Four candidates filed to compete for an at-large seat on the Lincoln County Board of Education – Heather Rhyne, who’s running for re-election as well as Debra Williams, Ann Cesena and Stephanie Mullen.
Stephanie Mullen, who has three children in Lincoln County Schools chose to run because parent/teacher organizations are fundraising for curriculum and she doesn’t believe there is enough transparency in funding.
“We pay federal, state and local taxes for curriculum,” she said. “Where is the $96 million in our budget going if it’s not paying for curriculum in our classrooms?”
She also has the opinion that certain current member(s) of the board “ran off” the current superintendent (Dr. Lory Morrow) because of personality conflicts.
“The relationship between some members of the board and the county commissioners has been damaged beyond repair,” she said. “
Mullen also referenced the actions of 22 members of the Lincoln County Republican Party who attended a caucus who endorsed Rhyne and other Board of Education candidates, even though the Board of Education is supposed to be nonpartisan. She also ran on the lack of proper attention to elementary school education across the board, not just the “rich” schools, because she believes this is the most important time of a student’s learning journey.
After much consideration and the desire for her fellow-running mate to win, Mullen has elected to concede and put her support behind Ann Cesena.
“I don’t want us to split votes and risk one of us not winning the race,” she said. “We need change in the school board.”
Cesena comes to the race with 30 years of experience in a school setting, as a teacher on up to an administrator.
“I believe I have evolved along with schools,” she said. “Thirty years ago, we didn’t have technology as strong as it is now, and more social and emotional support is needed for families – the whole environment for teaching and learning has changed. I’ve been boots on the ground, literally, evolving with the times. Having said, that I’ve also paid attention. In each position I’ve been in, I’ve taken a leadership role. This is why, after I retired this spring, I was asked by members of the community if I would run for school board.”
There are a couple of areas Cesena feels like she can make a difference in, such as repairing and building relationships.
“In the education setting, you have to be a collaborator, a team player, a good communicator and a listener,” she said. “I feel like for the school board itself, I could be that team player with other members of the board where we all come together and make a plan and understand what our most urgent needs are and what can wait.”
Attention to the importance of school board members being attentive to how money is spent, who’s answering for what and long-term planning is another asset Cesena feels she can bring to the board.
The relationship between the board of education and the county commissioners has become somewhat fractured over the years. Cesena, who is the wife of Commissioner Bud Cesena, doesn’t feel like that is a conflict of interest.
“My husband has spent his lifetime in public service, as have I, we have that in common,” she said. “My direction has been on the education side and looking at the specific needs of children. I don’t see a conflict because we both each have our strengths and are able to keep our business separate. I believe repairing relationships comes with transparency and communication.”
Cesena believes that it’s in the hearts of both commissioners and school board members to do what’s best for the children and families in the community.
Clarity and transparency are to problems that Cesena believes have been present on the school board side and that it’s a matter of conversations involving the commissioners along the way, not just one meeting at the end with a number that is wanted.
“They need to understand the challenges along the way, what’s popped up that’s an emergency, how do we negotiate this so it doesn’t occur again,” she said. “It’s not a fight, it’s a team and a collaboration.”
Running for re-election is Heather Rhyne who has two teenage daughters in the Lincoln County School District. She’s running for re-election because it’s her desire to continue to make a positive impact on students and families in the community by removing barriers to a quality education. Student success is also a priority.
“I’m committed to fostering strong relationships between our schools and our community,” she said. “Most importantly, I’ll represent Lincoln County with integrity and transparency. Even when I originally ran in 2016, it’s always been about making a positive impact on students and families in our community. I don’t have any hidden agendas. It’s not about power or any of that.”
Rhyne believes her greatest accomplishments on the board include suggesting a two-year phase in for the redistricting and the transitioning of G.E. Massey Elementary and S. Ray Lowder Elementary to K-5 schools and folding Battleground Elementary into Kiser Intermediate in a K-5 model.
“I was very glad to bring that idea forward so that it could be accomplished,” she said. “I’m also very proud of the fact that Lincoln County Schools is one of the top two reasons people move to the county. We continue to keep the rigor in our classrooms which is a credit to our teachers and administrators. We rank very high in performance in our state.”
Report card scores have been flat for the past four years, but Rhyne believes that the overall grade performance on the report card is important, but what’s more important is the growth factor which LCS teachers continue to pull out of students.
“I would encourage that we look at the growth in these children, not just the letter grade which is 80% of the score, growth is only 20%,” she said. “As a parent, it’s growth that I want to see.”
Rhyne feels that talk of repairing relationships with the board of commissioners has become a political talking point.
“I can’t speak for the other board members, but I personally respect the role that our commissioners have in the community,” she said. “I wholeheartedly believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that we all want the best for Lincoln County. I’ll go back and say that the fact that people move here because of lower taxes and school systems is a credit to all that we’re doing.”
Even though they may not always agree, Rhyne believes that they all want what’s best for Lincoln County and that they should be the model for students on how to come to the table and discuss differences and walk away without retaliation or revenge.
“That requires both sides coming to the table,” she said. “One of the best things you can do as a board is to form a team with solid leadership. Conflict resolution is something that I’ve tried to face head on. If there’s a conflict, the best way to handle that is face to face communication around the table.”
Debra Williams comes to this election with an extensive background in business and it’s her desire to bring change to the board of education. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in business administration as well as a Master of Science in Engineering in adult education. Williams is well versed in technology and would bring that to the board. She’s a good listener but will also speak her mind.
“I want to leave a legacy and something to my community along with the fact that I help build up what will be our future which is our children,” she said. “My passion for that comes from the fact that I am a grandmother and my grandchildren are in Lincoln County Schools. I’ve always been involved in my children’s and grandchildren’s education. Things are different now because of COVID and I decided this was a good time to become a part of their education and that of other children as well.”
In terms of mending fractured relationships, Williams believes that it takes more than one group of people to make sure that children exceed and that they (the board of education and commissioners) has to come together as a community.
“If we decide to hold on to things that have happened in the past and not move forward, it will only hinder the future and our children from getting the education they need,” she said. “I don’t think anyone wants to stop our children from getting the education they need.”
That all children have the same opportunity is important to Williams and if elected, she plans to make that a priority. Working collaboratively with all involved is of utmost importance to her as well.
“Regardless of what’s going on, each person can have valid points and I think we can come together in terms of what’s best for all in lieu of what’s best for one,” she said. “We need to be open and adults about it. We’re talking about our children here and we should think about that at all times. They should be the number one priority.”
Interviews of board of education candidates running for the other three districts will be featured in future editions.