Meet the Candidates: Watauga County Board of Education

Election Day is Nov. 8 and with 19 candidates on the local ballot, Watauga voters have many decisions to make. The Appalachian has curated responses to questions on certain policy positions of candidates in local office. 

The questions and responses below are curated from The Boone Chamber of Commerce’s  “Meet The Candidates” event held at the Appalachian Theatre of the High Country Oct. 6. 


Board of Education

The following questions were asked to Gary Childers, Jennie Hanifan, Chad Cole, Marshall Ashcraft, Jay Fenwick and Dustin Kerley. All candidates are running for the Board of Education:

  • Name two to three issues facing our local schools over the next few years and how are you well-suited to address those issues?

Chad Cole: 

Cole said he wants to focus on infrastructure, school safety and mental health of students. He said he wants to make sure there are student resource officers in every school, as well as making sure that counselors are available to students when needed. 

Jennifer Hanifan: 

Hanifan said she believes in keeping education to the basics, such as: “reading, writing, arithmetic, science, arts and factual history,” Hanifan said.

Hanifan also said she believes parents should be thoroughly involved in their childrens’ education process. 

“They have a right to know their curriculum and they should be involved and it’s our duty to serve them to do so,” Hanifan said.

Dustin Kerley: 

Kerley emphasized bringing in more personnel to work and solve issues on the front lines of education. 

“I know that our schools are having trouble being able to fill certain jobs. You can’t live here for cheap so it’s hard to live and work here,” Kerley said.

Kerley also spoke on embracing the diversity represented in the student body and coming to terms with differences. 

“I’ve seen and tried to come together to a happy medium and common ground,” Kerley said. 

Gary Childers:

Childers emphasized the importance of school advancements and the current curriculum implemented in Watauga County Schools. 

 “First thing that comes to mind since we’ve been dealing with this a lot lately is the need for improving our facilities. What comes to mind is also I think safety is important with the president of the board having worked with other agencies in the state locally to provide school resource officers,” Childers said. “The third thing I think is that we’re at a time now when we have to examine very carefully the forces that are trying to influence what we teach and how we teach in our schools.”

Jay Fenwick: 

Fenwick emphasized the amount of personnel turnover during the pandemic. “Giving them the support and structure to help them do their job and let them do their job,” Fenwick said.

Fenwick also addressed maintaining a diverse student body and keeping students safe as the are grows in population

Marshall Ashcraft:

Ashcraft also addressed personnel issues the county has been facing in recent years. 

“Retention bonuses and pay raises are great ways to get people to stay,” Ashcraft said. 

Ashcraft also discussed the need to address the county’s growing population and provide support services for mental health in order to de-escalate tensions that can lead to violence in schools. 

  • What is the role of a Board of Education member regarding topics such as what history should be taught and what books should be read in our schools?

Chad Cole: 

Cole believes that all students should have access to books that both fit the curriculum, and also ones that fit their beliefs. He said he wants to make sure that the history that is being taught is “not the history that America fought to get away from.”     

Jennifer Hanifan: 

Hanifan talked about the importance of monitoring school curriculum, without restricting books in classrooms.

“As far as banning books goes, I reject the premise of that question because the local boards do not have moral or legal power to ban books either inside or outside of the classroom,” Hanifan said. “It’s against our constitutional right but as far as the curriculum goes then again.”

Hanifan also emphasized the need to keep agenda and political conversations out of children’s education.

Dustin Kerley: 

Kerley emphasized the need for communication about book replacement policies, explaining how parents should be in the know. 

“I’m a fan of having options for kids, if somebody thinks something is not appropriate they should have options to choose from,” Kerley said.

Kerley also explained how he believes it is a teacher’s responsibility to set reasonable limits on classroom content. 

“I think it’s about hiring the best teachers out there and that we hire people who will teach appropriately and properly so that our kids can have the best education possible,” Kerley said. 

Gary Childers: 

Childers believes the role of the commission is to find policies to enact within schools and find “the very best people” to instruct students. 

“These committees don’t determine what’s taught. They determine how to teach what’s required to be taught, but they are a point of entry but always the very first thing that if a parent has a concern about what their child is being exposed to teach attendees is to talk with the child’s teacher,” Childers said. 

