The Ashe Post & Times recently asked the Ashe County Board of Education candidates running in the upcoming election questions about their desire to run for office, their plans if elected, their take on the issues facing Ashe County Schools and more. Of the four candidates, all responded to our questions. These are their answers:

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself

Lee Beckworth: I am married to Kathie Phipps Beckworth and began working as a veterinarian in Jefferson with Dr. Earl Hightower in 1975. I enjoy farming, old time and bluegrass music, and studying local history. My roots are in the Blue Ridge Mountains and in education. My ancestors came to this area in 1798. My great-grandfather built Pine Fork School in 1898. My grandfather taught for 40 years in Ashe and Alleghany Counties. In 1908, he taught dozens of students at a one room schoolhouse in Nathan’s Creek. My mother graduated from Glade Valley High School in 1932. Both of my children teach in Ashe County schools and one of my three grandchildren started kindergarten this year at Mountain View.

C. B. Jones: I am a sixth-generation, lifelong Ashe County resident and am a High Country native through and through. I practiced Emergency Medicine at Ashe Memorial Hospital serving this community for 44 years and retired in 2018. I now proudly serve on the AMH Board of Trustees. I am an active member and inactive Deacon at First Baptist Church of West Jefferson. My family has served this community through education for generations. My parents both taught at Lansing High School, my older sister taught at Northwest High School, and my younger sister taught at both Lansing Elementary School and Appalachian State University. For the past 36 years I have been married to my lovely wife, Kina, and have four children and four wonderful grandchildren.

Josh Roten: My wife, Holly, and I own Appalachian Legacy Funeral Services, LLC which operates Badger Funeral Home and Ashelawn Memorial Chapel and Gardens. I am a licensed funeral director and embalmer and a native of Ashe County. I graduated from Ashe County High School, attended Wilkes Community College and graduated from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. Working with the community is very important to me as I am involved with various local civic organizations: President of The Rotary Club of Ashe County, Ashe Masonic Lodge #594, Oasis Shriners, and the Ashe Shrine Club; I also serve on the Board of Directors for the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce, Ashe County Children’s Endowment, President of Ashe Vision and as a member of the Board of Trustees for Wilkes Community College. I am the son of Tim and Roxann Rhodes Roten of Lansing, grandson of Lena Sexton Rhodes, the late Gilbert Rhodes and Ilene Lewis Roten and the late J.B. “John” Roten. I am married to Holly M. Roten, a former Literary Specialist at Mountain View Elementary School and we have a daughter, Lila Katherine, son, Lawson Kendrick and daughter, Lena Kaye.

Kim Simmons: I am an Ashe County native and live in Jefferson with my husband, Shane. We are blessed with two daughters, Madison and Alexa. Madison, who is a teacher at Ashe County High School, is married to Preston Roberts, a teacher at Mountain View. Alexa serves in the United States Air Force and is currently stationed in Germany. I am an educator with over 28 years of experience and currently work for the NC Department of Public Instruction. In my current position, I am responsible for the NC Educator Evaluation System and work with school administrators across the state to build their leadership skills. I serve on the Ashe County Sharing Center Board and volunteer frequently. When I am not working, I like to try DIY projects, walking, and sitting on my back porch. I love life in the mountains and living close to the river — the more family and friends, the better

2. What is your educational background, and why are you running for the Ashe County Board of Education?

Beckworth: I received a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Georgia. My parents always stressed the importance of education in making it possible for me to reach my goal in life to become a veterinarian. Being a member of the Ashe County Board of Education allows me the opportunity to honor their support for me by doing everything in my power to support each of Ashe County’s students in reaching their goals in life as well.

Jones: I attended both Lansing High School and Glade Valley High School. After graduating, I attended Milligan University in Tennessee before serving in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. During my service in the Air Force, I studied and earned my degree from the University of Maryland. I then attended Wake Forest University Medical School and completed the Physician Assistant program.

I initially ran for a seat on the Board of Education to help Ashe County establish a middle school and now I want to see that process through. Since joining the Board, I have been instrumental in pushing the plans for our middle school forward by consolidating the high schools and getting the new high school built on time and within budget. Right now, we are in a vital time in planning and development of the middle school. I want to use my experience to again build a top-notch school to serve Ashe County again on time and within budget.

