Opening schools, education top House 9 issues | Local News

Eufemia Didonato

Candidates for state House District 9 said that public education is a top concern among voters they’ve met, with one focusing on returning students to class and the other on teachers and facilities. Republican Perrin Jones and Democrat Brian Farkas are vying for the seat that represents much of eastern […]

Candidates for state House District 9 said that public education is a top concern among voters they’ve met, with one focusing on returning students to class and the other on teachers and facilities.

Republican Perrin Jones and Democrat Brian Farkas are vying for the seat that represents much of eastern Pitt County in the Nov. 3 election. Two other state House seats and a state Senate seat that represent Pitt also are contested. Early voting starts on Thursday at seven sites in the county.

Jones, 48, an anesthesiologist, was appointed to the seat in 2019 after it was vacated by Republican Greg Murphy, who won a special election to fill the late Walter Jones’ congressional seat. Farkas, 33, who works in client development at an architecture firm, is making his second run for the office.

“Students right now tend to learn best when they are taught in person as opposed to being online,” Jones said during a Sept. 28 interview. “If we continue the online route or some kind of hybrid model, then we need to make sure that the teachers are given the resources and knowledge of how to effectively teach online.” Students need direction on how to learn online.

Jones is concerned that online instruction will further widen the achievement gap because parents with resources hire tutors and bring outside resources to the table.

Returning to in-person instruction restores the baseline, Jones said. “Let’s get back to baseline so we can work on the underlying inequalities we had going into COVID,” he said.

Farkas said improving education begins with ensuring teachers and students have the resources they need. He wants to re-establish the state’s incentive pay program for educators who earn advanced degrees.

“Education is the only field I’ve ever seen that people who invest in themselves see no reward,” he said.

He also wants to re-establish the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program with a focus on improving diversity among future teachers.

“Internet access is a huge problem and we’ve got to make it a top priority of the next legislature,” he said.

Pitt County has 11,000 people without internet access, Farkas said. He has seen studies that show 50 percent of Pitt County students either don’t have Internet access or don’t have the capacity to stream live classes.

Along with supporting education, improved internet access will make it easier for individuals to access health care through telemedicine. It also will help business people living in rural areas to get goods to the market, Farkas said.

He also wants to introduce legislation that will “lock up” lottery funding so its revenue is used to fund teacher pay and facility construction instead of being shifted to non-education projects.

“We’ve got buildings that are 40, 50 years old here that have done their time. There is water and pipes leaking through the ceiling,” he said. “We’ve got to get ahead of this.”

Farkas said during his interview that building strong public schools would be his top issue as a legislator. He said he would work to bolster job creation and economic development opportunities by advocating for the completion of Interstate 587, which would make U.S. 264 Bypass West an interstate quality road.

He also wants to restore the earned income tax credit, which aids working families with low- to moderate-income, he said.

Questions about securing funding for a new Brody School of Medicine facility and Medicaid expansion dominated discussion when the candidates participated in a forum sponsored by the Pitt-Greenville Chamber of Commerce last month.

Farkas said he is already talking with Democratic leaders about the project’s importance and will immediately file a funding bill for the project.

“I’ll also work with the governor to get funding for Brody in his budget as well, so that when negotiations begin the facility is already something both sides can agree on out of the gate,” Farkas said. “With the right consensus-building leadership in place, we can get this done on behalf of Pitt County and eastern North Carolina.”

Jones said he will continue advocating for full funding of the new facility, emphasizing that expanding the facility will allow the school to graduate 40 more doctors a year.

“Our community has advocated for a new Brody School of Medicine for a long time, the fulfillment of this project will be big step towards cementing Pitt County’s leadership both regionally and throughout the state,” Jones said.

Farkas said pursuing Medicaid expansion will also be part of his legislative agenda.

“Both red states, blue states across our nation are already doing this. The legislature is behind in our state,” Farkas said. His argument for expansion focuses on the additional jobs and revenue Pitt County would gain and the 13,000 residents who would be insured. It would also bring additional revenue for Vidant Health and other medical practices

Jones did not list Medicaid expansion when asked about priorities during his interview but said during the forum that it needed to be funded responsibly and that the plan Farkas supports is irresponsible.

When Jones was asked to identify his top issue, he said it was preserving a civil society and continuing to work toward a more perfect union.

“Despite flaws in our society, there are a lot of good things in our society,” Jones said. “While we should take into account events and make improvements, it doesn’t mean we should throw the system out and start fresh.”

People can have disagreements, he said, but shouldn’t harbor hate.

“It doesn’t mean we should allow violence to enter into the conversation,” he said. The violence that sprang from protests involving the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police overshadowed, “a real moment of national introspection.”

Jones said since joining the General Assembly he has worked with local judges and Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance on issues related to pretrial services and mental health and substance abuse treatment for people in the Pitt County Detention Center.

He is now serving on a community relations committee created by state House Speaker Tim Moore.

“I wanted to see criminal justice reform that we can standardize in some fashion and try to apply across the state,” he said.

The committee has held several meetings and there has been a number of presentations.

“The nature of legislation, the nature of our system is that some of these changes take a little bit of time. People have to have their say, people have to have time to digest what has been said and then coalesce that into policy positions that can be taken forward,” he said. “We are in the stages of listening to people and coalescing.”

Issues related to COVID-19 make up a lot of the discussions voters have with him, Jones said.

People are concerned about getting their kids back in school, their finances, the college football season, specifically East Carolina University’s season, and if they’ll get sick from COVID-19, he said.

A full discussion about COVID-19, one that isn’t solely focused on disease transmission, is needed. An isolated older adult can become depressed, stop eating, stay in bed and stop thriving.

It may not be the same as catching the virus, Jones said, but potentially to mortality could be the same.

“We have to balance those issues,” he said. One way is to implement good surveillance testing protocols for nursing homes and other congregate care facilities for the elderly, he said.

As political leaders sort through these issues, Jones advised people to wear face coverings, wait 6 feet apart and wash hands or use hand sanitizer.

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