A Q&A with Rick Mercier
Editor’s Note: Rick Mercier is one of 13 candidates seeking a spot on the November school board ball...
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Editor’s Note: Rick Mercier is one of 13 candidates seeking a spot on the November school board ballot in Johnston County. Below are his answers to questions from the Johnstonian News. Four candidates either declined or did not respond to our questionnaire. They were Al Byrd, John Fischer, Jenn Gurley and Joe Preston. Six candidates will advance to the general election this fall.
What grade would you give the school board’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and why?
MERCIER: It is extremely hard — and perhaps a little unfair — to assign a grade to any school system anywhere in the country on its handling of the pandemic. This was a public health crisis that was unprecedented in any of our lifetimes. I really don’t want to do anything that I think might lower morale among school staff. However, for the purposes of this questionnaire, I’d say I’d give the school system a B.
Every school system struggled at first making the shift to virtual instruction. I think that, overall, our teachers performed heroically; they did everything they could to make the transition and to provide some level of instruction to our students.
The pandemic obviously highlighted some of our pre-existing social and infrastructure weaknesses as a county and a nation. Not every family was able to offer their young learners the same level of support, and not every household had access to good, reliable internet service or to devices for young learners to use. The district scrambled to get Chromebooks and hotspot wifi devices to families that needed them. It didn’t always go smoothly at first, but I know that staff worked hard to find solutions.
Earlier in the pandemic, I think the school system could have done a better job coordinating with the county Health Department to set COVID data benchmarks for the return to in-person instruction and for masking policy — and for communicating these benchmarks clearly to the public. The district improved in this area in the summer and fall of 2021 as the school board voted monthly on masks.
This year, amid the ongoing pandemic, the district rolled out its Virtual Academy as an option for families. The rollout was very bumpy at first, but it got better. Going forward, I would like to maintain the Virtual Academy, but I would like us to move away from having a third-party vendor provide instruction. I know we are facing staffing issues, but our goals should be for the Virtual Academy to be fully staffed by our district’s own teachers and for it to be run entirely in-house by Johnston County Public Schools.
Superintendent Eric Bracy’s goal is to have all Johnston schools earn a C or better on their state report card by the end of the 2023-24 school year. And yet the school board last fall extended Bracy’s contract through the 2024-25 school year. Do you support the contract extension beyond his stated date for having all schools earn a C or better?
MERCIER: After several years of academic decline, fiscal troubles, a couple of interim superintendents and then COVID, Johnston County Public Schools is in desperate need of some stability, so I support Dr. Bracy’s contract extension through 2024-25. We should bear in mind that Dr. Bracy was hired at the height of the COVID pandemic when every school district in the country was experiencing declines in test scores and other achievement and growth measures.
Raising the contract extension as an issue feels like another way of sowing instability and divisions in our school district, and as a parent who has children in Johnston County Public Schools, I know that we do not need any more of that. Dr. Bracy, his leadership team and the principals in the schools should be held accountable, but let’s focus on ways to support them so that our schools can improve.
County Commissioner Fred Smith recently noted that school spending in Johnston is growing faster than enrollment. Is Johnston spending too much on its schools?
MERCIER: No, we are not spending too much on our public schools. Last year, out of 115 school districts in the state, we were 111th in per-pupil spending (combining state, federal and county sources). Mr. Smith did not look at the full picture; neither did some of the media reports about his comments. In fact, if you adjust for inflation using 2022 dollars, you find that the county’s per-pupil spending peaked in 2010-11 at $2,807, then plummeted and has not recovered, even with recent funding increases. Last year, our county-only per-pupil expenditure was 83rd in the state. We can do better.
Some may argue that raising per-pupil spending will not guarantee better outcomes in our schools. Fair enough. There might not be a direct causal relationship between per-pupil funding and student achievement. But when we start talking about the need for competitive teacher compensation, more teacher assistants in the schools, separating TA and bus driver duties, more nurses and counselors, and getting adequate materials and resources in the classrooms, we are talking about the need for increased funding.
I have built strong relationships with some of the commissioners, and I know they recognize the need to continue to improve school funding. They know we should aim to be much higher than 83rd in the state in the county’s contribution to school funding. We need to boost the county’s contribution to the school district’s annual operating budget, and we can do it when school board members and the majority of the county commissioners are working together to do what’s best for our kids.
The school board has asked the county to put a $253.5 million bond issue on the November ballot. Do you support that amount? Or would you favor something more or something less? The school has a list of building needs. What would be your building priorities if elected?