Roten: I am a product of the Ashe County School System. I was in the second graduating class of Ashe County High School, attended Wilkes Community College and graduated from The Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science. I have three reasons I am running for the Board of Education. For my children, first and foremost. Secondly, for our community to have the best school system it can possibly have. Third, to make a difference, leaving a lasting legacy for those who follow behind us. If elected, I would be the only board member who would have children currently enrolled in Ashe County Schools. I also believe through my work as a Trustee of Wilkes Community College, I would use this as an opportunity to build the relationship between the college and the school system.

Simmons: I graduated from Ashe Central High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in Middle School Education from Appalachian State University. I taught language arts and social studies at Woodward Middle School in Wilkes County and Ashe County Middle School. I was recognized two times as Teacher of the Year. In 2003, I completed my Masters in School Administration and served as Assistant Principal/Exceptional Children’s Site and Transportation Director at Hardin Parkin School in Watauga County. The following year, I returned to Ashe County Middle School as assistant principal and remained there until 2008 when I moved to Mountain View Elementary School as principal. I was recognized as Principal of the Year in Ashe County two consecutive years. In 2011, I accepted a position with the NC Department of Public Instruction. In 2016, I earned my Doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from Western Carolina University. I have also served as an adjunct professor at WCU.

I was blessed to go through Ashe County Schools at a time when things were great. This foundation helped me become a successful teacher, principal, and educational leader. I have worked for the Department of Public Instruction for many years and now it’s time to give back. I would be honored to serve our community and support these difficult times facing Ashe County Schools.

3. If elected, what do you feel would be your role as a member of the board?

Beckworth: The role of a member of the board of education is to serve as a voice for the citizens of Ashe County, allowing them to have input in their children’s education. The role requires a member to do their homework to get all the information necessary to make decisions that always reflect what is in the best interests of Ashe County students. The board’s responsibilities include finding the best person they can to serve as superintendent to provide leadership for our school system, to update and create policies that improve and serve the needs of our school system, and to always make decisions that are best for our students.

Jones: I will continue to be a transparent leader on the Board of Education. To encourage the growth and success of our school system, I will continue to communicate candidly with our staff and community members. In 2018, the Ashe County school system was ranked 2nd in the region and 7th statewide. Our county was ranked 1st statewide in 5th and 6th grade science scores. As a member of the Board, I want to sustain and continue building on the success we have had by supporting our dedicated teachers and staff as well as our excellent students to help them flourish now and in the future.

Roten: As the member of a board, a board member’s job is to work with their executive director or administration to help develop and approve policy. I see the board of education no differently. It is a board’s job to manage the superintendent and work with them on school policy. The board hires the superintendent to run and operate the schools, not the other way around. The board is to be involved in the community as the schools system’s biggest supporter. The job of a board member is to also work with, not against, our local elected officials and to be the best steward of the money provided to the schools from the taxpayers of Ashe County.

Simmons: The role of any school board member is to focus on serving all children and to ensure every deliberation, decision, and action reflects the interests of every student. More specifically, I will ensure our community voice is represented and support decisions that remain true to the values of Ashe County. The first time I interviewed in Ashe County for a teaching position, sweatshirts were for sale in the lobby that read Ashe County Schools are “Our” Business. I bought one because I loved the message of community. Ashe County Schools are OUR business. My role on the school board will be to ensure improved transparency and communication so that citizens feel connected to our school system again.

4. What is the biggest issue facing Ashe County Schools and what would you like to see being done to address this?

Beckworth: There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on our schools is the greatest challenge we are facing and will face for the foreseeable future. The negative effects it is having on our students have been difficult to witness. Along with creating difficulties for our students, the pandemic has been equally hard on all our employees, from our teachers to classified employees, especially our child nutrition staff. Question 8 that follows addresses the specific actions we are taking to deal with this pandemic in Ashe County schools. Within the governor’s guidelines, we are doing everything in our power to keep our children’s education as normal as possible. The normal struggles we face with funding issues and state and federal requirements, such as end of grade testing, are now a secondary concern to the safety of our students and staff.

Jones: The biggest issue facing Ashe County Schools right now is COVID-19. We need to do everything we can during these unprecedented times to keep our schools open and our students and teachers safe. I will use my experience as a Board member to continue effectively working with our administration to provide our students, teachers, and staff the tools they need to be successful.

Roten: I feel our biggest issue at the moment is the current COVID situation, in keeping our students, facility and staff as safe as possible and at the same time providing the best possible learning environment for all Ashe County students.

