Presnell, Schandevel fight to represent 118th House District

By Vicki Hyatt | Oct 14, 2016
Rep. Michele Presnell, left, and Democratic challenger Rhonda Cole Schandevel discuss issues during a recent candidate forum sponsored by The Mountaineer.

At a recent candidate forum, education was front and center as Rep. Michele Presnell and her Democratic challenger, Rhonda Schandevel, faced off in the contest for the 118th House District seat

Presnell cited a list of accomplishments by the N.C. General Assembly in the past four years that she has been part of due to being in the Republican majority. More teachers are coming to the state than leaving; more money has been set aside for education than ever before in history; and teachers received the largest pay increase in recent history, bringing the average salary for $50,000, Presnell said.

Schandevel, who is a member of the Haywood County Board of Education, asked how many teachers were in the room, and for a show of hands as to how many made $50,000. She noted that the state is at the bottom when it comes to teacher pay and per-pupil spending.

“Obviously the incumbent doesn’t talk to parents, educators or go into classrooms,” Schandevel said. “I hear this all the time. Our teachers are asked to do with so much less.”

The discussion focused on Haywood education priorities when Presnell questioned Schandevel about school board actions.

“Teachers are leaving Haywood County schools to get better pay in Buncombe where they don’t have to deal with school board politics,” Presnell said.

She asked Schandevel if she regretted not doing more for teachers and if she takes any responsibility for mistakes the board made, including lying about closing Central Elementary School to make room for office space.

“The decision to close Central Elementary School was made long before our school board ever had to make that decision, and it was people like you, Ms. Presnell, who voted for the policies that have made our teachers have to do more with less.”

Presnell retorted that the school board stopped filming work sessions after they were found to have discussed the possibility of using Central as office space. (The school board chairman’s decision to stop filming work sessions was almost immediately reversed.)

How does North Carolina rank?

The back-and-forth on education spending could prompt many to wonder how two such different scenarios on the state of education in North Carolina could be true.  A comparison of lists ranking all 50 states illustrates that both viewpoints have merit.

The National Assessment of Education Progress, which tracks kindergarten through 12th-grade education nationwide, has state-by-state data dating back to 1992. In 2014-15, the national average teacher salary was $59,420, while North Carolina’s state average was $47,819, which placed it at 47th in the nation.

The public school revenue per student that same year showed North Carolina at 48th in the nation with funding of $8,991 compared to $12,996.

The organization broke down education spending contributed by the government unit, with the federal contribution running between 9 and 11 percent of education spending. North Carolina ranks 10th in the nation in funds set aside for education. Nationally, schools derive 46.4 percent of their funding from state government, while in North Carolina, the percentage is 59.8.

Local counties or school districts are the third funding source for K-12 education, and nationally, 48.9 percent of education funding comes from this source. North Carolina ranks 42nd in the nation where only 32.6 percent came from local funding in the 2014-15 school year.

Special interests versus mountain values

While both candidates spoke of representing the mountain values in their district, their approaches to that were different, too.

Schandevel asked Presnell why she had voted to make working families pay for the Duke coal ash cleanup; approved budgets that left teachers among the lowest-paid in the nation; and voted to give tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas.

“A lot of this is just politics and the way you put things,” Presnell countered, emphasizing the General Assembly has provided a teacher pay raises, a cost-of-living adjustment for retirees and has funded education better than past years.

“I can’t imagine other people feel the same way you do. I think we’ve done a terrific job,” she said.

Presnell is a staunch supporter of House Bill 2, which stipulates individuals must use the public restroom marked by the gender of his or her birth and eliminates anti-discrimination protections for gay, bisexual or transgender people. The state has seen a national pushback where companies, entertainers and athletic events have pulled out until HB 2 is repealed, something Presnell said she would never vote to do.

She spoke of the state funds she has secured for the district, including a $12 million grant for Evergreen Packaging in Canton as a freshman legislator, something she said was “totally unheard of;” the $350,000 state grant for the Canton swimming pool; a $98,000 grant for Clyde infrastructure; and $12,000 for each of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapters in her district.

As a "gun-toting, Bible believing, deplorable hard working American," Presnell vowed to stand up for religious freedoms, as Mordecai told Esther “for such a time as this,” referring to the Bible story of Ester.

In the story, Esther, beautiful Jewish woman, was chosen for the king’s harem and  eventually became queen. Her uncle, Mordecai, learned of a plot to annihilate the Jews in the kingdom and convinced Esther it was her duty to plea for mercy.

"For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14)

Schandevel said if elected, she will work to raise teacher pay to at least the national average; make sure classrooms have resources they need to give kids access to a world-class education; and cut taxes for working families and small businesses.

“I will go to work every single day thinking about you and your families, not corporations and special interests,” Schandevel said.