Jay Fenwick:

Fenwick discussed the “multifaceted process” teachers in the county use to make decisions on what children are reading in classrooms. 

“Guidelines are already in place and happening,” Fenwick said. “The board ultimately has the responsibility for these issues but all of us on the board know that teachers ultimately make the best decisions for their classrooms and we believe those decisions are good.”

Marshall Ashcraft: 

Ashcraft pointed out the policies used regarding specific reading material which parents may be uncomfortable with their children reading. 

“There is an opportunity for parents to have a voice,” Ashcraft said. “We do not want the Board of Education to be an institution that dictates what students are learning or reading.”

  • What are the things you think our local schools are doing well in regards to school safety and what is needed?

Chad Cole: 

Cole said he supports as many resource officers as possible in schools, but understands that funding can be an issue. 

“I understand the money issue, believe me I do. But I would like to get even two officers in every school,” Cole said. 

Jennifer Hanifan: 

Hanifan said she believes that every school’s safety could be improved by having a resource officer. 

We do know that we have some and let’s keep in mind that one town, Blowing Rock, affords their own and so even though there are grants that are paid back to it, we still have to afford the other schools,” Hanifan said.

Dustin Kerley: 

Kerley explained how the security measures have been very beneficial in creating multiple security doors. 

“That’s a big improvement: only one access in and out in the building at the front doors and those doors stay locked all the time,” Kerley said. 

Kerley also emphasized his desire to have a resource officer in every school. 

“That’s something that is special to me and not only for protection, you know, it’s a huge impact that these police officers have on kids. They get the opportunity to have a hero in their classroom,” Kerley said. 

Jay Fenwick:

Fenwick discussed three different aspects to deal with issues that pose threats to school safety: “prevent, respond and recover.”

“We have five school resource officers right now and we just put in a request to get more, so we are working towards more safety officers,” Fenwick said.

Marshall Ashcraft:

Ashcraft emphasized the “school climate” in order to prevent safety issues in the school systems.

“The state has a lot of resources that could help to lower the tense relationships that often lead to dangerous situations in our schools,” Ashcraft said. 

Gary Childers: 

Childers said he wants school resource officers in every school in Watauga County to combat potential threats to school safety. 

There is a school resource officer’s presence in every Watauga school building for “at least part of the day.” Childers plans to increase the number as funds become available. 

“To me, there’s nothing more important than making sure our schools are safe,” Childers said. “I’d like to add that I have experience in all these areas having developed safety plans for three different schools.” 


  • How should K-12 schools work together, keeping the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, to ensure that students succeed in the transition to early grades?

Chad Cole: 

Cole supports mental health support being offered to students as needed, but believes that Watauga as a whole is doing well. 

Jennifer Hanifan: 

Hanifan believes the best way to succeed with transitioning is by reassessing testing techniques.

“What I would like to do is reassess the type of testing that we use. Not all testing approaches should be applied to everybody and on an individual growth basis,” Hanifan said. “I don’t think transitioning into a grade is what I call successful. It’s the skills that they need to move on.”

Dustin Kerley: 

Kerley emphasized the work that needs to be done with school therapists and counselors to increase social confidence amongst children. 

“I think if we can just work with our counselors and support services to help boost these kids’ confidence and just make them feel like social optimists and get them back on track and feel like school is the best time of their life,” Kerley said.

Gary Childers:  

Childers emphasizes the importance of narrowing the gap between the “learning lag” the pandemic had on students. 

“It’s very important to mention that students have been affected also, socially and emotionally due to the isolation and medium they’ve experienced. And not all of them have been affected, but a lot of them have and that’s why we have employed more counselors and social workers to try to help address those needs,” Childers said. 

Marshall Ashcraft: 

Ashcraft noted the increase in mental health issues faced by students throughout the county due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Providing support for mental health recovery is necessary,” Ashcraft said. “Building student social skills and keeping pressure on things like attendance more relaxed is best.”

Jay Fenwick:

Fenwick emphasized the way Watauga County Schools have closed the learning gap other counties are experiencing. 

“We have more school nurses, more school counselors, a PreK program, middle school and elementary day programs which have helped us significantly close the learning gap,” Fenwick said.