MERCIER: I believe the district has done a good job identifying its needs and compiling them into a capital-improvements plan that offers a good blueprint for the future but remains a working document that can be adjusted in coming years if student enrollment trends and overall county population trends shift. I support a $253.5 million bond referendum for this fall.
I agree that we need to build a new high school; consultants identified it as an “immediate need” more than five years ago. Building it in the Wilson’s Mills area will situate it in a future high-growth area and will help take some of the pressure off Corinth Holders High, which is nearly 500 students over capacity.
The $253.5 million also would enable construction of two new elementary schools. These have been immediate needs for quite some time too. In addition, the proposed $253.5 million bond would enable expansions at Cooper Academy in Clayton, Benson Elementary, Cleveland Middle and Cleveland High (currently more than 600 students over capacity). These are all critical needs, and I support them.
I know that, in the coming years, we will still need another middle school and, if trends hold, two more elementary schools — in addition to some future school expansions. As a result, I would support future bond referendums, as growth in the county’s revenue allows.
As we make additional capital investments, I would want to make sure we address the needs of our older schools too. I know schools Clayton High, South Johnston High, Smithfield-Selma High and South Smithfield Elementary are — or will be — in need of some major renovations or even new buildings. I want to make sure that we are fair and equitable in our capital investments across all parts of the county.
The N.C. Public School Forum has called for the elimination or revision of the state’s A-F grading system for the state’s public schools. How should North Carolina grade its schools to ensure that children are learning and that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth in education?
MERCIER: Overall performance grades should place greater weight on the growth that occurs over the course of a school year. Yes, achievement matters, and overall performance grades can help us focus on targeted school improvement. But high growth is an indicator that learning is taking place in classrooms, so I would recommend making growth count for 50 percent of the performance grade.
Performance grades do miss some important things, such as the range and quality of the special programs at our schools. These include our technical and trades programs, career programs such as JoCo Teach and the fire science program, and STEM, robotics and language-immersion programs. All of these (and others I have not mentioned here) contribute to the overall quality of the education available to students in our schools.
I would add here that, if the state is going to issue school grades, it should use them to target more funding to low-performing schools for curricular and professional development.
What do you consider to be the greatest issue facing Johnston schools, and how would you address it?
MERCIER: The biggest issue remains raising achievement and growth levels across all demographic groups in Johnston County Public Schools. I want to make these things priorities to address the issue:
• Focus on reading proficiency: All students must be grade-level proficient in reading by the third grade. Teachers should receive proper instruction in the science of reading.
• Recruitment and retention of good teachers: We must be able to pay competitive supplements to teachers’ salaries. We must show teachers respect as the professionals that they are. Too many people have disrespected our teachers and have contributed to low morale and the perception that Johnston County Public Schools is not a welcoming place for educators. I would consider bonuses to experienced teachers who choose to work at our low-performing schools.
• Teacher assistants in all K-2 classrooms: We must have teaching assistants in all K-2 classrooms, and they should be in the classroom during all instructional hours of the day. They should not be pulled out of classrooms to drive buses.
• Get curricula for all core subjects and make sure all schools are following them: We need to purchase curricula for all core subjects, and central office administrators and principals must insist on fidelity to the curricula (in alignment with state standards) at all schools.
• Make sure feeder schools are communicating and coordinating well with their middle schools or high schools (whichever the case may be): The feeder schools and their middle or high schools should have consistent teaching strategies, and they should be in constant communication and provide mutual supports in the way of professional development, walkthroughs with feedback, and other opportunities for coordination and collaboration.
• Community involvement: Improving our schools can’t be a spectator sport. Individuals, parents, grandparents, faith communities, civic groups, chambers of commerce and businesses all have a role to play. The community must be willing to support schools with resources and with tutoring and mentoring. Stakeholders in our community should consider adopting a school and helping to lift it up. We can also support important ancillary services such as school food pantries and things such as the Backpack Buddies programs. We all know that students can’t learn if they’re hungry.
• Increase the number of counselors in Johnston schools: We should hire an adequate number of counselors for our schools and make sure we are addressing the intellectual, social and emotional needs of the whole student.
About Rick Mercier
Family: wife, Lara Perry; children, Maya, 16, and Ella, 11.
Education: graduate, Woodlawn Senior High School, Baltimore, Maryland, 1984; bachelor’s degree, history, University of Virginia, 1988; master’s degree, journalim, University of Texas at Austin, 1995.
Occupation: communications manager, Town of Garner.
Political experience: none.
Community service: member, Smithfield-Selma High School Parent Advisory Council; member, Summer Learning Loss Action Committee, Johnston County Partnership for Children; volunteer,Towne Players of Garner.
Religious affiliation: none.
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