Simmons: Safely returning to school is the biggest issue facing all school systems right now. Our smaller community feels a bit safer than the larger populated communities, however school closing has amplified our small community’s struggles with food insecurity and hunger. Even before the hardships of the pandemic, more than 60 percent of our students qualified for free and reduced lunch. Among households seeking food assistance from Second Harvest Food Bank’s local partners, 72 percent reported they had to choose between food and medicine/medical care. This data is humbling.

Families continue to struggle with child care, flex schedules and online line learning. Teachers and staff are working to facilitate virtual, blended and face to face learning while managing student safety. As a school board, leadership should remain focused on each of these issues while planning for our future. The school system cannot solve these problems alone. Let’s move forward with innovative solutions and partnerships to benefit our students.

5. If elected, during your term will be the completion of the new middle school. This will be a great benefit for the county and school system, but will come with a lot of transitions and challenges. How would you like to see the BOE plan for this exciting transition?

Beckworth: As a current board member, we began planning for the transition to a new middle school 4 years ago. The transition from our present middle school for grades 7 and 8 to a middle school for grades 6,7, and 8 is exciting and is requiring many hours of planning. The present board of education has a cumulative total of 54 years of experience that we are directing toward this middle school project. We are in year 4 of a 6 year process to see this school completed. Over the course of this monumental undertaking, we have put in hundreds and hundreds of hours meeting with all parties involved as we plan to make this school the best it can be. We sought out and were awarded a state grant for $15 million toward this project, allowing us to save local taxpayers a record amount of money, money which can now be reinvested in other local projects. I am running to make sure this school will become a reality and the new crown jewel of our school system’s facilities, while at the same time making sure Ashe County taxpayers are getting the best school building possible for their money.

Jones: As a Board member, I have been engaged in planning the new middle school for the last ten years. I have been involved in the process from the start: participating in the public hearings, locating and purchasing the land for the new school, and working closely with county commissioners, principals, teachers, and parents to ensure we are meeting the needs of our students and community.

A transition like this always presents challenges, however moving the 6th grade into the middle school will not only be a more enriching environment for our students, but will also open up space and resources for our elementary school. I understand that the transition will not only be for students, but our teachers as well. As we get closer to opening the middle school, I will listen closely to our teachers and parents and do everything I can to make the transition as seamless as possible, both academically and professionally.

Roten: Transparency is my goal though any situation. Currently, there has been little transparency with the public or other elected officials from the board of education. Our county officials did not even know that the blueprint of the middle school had been changed from a one story building to a two story building until the Ashe Post & Times did a article stating that and showing some of the layout of the new school. The middle school is much needed and is already behind schedule. From what I understand, there may not be enough room for everything to fit on the property. The board will need to work with county and town officials to make sure this building is the most current and can easily adapt to changing technology. The longer the board of education’s architect takes to bring the middle school to bid, the more money this is going to cost the taxpayers due to rising building costs that are occurring daily.

Simmons: For two decades, our middle school age students and teachers have dreamed of a new school. Opening a new middle school will be a very exciting time for Ashe County, a time we can all be proud of our growth and progression. The middle school project should be one of the issues that decide the BOE election and it is one of the reasons I decided to run for school board. Many Ashe County Citizens are questioning what is going on with our new middle school. In July 2019, Superintendent Yates said we could expect construction bidding to start in the coming weeks after all plans were approved. Plans were not approved and 15 months later, where are we? To my knowledge, there still has been no call for bids for this project that was slated to begin construction in the spring of 2020. In October 2019, our school board met with the county commissioners. The Ashe Post and Times reported discussion to address suggestions from the county commissioners and the middle school principal being ignored by the architect. They also expressed concerns over how the BOE had communicated with the commissioners during the project’s planning to this point and suggested more communication. Citizens in our community have approached me with their concerns over why the middle school construction has not progressed or even begun and why there has not been more transparency as to what has delayed the process. Do we have a project committee with parent and community representation?

I want to be excited for our new middle school. I was a middle school teacher and came through the ranks at a time when middle schools were beginning to make real change. After working for a decade at our middle school, my heart jumps at the thought of having a new facility for our students and staff. This is a time when our community can come together in celebration.

