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A storm surge of policy concerns: Q&A with Superintendent Doyle of Craven County Schools

I survived Bertha and Fran as a young child, and later Floyd, and many of the other hurricanes we remember in Jacksonville, but there was something different about a Category 4 hurricane moving at 15 to 19 miles per hour directly for my hometown. 

As I watched New Bern submerge Friday morning on the news, I immediately reached out to Dr. Meghan Doyle, superintendent of Craven County Schools, and asked how she and her students were holding up. Doyle was my middle and high school principal in Onslow County, not to mention my brother’s science teacher and assistant principal, and, for a brief stint, my sister’s cheer coach.

Here are the insights of an educator I look up to and one that I knew the rest of the state needs to hear. The storm is gone, and education leaders are now left picking up the remnants of a school year complicated by our state’s education policies. 

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length by EducationNC Senior Reporter Alex Granados

Help NC understand what it feels like to be a superintendent during a hurricane. Walk me through when you started prepping the school system to when it hit to now.

I guess I’m kind of fortunate or unfortunate. I mean, I’ve lived on the coast my whole life, so hurricanes are kind of a way of life. And being a teacher and a principal in Onslow, and then being in Currituck, hurricanes have been just a part of my career quite frankly. We have a preparedness manual just for hurricanes, and we send that out to our staff members, our principals. They have checklists they have to do five days out: once a hurricane watch is put in place, once a hurricane warning is put in place, and then once they come back within 24 hours after the watch and warnings are lifted. So, we have a lot of preparation that we do to mitigate any of the damage that is going to happen. Obviously some stuff we can’t stop. Most of that is really to protect property and buildings and facilities and that kind of thing.

“…hurricanes have been just a part of my career quite frankly.” -Craven County Superintendent Doyle 

We have been through a hurricane now twice in three school years. Hurricane Matthew hit us pretty hard and now Hurricane Florence; it’s getting to a point where our students have been through this and our staff have been through this an ungodly amount of times where there’s been catastrophic damage. This time the entire county has been hit pretty hard. So being a superintendent, most of it is we’re coordinating with services and the county government whose real role is to make sure they’re protecting life and safety and then property. And then after the storm, we really need to focus on taking care of our kids and trying to identify what needs they have … to the extent possible and then working in conjunction with different agencies that try to support them.

Where were you when the storm hit?

In my house. I will be honest with you, this one, if I would not have been superintendent, I probably would not have stayed. I definitely would have adhered to the evacuation order in the county. I mean, I’ve been through hurricanes starting with Diana in 1984, and this is the worst by far. I know it was a category one, but the length of time that the winds were hitting us was just unreal and, of course, the storm surge.

Craven County Superintendent Doyle takes a call during a Samaritan’s Purse disaster relief orientation. Liz Bell/EducationNC

The angle that the hurricane hit us was exceptionally difficult for our specific community. We were in the northeast quadrant of the storm and those bands stayed over us for a few good days.

Did you sleep at all?

No. In fact, I was texting principals and friends all night long. I think it must have been Thursday night. That was the scariest night for us.

You have worked as a superintendent in Currituck County. Was this a similar feeling to hurricanes you experienced on the Outer Banks or is Florence completely different?

I must say I was not nearly concerned when I was in Currituck. That storm I think was stronger in intensity but it wasn’t nearly as long in duration. Anytime a hurricane hits at night, it’s always a lot more difficult to gauge. And so you know being in the dark and not being able to see the trees swaying, it kind of makes you feel a little bit more perilous, and that’s kind of how this happened for us in Craven. We had the bulk of our destructive wind and rain happen in the middle of the night … it was a night. I’ve lost track of time at this point.

What do you want policymakers to understand about what the aftermath is like for districts?

