public money leaving the traditional public school system and going to these other schools that don’t have the same level of transparency or the same requirements in terms of what the public school system has to meet?
Catherine Cooke: I guess the idea behind the voucher was that the more underprivileged students would benefit from that, but I don’t know what the percentage of where those funds are going. I don’t know honestly if they can work towards [enrollment in] religious schools. I think in Greensboro there’s a Hindu school or something, so there was a question of whether the public money could go to a religious school. Like I say, I’m not sure what the statistics are on that, but there maybe some issues that people might have personally with those things.
RLH: As we get into this next school year and school board term, how do you think the school system needs to handle HB2 and transgender students at this point?
Catherine Cooke: I think we’re doing what we need to do. We have the facilities available. If a student feels like they need it, some of the teacher bathrooms are available, so we have made the accommodations for students who may already be in the schools or in the future. We’ve got that issue covered. As far as the sports, you know, I don’t know. It would probably be the same situation with the sports, if there was an issue with sports as well.
RLH: What do you mean?
Catherine Cooke: Well, I mean they would have the facilities that are needed.
RLH: Locker room facilities? Let’s say there’s a student who identifies as male and was biologically female, how would you handle that student in that case?
Catherine Cooke: You know, when I said sports, I don’t know what I was thinking about the sports. I mean, they would get the same privileges anyone else would get. If they needed separate facilities, I think we would accommodate that.
RLH: So when you think ahead, let’s say that you are reelected, and it’s now 2020, and you’re wrapping up your third term. What has changed in the Brunswick County school system?
Catherine Cooke: I hope we’re better. I know one of the things as a realtor, and I do property management, so I don’t work in the sales, though we do have a sales department. One of the first things that people say when they want to move to the county is, “What are the schools like?” if they have young children. And so I hope that Brunswick County schools will have a positive reflection when people move into the area. I think working with economic development, bringing in jobs— I’m hoping we will be able to make a better connect with what our economy locally needs and having those children ready because a lot of them might not be college-bound, but there are a lot of technical skills that we need in this community, and I can tell you from working in property management, we need those skilled laborers in our county.
RLH: Thanks for coming in, Catherine Cooke.
Catherine Cooke: Thanks for having me.