6. What sets you apart from other candidates running for the board of education?

Beckworth: It has been an honor to serve on the board of education with some of the finest people I’ve ever known. Those I have served with over the years have shared a common interest in doing the best they could to make the right decisions for our children. I have no reason to think that everyone running for election this year would not do the same. I am a fiscal conservative and don’t believe in wasting taxpayer’s money. Boards of education tend to be made up of a majority of previous school employees; however, it provides for a more balanced view of the needs of our students in the “real world” to also have members on the board, such as myself and C.B. Jones, who can speak for and represent the business and professional community. School systems are in a constant state of change and have been every year I’ve been on the board. I’ve tried to the best of my ability to provide steady leadership with a backbone to always do what is in the best interest of our children, and I will continue to do so, if re-elected.

Jones: I have 24 years experience on the School Board, serving previously as vice chairman and presently as chairman. My experience in being involved in the process of planning and building Ashe County High School and Westwood Elementary School means I bring a unique and informed perspective to the Board during this pivotal time in planning the middle school. I also believe my experience is an important asset as the Board navigates the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.

Roten: I feel my involvement in the community and business sector is something that sets me apart from others. Being active in the community though the Ashe Campus of Wilkes Community College, Ashe Chamber of Commerce, local civic groups and in my business gives me the best opportunity to be with public to become knowledgeable of their issues/concerns and also to help the board of education know what opportunities are available though different agencies in Ashe County that I am a part of.

Simmons: I have dedicated my life to education and advocating for children. With 28 years experience as a successful educator at the state and local level, I have gained relevant experience to serve on the Ashe County School Board. I understand the responsibility on the shoulders of our teachers to care for and teach our children. I relate to the bigger picture of bus routes, lunch, and safety of an entire school from a principal’s chair. I have also worked with state leaders and lobbied for educational change. I have walked the walk. But the most important thing that sets me apart from the other candidates is that I will bring a fresh perspective to the board. I have no pet projects that I have to handle to save face, and no favors that I owe anyone. I am willing to look at every issue with an open and honest attitude for the benefit of every student in this system, no matter their economic or political position.

As an educational leader, I am transparent, engaging and accountable for my decisions. I strongly believe in the power of collaborative work between school and community including all school personnel and students and families. In my current position training educational leaders, I reference the importance of trust within a school community and remaining focused on the common goal of serving children. I am prepared to invest myself along with my expertise and knowledge to support the values of Ashe County while leading the next phase of greatness for Ashe County Schools. I also want to leverage my local and state education experience to ensure that Ashe County is recognized for opportunities that would benefit our students and community.

7. Studies show that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a surge in homeschool applications across the state. How do you feel the Ashe County public school system should assist those families?

Beckworth: I have always felt and have consistently voted to support the premise that parents should make the ultimate decision on what is best for their children’s education. Ashe County has a great school system, consistently one of the best in the state. The vast majority of parents have chosen Ashe County schools as the best option for their children and their children are benefiting from our excellent teachers and staff. However, I respect parents who have chosen homeschooling for their children. We have recently added an Early College option within our school system, which now allows students to work toward a high school diploma and associate’s degree at the same time, and we have had several homeschool students who have taken advantage of this great opportunity. During this pandemic, we have also created an online education option called Ashe Online, giving our students the option to continue their education from home and have made this exciting opportunity available to homeschooled students as well. This new program allows homeschooled students to access a first class education experience from home with our own Ashe County teachers. Through these initiatives, home schooled students can still develop a personal relationship with our local teachers, some of the best in the state; these teacher-student relationships have been proven to be one of the most important factors to ensuring educational success.

Jones: Ashe County Schools now provides online education through our virtual school, Ashe Online. Ashe Online will provide families that may be considering homeschooling the opportunity to remain a part of the county school system. This would enable their students to participate in athletics, band, ROTC and other extracurricular activities. Further, we are fortunate that our technology department was able to grow our inventory of laptops prior to the pandemic with help from county funding. As such, we have been able to provide each of our students with the technology they need to continue learning from home.

Roten: Ashe County Schools has established an online academy, Ashe Online, of which my oldest daughter is currently enrolled. This opportunity provides families who wish to keep students at home a great opportunity by allowing them to receive a public school curriculum in the safety of their own home. Ashe Online students are also given the opportunity to receive school lunches as well, which benefits our child nutrition program.

