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  • Writer's pictureTopsail Times

Melissa Oakley for Onslow County Board of Education

Q: What is the primary issue facing the school system that led you to run for office?

A: My thoughts on the primary issue have changed somewhat since the 2020 election cycle when I ran the first time. Today, I believe, as then, that we have more than one critical issue at hand.  In 2020, I believed a primary issue was maintaining and updating facilities as many needed repairs to roofing from lingering damage from the blows of Hurricane Florence, increasing bus driver pay to hire more drivers, and increasing the supplemental income incentive for teachers to be more competitive in the workforce to bring in new teachers and staff to fulfill vacancies. Today, the most pressing issue is rapid growth and school capacity concerns. For example, Coastal Elementary School was just opened in 2022 and has already reached capacity. Dixon High School is now the home of largest student population in the county.  Because of this, the district has applied for a grant that would allow for the complete renovation and expansion of Dixon High School at no match to local tax payers funding. The Stump Sound area growth is at such a rapid pace we are likely to need an additional elementary school in the next five years or less. We recently broke ground on another elementary school in the Swansboro/Belgrade area where the old elementary school used to be out in the Deppe Rd area due to growth in population in that area. Additionally, we are still facing staffing shortages, just as in 2020, and most of all, increasing school safety initiatives. We have filled some vacancies and have new support positions filled while others are still available. We also have an increase in behavioral and mental health concerns that led to increasing mental health services through the school's providing referrals for families to utilize at low or no cost depending on insurance coverage through Trillium Healthcare. Growth creates overpopulated schools that pose additional safety risks, so I think by addressing the growth problem, we can better address the safety concerns. It is easier to manage less crowded environments than overcrowded environments and mitigate risks.

Q: What skills and experiences make you the right choice for Onslow County voters?

A: I'm an NC Native, born and raised in the foothill's region of our beautiful state, where I attended public schools, so I hold the values of most native North Carolinians. I hold a dual associate degree in Business Administration and Criminal Justice. I am enrolled at the University of Mount Olive in a Bachelor's program for Judicial Studies. I have a diverse background of work experience from skills programs that led me to pursue certification as a nurse's assistant, medical office management, and a childhood education worker. Additionally, I have a background in pre-school, as a pharmacy technician, in hospitality, tourism, domestic services, recruiting, management, staffing, and restaurant service. My most important role has been as the mother of three children who have all been blessed by the opportunity of education through Onslow County Schools since our family moved here as a part of military service when my husband was on active duty. Beyond these things, I have served as a mentor through military programs for spouses, such as LINKS, and as an FRA: Family Readiness Assistant.  Locally, I served as a Guardian ad Litem for five years, advocating for abused and neglected children in our judicial system. However, I have been inactive for some time due to the conflict it poses with my role as an elected official in our county. I have supported and advocated for the United Way CHEW program, serving supplemental nourishment for children across our county, with over 900 children served weekly. I am connected with the many demographics of our wonderful community and understand the impact many of our families face economically, socially, physically, or otherwise.

Q: School safety has been a hot topic at Onslow County School board meetings. If elected, what will you do to help ensure the safety of students and staff on school grounds? 

