Voter Guide: Watauga County Candidates

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Moss Brennan and Abi Pepin

Board of Commissioners

The following questions were sent to each candidate for the Watauga County Board of Commissioners

  1. What plans do you have to help Watauga County recover from the COVID-19 pandemic? 
  2. What are your plans for the board of commissioners if you are elected? 
  3. What do you see as the most pressing needs for infrastructure or capital projects in the county?
  4. Should the county be encouraging building and development especially with how fast App State is expanding? 

District 1 

Carrington Pertalion (D)

Courtesy Carrington Pertalion

Provided bio:My name is familiar to many: I have been providing health care to women in Watauga County for more than 25 years as a public health nurse, as an owner of a private medical practice, and now as an Advanced Practice Nurse at Harmony Center for Women. I have retired from obstetrics after delivering more than 1,500 babies and now continue to provide gynecological, contraceptive and prenatal needs to women across their lifespan. In health care, you learn the importance of listening, viewing facts and circumstances, understanding options and seeking possible solutions. In working with others, a plan is developed, making adjustments when necessary. Much like any group or committee, these skills can be invaluable. As a candidate for County Commission, I hope to serve more people in my community utilizing the skills I have learned as a health care provider in our county.  

  1. COVID-19 is still a global problem. I hope that everyone in our community will follow guidelines set by our local health leaders, our governor, and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). It is more important than ever to wear a mask in any public space, wash hands, and continue to social distance. If local restrictions are recommended, I would support them. There are funds available for local small businesses set up through private donations from local community members. Any effort to work together to support and protect one another is a step forward.
  2. To listen, learn and offer my voice and ideas to our community. I want to hear joys and concerns, ideas and hopes for our county.  What can we change? Improve? What is working? I believe we can accomplish more by listening to one another, finding common ground and seeking solutions together.
  3. A few of the needs I see in our county include: repairing and replacing our aging school buildings, affordable housing, expanding broadband to rural communities, supporting renewable energy such as wind and solar. For example, the county is contracted with a private firm to build a solar farm at the old landfill. 
  4. No one wants to see us overbuild. While growth is necessary, it requires management with long range vision that holds development to the highest standard while protecting our natural resources and heritage. Our Blue Ridge Mountains and pristine rivers are treasures of the High Country and should be valued as such.

Todd Castle (R)

Courtesy Todd Castle

Provided bio: My name is Todd Castle and I am running for Watauga County Commissioner.  I have been married to my wife, Anissa, for 27 years.  We are both multi-generational Watauga County natives. My family and I are members of Mount Vernon Baptist Church, where I have served as a deacon for 22 years. I also teach an adult Sunday school class. We have two sons: Hamilton, a senior finance major at Appalachian State University, who will graduate in December; Anderson is a freshman and is playing football for the Mountaineers and plans to major in business. I have been employed at Appalachian State University for the past 22 years as a network technician for the department of Information Technology and Infrastructure Systems.  Prior to my employment at Appalachian State University I was employed by Samaritan’s Purse as a Biomedical Equipment Technician for the World Medical Mission. For the past eight years I have had the pleasure of serving on the Watauga County Planning Board. The Watauga County Planning Board is made up of seven members appointed by the County Commissioners. We make recommendations regarding the development of comprehensive planning programs in the unincorporated area of the County, including implementation and revision of land use regulations. The Planning Board also acts as the review board for subdivision plat approval. I believe my experience with the Watauga County Planning board uniquely qualifies me for County Commissioner.

  1. I plan to remove as many restrictions and obstructions I can from local businesses so they can flourish. Locally owned businesses have suffered greatly and some may never recover from the mandated shutdowns. I plan to look into efforts of making grants available to the hardest hit businesses that have suffered the most due to the long shutdown.
  2. As a county commissioner I will work to make the board more accessible to the citizens of Watauga County and make sure the board works for the citizens and not vice versa. I will listen to the citizens and ask for input in ways we can help them and I will foster an environment that allows citizens and businesses to thrive. I would be open to the idea of an occasional “town hall”-style meeting to let the citizens speak concerns and ideas to the commissioners.
  3. The school board recently purchased land in the Valle Crucis community to replace a school that is prone to flooding.  This will be a costly endeavor, and the county will have to pay for it.  We need to continue to expand our ambulance bases in the county to reach areas not currently served in further most parts of the county.  This is a big need, but a necessary one as our community continues to grow and expand into the western and eastern areas of the county. Our law enforcement and rescue services need to be fully supported by the commissioners so we can make sure citizens are safe.
  4. The county has to encourage building and development precisely because Appalachian State University keeps expanding. The university continues to admit more students, and while they are adding dorm space it still will be insufficient. If we are to have housing that both students and locals can afford, then it needs to be built. The increase in housing also brings the need for various business services to support a growing population. The Town of Boone has made it nearly impossible and prohibitivly expensive to build within the city limits so the growth will be in the county.