Perfect example is right now we’re trying to figure out what we do with staff members. Everyone is evacuated. If they didn’t evacuate, then they are dealing with significant losses in their homes. And we have to worry about how we’re going to make these days up, and we can’t, you know, go past the calendar. That’s the biggest barrier with us right now is trying to mitigate the stress on our families and on our staff, not take away their vacations because they have had to endure a storm. And this is the third major storm we’ve had in three years. So we had Hurricane Matthew; we lost two weeks of school during Hurricane Matthew. We had the snow this year — we lost two weeks of school. We’re looking at the same thing now with Hurricane Florence. It, the calendar, is a specific problem. And so for policymakers, we would like some flexibility during these times. When we have a catastrophic event like this, we need the ability to be able to extend our school year and do some things we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do outside of the statute. This school calendar statute, it just does not fit a catastrophic event like this.

Policywise, what do you worry most about with your students other than the school calendar statute?

Policywise, I mean obviously the loss of days also affects student performance. And when they come back, they’re not focused necessarily on what’s going on in class. How we’re evaluating schools you know, the different ways that we’re grading schools, I mean I think EdNC is one of the pioneers in putting this information out, but there is a direct correlation between the poverty level of a school and a school grade. You can also look at those communities that are the most devastated are also directly related to levels of poverty. And so, those poor kids are just … they’re paying the price more than a lot of students.

How do you get reports about damages to schools? Who is on the ground during the event?

So nobody is in the buildings unless there is a shelter in them during the storms. But after, right after, within 24 hours, someone from the school leadership goes out and assesses. If we have school leaders who, because of the evacuation, weren’t in the community, then our maintenance folks and myself and our executive team has gone out to schools to assess. We haven’t been to every school yet, but the schools we haven’t been to are ones we know there hasn’t been significant damage. So we’re the ones going out to assess, and we actually have a form that each school principal fills out and they take pictures and then they document the damage that has been done, and we use that to file our insurance claims and FEMA reports and that kind of thing.

Students and teachers lost homes during Hurricane Florence. All of your schools are part of a broader community. What do we learn about the fabric of our society in these hard times that can help us in the future?

Well, I’ll tell you this, this community is very, very unique in this regard. Everyone really comes together and really supports one another … Right now we are closed; staff is not coming. But I was just at a church this afternoon and the Governor was there touring the local area and brand new teachers, first-year teachers, just started two weeks ago, were volunteering and giving out meals with the Baptist men. And that was happening all over the community, and it’s not just our teachers. It is everyone: churches, community groups, really just rally together and come together and really try to help folks. We had principals out trying to help clean up folks’ homes and get trash out of homes that were flooded and salvage stuff that people wanted salvaged, and that kind of thing was happening everywhere. What I learn every time that there is something like this is that humanity is not lost. We could take the time to really focus on how good we are to each other during these times of crisis. It would really help us during times when there’s not an imminent danger or imminent threat. 

What are you most proud of?

We had many of our principals (who) were supposed to work today, but they were going to schools where there was no power, and so I said to them, go volunteer somewhere. And I think there were just six of them that decided to go together and they went to Samaritan’s Purse, got their training — because they have to do training with Samaritan’s Purse — got their training and worked all day long today. I’m always proud of my staff. They always come through and take care of their kids and our community. I think that’s the one thing we don’t hear enough about public educators. These are not folks that just give everything they’ve got in the classroom. You know this. You’re the same way. These are folks that are giving everything. They’ve got every minute of every day, during the summer, on the weekends, in the evening, and definitely when they’re with their kids in the classroom. I’m always proud of my folks. That’s why I want to be a public educator. That’s why I keep doing this, because this work is hard, but it’s worth doing it alongside these professionals.

Erica Phillips, principal of J.T. Barber Elementary School, hands out clean-up information to her students’ damaged neighborhoods. Liz Bell/EducationNC

What keeps you up at night?

I don’t really believe that folks truly understand — the folks who are making decisions — truly understand what they are asking us to do and the resources they’re asking us to do it with. I don’t think folks are trying to be malicious or mean, but I wish they would really take the time to think about what’s being asked. It’s easier to kind of armchair quarterback and look at things from afar instead of being a part of what’s happening truly in our classrooms. There’s really great things happening, but they’re really asking folks to do a lot. We’re to the point now where it’s with too little. The thing that keeps me up at night is how do we convince people who I think are well-meaning people that investing in public education is critical to our society and our democracy? How do we change the conversation? Our kids’ futures depend on it, and our staff members’ futures depend on it. We’re making decisions that are encouraging people not to continue teaching.

