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Clayton doctor seeks cure for what ails Johnston schools

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CLAYTON — Dr. Chuck Williams, a family physician in Clayton, wants to HEAL the county’s public schools.

HEAL is the acronym Williams coined for his campaign for a seat on the Johnston County Board of Education. It stands for:

• Helping teachers succeed.

• Economic stewardship.

• Accountability.

• Level the playing field for all students.

“As a physician, I like to speak with patients in terms of diagnosing problems and healing disease,” Williams said in response to questions from the Johnstonian News. “There are many issues that we need to address to ‘heal’ our school system.”

The most pressing are the ones that make up HEAL, Williams said.

To help teachers succeed, he wants to start by ensuring competitive pay. “This is an ongoing struggle of course, but teachers and school administrators are our most valuable resource – they are who make schools successes or failures,” he said. “We must continue to ‘professionalize’ the education field by treating them as such and work every angle we can to find money for competitive salaries.

Williams also wants to explore ways to gauge teacher performance beyond student test scores. “We must develop ways to measure teacher performance for those working with our most challenging students,” he said, suggesting the schools look at student improvement from year to year as opposed to a “hard and fast test number.”

Finally, Williams wants to evaluate the curricula the schools are using. ‘Are they adequate?” he asked. “Is there evidence that they are effective? Have the teachers bought in to their value? Have they been rolled out effectively? Have teachers been given the training and resources to implement the curricula?”

Turning to economic stewardship, Williams said the school board must stay on top of its budgeting process. “No deficit should catch us off guard,” he said, referring to the budget shortfall interim Superintendent Jim Causby found after taking over for Ross Renfrow. “Like all business people, in our practice’s monthly financial meetings, we look for trends and aberrations in spending and identify them quickly. If necessary, we make immediate adjustments to recalibrate.”

The school board could benefit from that approach, Williams said. “We need business owners who understand financial matters as part of our board,” he said.

Williams also said the county needs a school-construction plan that aligns with Johnston’s growth. “Perhaps it hasn’t been adequately rolled out to the public, but most parents I know have a lot of questions about how our system is responding to, and planning for, our ongoing population growth,” he said. “This plan should be constantly reexamined given our changing population and landscape.”

And while building new schools, Johnston needs a master plan for renovations and updates to existing buildings. “Walking through the halls of my sons’ schools at Clayton High impresses upon me the need for ongoing renovation, upgrades and repairs at many of our older schools in particular,” he said. “This is the 21st century — we can do better with our facilities.”

When he talks about accountability, Williams is referring specifically to the school board. “Our constituents must trust our motives,” he said, “and we have to earn their trust by behaving like adults, communicating fairly and openly, treating each other with respect in our discourse, and ultimately allowing our decisions to be examined with transparency by the public.”

Williams called on the board to “be transparent with the public about decisions the board makes, why we make them and why we believe they are the best decisions for our school.”

“I’ve seen firsthand as a parent the failure of certain initiatives because communication was inadequate,” he said.

That transparency should extend to the budget shortfall the schools face, Williams said. “We need to explain to the public why we are where we are and what our plan is to address the deficit moving forward,” he said.

Of course, accountability isn’t just for school board members, Williams said. “Teachers, students, parents, administrators and even citizens without children in the school system currently all benefit from a robust educational system,” he said. “We are in this together.”

To “level the playing field for all students,” the schools must ask themselves some questions, Williams said. “Are we adequately preparing students for life after high school, whether that is a four-year college, community college, trade school or military service?” he said. “Are we valuing all students equally? I’d like to see us increase minority enrollment in our academically gifted programs.”

Finally, are the schools giving their students the tools they need to succeed? “I remain embarrassed that teachers in our system spend their own money on classroom supplies,” Williams said. “I’d propose a business/school partnership to help with basic needs like school supplies — particularly in our most vulnerable schools — so that students have the resources they need to learn.”

Williams said he was running for school board because he knows the value of a good education. “My parents instilled in me from a young age the importance of education,” he said. “They both came from humble backgrounds and used education to improve their station in life. Through the lens of their experience, I came to see education as the great equalizer — an opportunity available to all the citizens of our community to better themselves through learning.”

Williams said his children had had a positive experience in the Johnston County schools. “Parents have a unique perspective and I want to contribute my time and talents to ensure all the students in the county can have similar experiences with their schools,” he said. “Education should not be only reserved for the some of our populace but all of our children.”

Williams thinks the school board could use a doctor among its ranks. “As a family physician in Johnston County for the last 20 years, I’ve seen thousands of children from all walks of life and have a unique perspective on the way health behaviors and education are often interrelated,” he said.

Because of circumstances beyond their control, many students begin school at a disadvantage because of a health problem, poverty or family dysfunction, Williams said. “These early years are vital to later success, and I want to be a part of the leadership team that helps shape policy to provide all students with the best chance for the best education,” he said.

Williams acknowledged the school board’s stumbles this past year, including the controversial transfer of Clayton High School principal Bennett Jones to the central officer.

“My children of course attend Clayton High, and it was painful to see the students of the school subjected to the whole affair while starting the school year,” he said. “From the outside, it seemed to be a very poorly executed and drawn-out personnel matter that was never adequately explained to the parents or students.”

Williams said he was excited about the number of candidates running for school board. “Democracy works best when more citizens are engaged,” he said. “It brings energy, excitement and fresh perspectives to the table.”

He added, “I look forward to getting to know everyone better and having robust conversations and debates with both current board members and new candidates about the direction of our system.”

The school board is likely to hire a new superintendent before next year’s general election, but Williams knows what he wants in a new school leader. “First of all, we should look outside of the county,” he said. “Our leadership has been rightly criticized as a closed club for the last several years.

“Given the challenges facing our system, looking outside the county makes sense. We need a fresh, yet experienced face with no previous alliances with politicians, board members or administrative staff.”

About Chuck Williams

Born Jan. 6, 1970, Williams, 49, is a 1988 graduate of Broughton High School in Raleigh, and he holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Williams his medical degree from Wake Forest University in 1997 and completed a residency in family medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2000. He is a physician with Horizon Family Medicine in Clayton.

Williams and his wife, Robin, have been married for 24. They have three sons, Noah, 18, Wyatt, 17, and Aidan, 15.