District 2

John Welch (D)

Courtesy John Welch

Provided bio: I am a native of Watauga County and have worked for App State Athletics since 2001. I earned degrees from Wingate University, the United States Sports Academy and App State. I am married to Christy, a school counselor at a local elementary school, and have a 15-year old daughter,Madison, and 8-year old son, Cameron. I was elected to the Watauga County Board of Education in 2010 and the Watauga County Board of Commissioners in 2012 and 2016. I have been honored to serve as the chairman of the board since 2016.  Anyone can contact me at [email protected]

  1. It is difficult to determine the course of the pandemic in the coming months but Watauga County must position itself to respond to any challenge that may come our way. Our board has invested in our health department to bring it to a more stable financial situation and provide it with the resources to protect our citizens. We also partnered with the Economic Development Commission, the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce and Mountain BizWorks to create the Re-Energize Watauga Fund. We allocated $100,000 to this fund to provide rapid assistance loans to local businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic. We will continue to advocate for our local businesses and help facilitate relief efforts for folks in need. 
  2. My priorities have not changed since the first time I was elected. I will continue to emphasize investments in public education (early childhood, pre K-12 and community college), public safety, public health, environmental protections and recreation infrastructure.  I have also taken great pride in offering open and honest government for all citizens. I am very proud of my record and will continue to work each day to make Watauga County a desirable place to live, learn, work and visit. 
  3. Our board has prioritized investments in improving Watauga County Schools facilities, expanding public safety services by adding ambulance coverage and improving emergency communication infrastructure. We will also continue to advocate at the state level for broadband expansion throughout the county. Everyone should have an even playing field and the resources required, now that teleworking and online education have become the norm. 
  4. The county has far fewer regulations compared to the area towns. The growth of App State has caused development to expand outside of the Town of Boone’s boundaries. Expansion into the county is inevitable, however it must be done in a responsible and sustainable fashion. It is imperative that we protect our natural resources and agribusiness while developing an environment that benefits all folks within Watauga County. 

District 5

Charlie Wallin (D)

Provided bio: I am a current Watauga County Commissioner.  I have lived in the High Country for 30 years. I am married and have a 12-year-old daughter. We are members of Grace Lutheran Church, where I have entered my second term on church council.  I work in Campus Dining at Appalachian and I was a political science major many years ago. I’m on numerous nonprofit boards in the area and volunteer my time as well with OASIS, Hunger and Health Coalition and Hospitality House. I have served on the Appalachian Board of Trustees as the staff representative.  

  1. Watauga has been receiving COVID relief funds that we have been distributing to local agencies.  This has helped slow the funding needs that they have. We also helped set up a fund for businesses to be able to get a loan to help them bridge the gap. The good news so far is that the local economy has bounced back this summer, to an extent. We haven’t seen the drop in sales tax that many feared. Folks have still been traveling and visiting at the same pace as they always have. Businesses have reported that business has been back to more in line with what a typical year would be. The Boone Chamber (of Commerce) has done an incredible job in helping us to provide forums for us to share and help each other. We have helped give our local food hub the resources to expand as the demand for local food continues to go up.  We have helped give our local farmers a new area that is now local to have their cattle processed for meat. The county has been doing all we can since this started to give the community the support they need. This is not something that you can sit back and wait on. We had to be proactive to set folks up to succeed.  
  2. I have loved being able to serve the citizens of Watauga County the last two years. We have accomplished so much but we still have much to do. I want to continue working on improving our broadband in this county we still have areas without any coverage and others with inadequate. We are starting the planning and construction phase of the new Valle Crucis school, which is exciting. We continue to try and improve our services at the landfill and make the the whole area is safer and easier to use. I want to revisit the Saturday-only free dumping. We need to find weekdays to add back. We have over $20 million in facility needs in our school system we are still trying to address. I want to see those projects through. We are also looking at trying to improve our ambulance coverage in the county. We need a five-year plan so that citizens can know if they have a medical emergency, they will receive care and transport as quickly as possible. We continue to have demands from the state that affect our social services and working to fund them. I want to continue dialogue with the representatives in Raleigh.
  3. I would want to increase funding to the school system. We have many needs there right now across all schools and the new school in Valle Crucis. I want to improve our Watauga Medics coverage to make response times better. The landfill needs improvements to make the process safer, smoother and more user friendly for our citizens. We can always do more for our sheriff and fire Departments as well. Lastly, social services continues to be underfunded by the state and we are having to make up the difference. One thing that most citizens do not know is that the Towns of Boone, Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain and Seven Devils all have authority for the projects in their town limits. The county looks at the overall area of Watauga County.  
  4. The county has a great group on the Economic Development Commission and the commissioners have a representative on it as well as Joe Furman, a staff member. That is where the planning starts. They have the ability to investigate and lay the foundation for what we need to grow. I see our small businesses as part of this development from tech companies or manufacturing, but I also see businesses like our brewing industry that can grow here as well.  We then have the expertise and the learning opportunities that Appalachian can provide to these businesses to start up and give students valuable training to use when they graduate.  We have the natural beauty and tax rates that are already attractive. We also have an excellent school system, which includes Appalachian, that companies look for. I also want to go back to the previous question and add that the Town of Boone plays a big part in this as well with apartments and other items they can do to help with this. The county has very builder-friendly planning regulations, which make it attractive for folks to build if they want.  