More and more educators are having to think, ‘What’s my second option? What’s my next job gonna be?’ Not, ‘This is going to be my career forever.’

Is there something more specific, a decision that you felt like left you all behind?

We are sitting here with some of our noncertified staff members: secretaries, clerical assistants, finance folks that work in the finance office. These are people who have not received significant pay increases since before the recession. Now they’ve gotten increases, two percent here, 500 dollars there. In my school district, the average pay for those folks is $25,000 a year. Those folks are the same folks that have lost their homes, lost their property, their personal belongings, and suffered some of the worst losses during this storm, and we are trying to figure out a way to give these folks raises within the budget that we’re getting. All the while, we’ve cut teaching positions, we’ve cut dollars for supplies, we’ve cut dollars for textbooks, we’ve cut teacher assistant positions.

This year we were excited to find out that assistant principals were gonna get a pay increase and finally, hopefully, be off the teachers’ pay scale to get those raises. But I’m going to give you an example. At New Bern High School we have 1,700 students. In the NC Public School Allotment Manual, I get one assistant principal month of employment for every 96 kids. At New Bern High School, that means I would have 1.4 assistant principals for a school of 1,700 students. Alright. So you think I have 1.4 assistant principals at New Bern High School with 1,700 students? No … because that would not even be safe. We have four assistant principals there, so I pay for 2.6 assistant principals with local dollars. When the state decided that the assistant principals were gonna get raises to the tune of 18 percent for all the assistant principal months of employment that we pay for, we had to find that money in our budget after we had already submitted our budget to our local government to be approved.

Is there a specific student in your district or a family that you can think of in this time that you’re worried about?

Yeah, there’s a lot, but a lot of them, because we haven’t been able to see our students and I have not been able to get out to principals to talk with them. Most of my concerns right now are my staff, and it’s a lot of my clerical staff … I had one clerical staff member who works in our central office who had to be rescued the other night and was taken to a shelter, and one of our other folks at the central office, the public information officer, actually went, picked her up and took her to her house … her house is flooded. Those are the folks I am worried about. And I am worried about what our students are going through, what they’re experiencing right now, and how to get information to them. That’s another thing that has come up today. It’s not clear they’re getting any of the information out there.

Anything else I should ask you or I should let people know across the state? 

Just that we have had a lot of offers from other school systems — support and help — and, as we figure out what we need, I hope they’ll keep reaching out offering to assist us. We’re gonna need it.

At this time I’m just gonna be honest. Places that offer cash assistance to these people is what folks need. They need to be able to put gas in their gas can. They need to be able to put gas in their car, their tank. That’s what folks need. So, if there is a way they can offer monetary assistance to these people who have lost homes and property, you know, especially those that are the poorest among us, that’s what they need to do and I hope they will do that.

We always offer clothes and stuff like that, and they need toiletries and that kind of stuff too, but long term they need a way to get out of the hole that they are already in, and that they were in probably before the storm, and that this storm buried them further in.

Her final message to me, her former student and now teacher:

But I’ll tell you this, and I promise you, you have more of an impact doing what you are doing now with students, direct impact where you actually get to feel the reward of your efforts on kids immediately, and in the future, in that classroom, and there’s a lot of days I miss that. So don’t rush it.

George Barilich

George “Nate” Barilich is an English and film teacher at Enloe Magnet High School in Raleigh. He also serves as director of Enloe Charity Ball leading high school students in local philanthropy. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow, and a member of the inaugural class of Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation Fellows. Nate currently serves as an Executive Fellow at EducationNC. Raised in Onslow County, Nate loves all things Eastern North Carolina: salt water, oysters, and vinegar BBQ.