Simmons: Ashe County Schools should assist families in the direction they need whether it is a homeschool of their choice or Ashe Online to ensure their child is in an educational program that meets their needs. Student and staff safety is the top priority. More families are choosing to homeschool their children. Ashe County public school system should assist families by asking them to consider the following when making their decision:

  • What are your educational goals for your children?
  • Collaboration with Ashe County Schools, to see what the public school system has to offer during this COVID-19 pandemic, including Ashe Online
  • Community resources they may need to support their child’s educational experience
  • Social and emotional learning in addition to educational requirements

Ashe Online could be used as a resource to align instruction with the NC Standard Course of Study and bridge a gap if students return to school later. Students will have a teacher to support their learning and technical support. In some cases, students play sports and join clubs. We will do what is best for all children.

8. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly altered school operations and caused students and staff to adjust to a “new normal.” The future of the virus and its implications on school systems globally is still uncertain. How do you anticipate navigating this great challenge and plan to work with other board members and school personnel to ensure the success of Ashe County Schools?

Beckworth: If there has ever been a time during this covid pandemic for all parties involved, such as board members, school personnel, the health department, parents, and students, to work as a team, this is the time. Our new superintendent, Dr. Eisa Cox, is doing an excellent job in overseeing the multiple fronts necessary to address this pandemic, and the present board is supporting her in any way we can. Ashe County Schools has an excellent relationship with our local health department. By serving on the board of directors of the Appalachian District Health Department, I am able to see first hand all the positive effects that collaboration between the health department and school system is having protecting our students and staff. We have spent almost $1.2 million of state and federal appropriations to feed our children, provide cleaning supplies for our schools, and increase our technology capabilities and wifi access. Through hand washing, mask wearing, social distancing, and all the other sudden adjustments our teachers, personnel, and students are embracing, I have no doubt that the success of our school system will continue in the future as it has in the past, and we are looking forward to the time when our students and schools will return to a new normal.

Jones: As Chairman, I have been directly involved over the last six months in addressing the challenges presented by COVID-19. I have participated in many virtual meetings with the governor’s office, state superintendent office, regional superintendents, and experts from Duke University to find solutions for Ashe County Schools during this time. It has been a challenge to forge a path forward with the pandemic's volatility changing our circumstances day-to-day. I understand how important it is for our students to have in-person instruction and interact socially with their peers. As a Board, we have had to make very hard decisions about when and how to open schools taking into consideration the safety of our students, teachers and staff. We must always weigh the benefits and the risks involved and continue to listen to our teachers, staff, parents and the experts in making informed decisions. I will continue to work closely with our community and experts to navigate this school year and to do what is best for our students. The Board's goal is to be able to use the technology solutions and protocols we have developed during this time to benefit our students in the future, for example, by eliminating missed instruction due to snow days. I look forward to seeing every single one of our students back in school full time.

Roten: As everyone has done since late February and March, we have all had to adapt to day- to-day change. The best way to navigate change is by remaining transparent and keep an open ear to parents, faculty, staff and community members as to value their opinion and ideas when shared. Collecting information to form an implementation plan with stakeholder’s input is of the most importance to me. During these times, not everyone will agree on the best plan of action, but with research and information provided to the board members, we could work with all parties involved and be ready to pivot as things evolve to make decisions that are in the best interest of Ashe County Schools.

Simmons: Regardless of COVID-19, our students should always be at the center of our decisions and our work. Expertise, innovative thought and problem-solving combined with educator experience will be necessary to navigate the pandemic affects on our schools. Currently, school systems are forced to be change-ready and reactive. I compare it to building an airplane while in flight. In order to remain focused on students, we need to ensure more parents and teachers are sitting at the table for discussions and decisions. I feel like they are in the trenches of the work and have greater insight for us to consider. I also think we need to give everyone an opportunity to share and celebrate all they are doing to support the care and education of our students, and then look at relocating work responsibilities to adjust to our “new normal.”

Academic recovery for struggling and non-engaged students, and social and emotional learning are other COVID-19 issues we face moving forward. While we are figuring out our solutions, we will begin strengthening our relationships to support our students at home and at school.

Ashe County Schools are unique and essential as cultural centers in the community. Athletics, drama programs, music, and other social activities conducted at our schools play a vital part in our rural community life. Much of our community identity is directly connected to school programs. I understand and value this connection as part of our “new normal.” I also realize how important it is to ensure continued engagement from our community to support our educational work moving forward. We need new leadership for these changing times.

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