Bart Keller (R)

Courtesy Bart Keller
  1. My plan would be to continue with quarantining of the positive cases. Obviously, I endorse washing hands and using hand sanitizer as recommended by the doctors. But, as far as businesses go, I would remove all restrictions on them so they could open up and carry on with their livelihood. If we continue to keep the small businesses shut down it will really hurt our sales tax revenue in this county and that accounts for nearly 25% of our county revenue. 
  2. If I am elected County Commissioner, I am committed to work unreservedly for all citizens of Watauga County to ensure that our law enforcement, first responders, our school system and all aspects of the county operations are functioning properly in order to keep our communities safe. As a seventh-generation native growing up in Watauga County and being part of the farming industry, I have learned the value of hard work, and know the dedication and sacrifice it takes to keep things moving forward. I plan to apply that same work ethic as a County Commissioner.
  3. These are the most pressing needs I see for Watauga County:
    • We really need broadband Internet access for all of our citizens. With virtual learning in the public school system due to the pandemic, it continues to be a challenge for students to have good Internet access during this remote school setting. The issues with Internet connections have added communication barriers for our teachers who are having to work harder to be able to get the lessons out to students.
    • It is essential that eastern and western Watauga County have an ambulance station. With an increase in the population, the calls are increasing as well, so it would dramatically reduce the response time to have one station on each end of the county.
    • Communication towers are used by all of our county first responders. The current antenna is part of an antiquated system that is in dire need of an upgrade. As a result the Sheriff’s department continues to have dead spots on the west end of the county, which creates problems with response time.
  4. Watauga County, out of necessity, will need to carry on with building and development as Appalachian State University continues to grow. But that means there are issues which must be addressed before we can push the traffic flow out into the rural areas. The county really needs to look at petitioning the state to help us with traffic flow outside of the town of Boone.

Board of Education

The following questions were sent to each candidate running for a position on the Board of Education:

    1. How will you continue to help lower income families especially with the uncertainty of COVID-19? 
    2. What is your number one goal if elected to the board of education? What do you see as the board’s roles and responsibilities?
    3. How will you help improve internet access to families in Watauga County who need it for school, especially with online classes happening?
    4. How do you plan to promote racial equality in the Watauga County Public School System?

Marshall Ashcraft

Courtesy Watauga Democrat

Provided bio: My career experience includes 13 years in the Watauga County Schools, 4 years as executive director of the Children’s Council of Watauga County, 12 years with the City Manager’s Office of Raleigh, and 4 years with the Budget Office of the City of Durham. My wife Kellie Reed Ashcraft is a social work professor at ASU and our daughter Brooke, who completed all of her K-12 education in the Watauga County Schools, is a student at UNC-Wilmington.  I am a NC native and completed masters degrees at UNC-Greensboro (counselor education) and UNC-Chapel Hill (public administration).