A: I will keep tilling ground. Since I was elected to the board of education in 2020, I have avidly supported advancing security measures and initiatives that would improve our facilities structures as many of our schools are over 30 years old. Some of the facilities were built when society had not remotely imagined the safety issues we face today in society or a school system. Vaping has become an enormous problem and concern with the rise in the fentanyl crisis, and one of my greatest fears has been that a student may obtain a vape that is laced with a substance that could cause adverse health consequences or even a fatality. Because of this and other concerns with our current opioid and fentanyl crisis, I advocated for the placement of Narcan in our school's district-wide. The Narcan boxes are nasal inhalants, and they were provided through a federal grant, SAMSHA where members of our community wrote the grant to provide full funding for the Narcan, training for staff to administer and this requires no match of local tax dollars. Additionally, I have advocated fervently for vape detectors and requested that funding from the state legislature. Though the funding request was not approved in the annual state budget, the district has applied for a NC Center for Safer School's grant that will provide the necessary funding for them if we are granted the funding. Not only will these HALO vape detectors provide the level of assurance that will detect the use of vapes, they also provide an additional layer of security that detects key words like "fight, knife, gun" and other sound effects that would exhibit a potential threat or danger. After the tragedy at Northside High School in September of 2022 where one student lost his life, I proposed the use of mobile metal detectors at the schools with a focus on sporting events and other special events. This was because the data trends reflected the impact of violent incidents and threats at athletic events in certain areas of the county. Because of that, we also increased law enforcement presence at the schools greatest affected by threats of violence. Since then, we've increased the number of SROs and at least 3 of our high schools have two SROs, and one in every school otherwise. Our budget has permitted two on staff law enforcement officers who are housed at the central office, one from JPD and one from OCSO. We also funded a K-9 Officer Gus who is trained to detect explosives. Over the last few years, I've advocated for stronger legislation to our state senator and house representatives regarding the Delta 8 & 9 gummies after adverse health effects occurred at one of our middle schools last year where students were sharing what was believed to be "snacks".  These should never make it into the hands of youth or into our schools transported by youth. We approved school monitors in our fiscal budget for this year for our more at risk high schools to add additional supervision. Many of these jobs are held by parents, retired teachers, and veterans population. I have also advocated for silent alarm systems that would allow teachers and staff to immediately lockdown with a radar type system guiding law enforcement to the direct impacted area(s) in response to any possible event of mass violence.  I have advocated for Centegix silent alert systems that are badges that teachers and staff can use in conjunction with the aforementioned school radar system that will work effectively without WiFi or cellular.  Funding constraints are an issue for swift implementation of additional layers of this magnitude. In December 2023, I began drafting a policy revision proposal to the existing School Safety policy that would bolster the communication between administrators, staff, and the SROs in reporting incidents of misconduct or violence to ensure a partnership between the two in combination with alleviating any strain on administrators to solely determine whether or not an act warrants a juvenile referral, purely administrative disciplinary action or a combination. This adds another layer of responsibility and accountability as well as balance between the school and law enforcement agencies. We recently unanimously approved the launch of Evolv weapons detection systems which I was one of three board members to recommend. 

Q: Do you have children or grandchildren that attend the Onslow County Schools, and if so, what do you feel are the major issues that affect them?

A: My two youngest children are students at Dixon schools and I cannot think of any major issues that have greatly affected them. We have fortunately had great teachers who have helped mold our children as individuals and recognize that each student is different from the next.

Q: If elected, how do you plan on filling the need for more teachers and school bus drivers? Would you support incentives, like benefits and bonuses? 

A: I have been consistently working for improvements in this area. When I was elected in 2020, I ran on increasing bus drivers pay and we did raise the pay to $15 an hour to which now is $16 an hour starting pay with $2500 sign on bonuses. Retention bonuses have been provided for the past few years with at least $1000 for those qualifying staff who have stayed onboard for the entire fiscal year. I voted proudly in support of these bonuses and pay increases. Additionally, I ran on increasing teachers' supplemental income in 2020 to which we voted unanimously on a 2% increase from 10% to 12% which is quite competitive for our region and statewide for counties our size. Teacher assistants oftentimes are assigned to a classroom to substitute but were not given the substitute pay rate which would have been a higher rate and now they are paid for that rate and were offered backpay for the last fiscal year which this change came into effect.  Through working cohesively with staff, and applying the relevant general statute, I was able to successfully advocate for this change on behalf of the teacher assistants. I believe one of the key issues with obtaining and retaining bus drivers is the lack of respect for adults in the public school system from some students and parents. The hours are not enough for full time employment benefits unless they work as a custodian, nutrition assistant or teacher assistant to meet those hourly requirements. I believe this will take some support from state leaders to increase the funding available for public schools to bolster wages to meet these employment needs and demands.


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