  1. Our school personnel have worked very hard and very creatively to try to address the needs of lower income families during this pandemic. One of the most important efforts has been to continue offering the opportunity for free school meals when schools have been closed, including delivery of these meals by school buses and offering to-go meals at selected sites. As a resident of Watauga County, I am grateful for these “extra mile” efforts of our personnel and as a board member I would support them. Another major effort has been focused on trying to provide better access to technology for online instruction, specifically high speed internet access. Our school system was already a leader in implementing instructional technology, providing laptops and other devices to students well before most school systems in NC. However, the switch to remote instruction last spring highlighted the problem of lack of internet access in some parts of Watauga County. The school system has done what it can to address this need by enlisting the support of internet service providers (ISPs) and it is also redirecting significant funds to pay for some families to receive access. These measures help, but they do not solve the fundamental problem. To do that will require action from state and local government. State law currently prohibits local government from directly providing internet access, even in most kinds of partnerships with ISPs. This is a ridiculous barrier to effective action to address the much talked about “digital divide,” and it has an especially damaging effect on lower income families. In addition to being an educational issue, it is also a barrier to much needed economic opportunity for families and to economic development for rural and poor communities. Our school board cannot directly cure this problem, but we can and should advocate for the legislative changes and public investments needed to achieve a lasting solution. Another service of special importance to low income families is pre-kindergarten classes. We should continue to expand opportunities for early education to all children, with special priority for those from lower income families. This is another area where state action – and in this case, significant direct state funding – is likely to be needed to make substantial progress. I will be an advocate for increased early education and child development services at both the local and state level. Finally, support personnel such as school nurses and school social workers are important to all students, but are especially valuable to lower income families. Their direct services and their ability to help connect families to additional services in the community play a vital role in helping students succeed. We must continue to support this vital work.
  2. Two priorities are at the top of the list: 1) Early childhood education, including increased availability of pre-kindergarten classes, especially for lower income families, and greater investment outside of the school system in early childhood services, and 2) greater progress on implementing the school system’s capital improvements plan, including replacing two of the K- schools and completing major maintenance and improvement projects for most of the other
    schools. The primary roles of the School Board are to support the work of our professional educators as they seek to continually improve the education provided to our students, and to set polices and priorities that effectively serve this goal. As part of this work, we should be advocates for public education and we must listen to stakeholders both inside and outside the school system. Another major responsibility is to ensure that our decision making process inspires public confidence. As part of this responsibility, and to help strengthen public support for the school system, we must ensure that taxpayer funds for the school system are spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.
  3. This issue was addressed in the answer to the first question above.
  4. Achieving equal opportunity remains one of the greatest challenges throughout American life, and while it is obviously a national issue, much of the real work has to be done at the local level. As a member of the School Board, one of our most important roles is to review and approve school system policies. I will review proposed policies and practices with careful attention to their possible impacts on racial equity, and seek to change those which unfairly affect minority students or personnel. Another important way to promote progress is through our recruitment and hiring practices and our efforts to prepare and retain new teachers and other school personnel. I know our current school system leadership is aware that we need to create a more diverse workforce and that this awareness shapes their recruitment efforts. I will support continued strengthening of the school system’s efforts to ensure strong and fair recruitment practices and a more representative workforce. Another element of promoting racial equity is ensuring that the School Board and other school system leaders are setting the right tone and leading by example in their attention to racial issues and issues which may have racial implications. This is difficult to measure, but we need to demonstrate that we are leading from the heart in our commitment to racial justice and fair treatment for all students and school personnel. Like most of the issues we face, only more so, the systemic aspects of addressing racial equity will also require state and even federal participation. Are minorities receiving equal access to the educational opportunities that prepare them to be teachers and school administrators? Where are the barriers to creating a better pipeline of minority role models in education and how can these barriers be addressed? When opportunities for improvements in these and related areas are identified, the School Board can and should advocate for the necessary changes with the General Assembly and others as appropriate.

Steve Combs

Courtesy Steve Combs
  1. Continue to support them any way that we possibly can- through food programs and educational opportunities.
  2. To safely return our students to the classroom. To hire the best possible people we can, and support them. And create educational opportunities.
  3. Work with our local commissioners and representatives to provide funding for this.
  4. By treating everyone with kindness and love. Use the golden rule Treat others as you want to be treated.  

 

Jason K Cornett

Courtesy Jason Cornett
  1. I am an advocate for helping our university and county school students.  During COVID-19 (Watauga County Schools) was fortunate to be able to supply 160 MiFi hotspot devices to students in need of internet services and provide a computer for each child to take home.  Working in local and state government for the past 25 years has allowed me to go into our communities and see first hand many of the needs of our WCS students. I serve on the App State Staff Senate, and my wife and I participate in AppKids each year. AppKids is a program established to raise funds for underprivileged WCS students which allows App State employees to take these students shopping during the holiday season. We also realize school lunches are the most nutritious meals that some of our students will receive each day, and WCS was able to provide and deliver 250,000 meals during COVID-19! It is about community partnerships.  WCS had an $18,000 unpaid school lunch balance this past year and local churches along with community members stepped in and paid off this balance. Maybe myself and interested App State students could work together to raise funds to help cover some of these unpaid lunch costs?
  2. The role and responsibilities of the BOE are vast and many in governing a school system. From keeping updated policies in compliance with state and federal laws, and employing the most dedicated and compassionate educators, to ensuring the physical and psychological safety and wellbeing of all who work and attend WCS. The mission of WCS is “to be the best place to work and learn in North Carolina.” I am committed to working to provide a safe educational environment for faculty, staff, and students of WCS and maintaining up-to-date infrastructure and facilities.  
  3. Working and learning from home has absolutely identified areas with little or no internet access.  As mentioned above, WCS was able to provide MiFi hotspots to many students, but we know cell service is not available in all areas of the county. Local internet service providers offered special packages that were more affordable. We have identified locations in the county where fiber optic services are not yet available, and I would like to move forward to find a solution for this.   A mark of a strong educational system is one that leaves no student behind and provides each student with the necessary skills and education to be successful.  Education equals social mobility.  I believe in an “eyes open” approach identifying issues and bringing them to light and working towards resolutions.  WCS has established a districtwide Racial Equity Committee and also an Watauga High School Racial Equity Committee. I hold true to treating others as I would like to be treated. 

Ronald (Ronny) Holste

Courtesy Ronny Holste

Provided bio: My name is Ronny Holste. I have a beautiful wife, Gina, and two wonderful children, Ava (age 8) and Henry (age 5). I am a teacher at CCC&TI and an active member at Boone United Methodist Church. More broadly, I care about the issues of education, poverty and justice.

  1. I believe that Mahatma Gandhi had it right when he wrote that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how you treat its weakest members.” No matter the community, it is imperative that we find ways to support those who struggle. During a pandemic, this rings even more true. One of the only ways I know how to do this is by being present, to listen and be accepting. If we do this, then we can establish relationships and build circles of care and support for those who need it the most. If elected to the board of education, that individual protocol should not change. I should be present, listen and accept people where they are on life’s journey. Where plausible and appropriate, we should also consider policies and systems that continue to provide transportation, programming, meaningful activities, technical support and relationships for those who need it the most. By doing this, our schools become a part of the circle of care for our children and families who struggle the most. 
  2. The role of the board of education is to manage and approve policy for schools, oversee building and infrastructure, and approve all budgetary issues related to personnel, security and programs. If I had to choose just one goal, it would be that I will be an effective, supportive and accessible board of education member for the nearly seven hundred employees and four thousand students. The men and women of Watauga County Schools provide frontline care and support to our students. It is imperative that they know the board members both care about their dedication and sacrifice and understand that the board of education will support them in making the best decisions for our students. Also, board members are a part of the greater community, thus making it important to be available for families and students. If elected, it would be essential for the board to listen, do their best to understand the issues, and provide the support and care needed in making the best decision they are able.
  3. Watauga County Schools has provided laptops and technology to every student who has a need. Also, with support from community groups and companies, hotspots have been offered to help many students gain connectivity at home. As great as this is, it is unfortunately still not accessible for all of Watauga County students or staff. The pandemic has unearthed several shortfalls in local communities across the state and connectivity is one of the largest gaps we face. As a board of education member, I would like to be an advocate to help find long-term solutions to these issues. Our schools do not have the funding or infrastructure to solve these problems alone. It will be our responsibility to provide the data, support, and application to help those organizations (private and public) to see Watauga County as a favorable site to bring county-wide connectivity. It will take dedication and collaboration to solve the problems with connectivity that face so many areas today.
  4. To promote racial equality means we must model and expect racial justice in all we do. I have dedicated much of my adult life to being both accepting and present for people, no matter where they are in life’s journey. As a testament to this, I spent three years helping the homeless in downtown Seattle, Washington. I walked alongside those who were homeless and mentally ill. Walking with those who struggle taught me a very important lesson.It is more important to be who we are, than whom or what others want us to be. As a board of education member, I will do all I can to be present for students, families, and staff. I do not have all the answers, but I am a candidate that will listen to situations, consider all appropriate responses, and make the best decision possible for all the students and members involved. It does not matter about the journey, race, ethnicity, orientation, or affiliation.