Easterling: How I lost the election

In an exclusive interview with PeeDeePost.com, Pam Easterling tells readers
what she will take from her 12 years on the Richmond County Board of Education

By Kevin Spradlin

HAMLET — Pam Easterling is the picture of peace. Somehow, she’s evolved from being afraid of heights to the owner of a high-ropes confidence course.

Pam Easterling

Pam Easterling

The 56-year-old Rockingham woman lost an election on Tuesday, but only two days later she was ready to talk about her 12 years on the board, the battles she fought — win or lose, and why — and what she believes led to her removal from the Richmond County Board of Education.

Tuesday night, Easterling was one of seven candidates vying for one of four open seats on the board. Newcomer Bobbie Sue Ormsby was the top vote-getter with 3,124 votes. Incumbent Joe Richardson was second with 2,957 votes, challenger Don Greene was third (2,718) and incumbent Irene Aiken (2,467) was fourth. Challenger T.K. Thrower was the first runner-up, finishing fifth in a race for the top four spots with 2,377 votes. Easterling was sixth (2,341) and challenger Dewey Brower was seventh (1,648).

On Thursday, she sat at the large wooden dining table at Big Pine Retreat, an out-of-the-way resort that offers fishing, swimming, zip-lining and multiple ropes courses. Other than the steady hum of a ceiling fan, there’s nothing to be heard inside except Easterling’s story — with an occasional laugh and an infrequent tear interrupting quiet moments of proud defiance. When the going got rough, she never backed down from a difficult issue, Easterling said.

“I just kept it in my mind I (would) always do the right thing,” Easterling said. “I tried to learn and soak up as much as I could.”

From cursing parents to 2 a.m. phone calls, to being accosted while at work or blasted for her position on a proposed policy or vote — from the dress code to the decision to demolish Rockingham Junior High School to going outside Richmond County to hire a new superintendent — while the rewards are many, having a seat on the board of education is never easy.

“You develop a thick skin pretty quickly,” Easterling said. “I have not made everybody happy. I haven’t made the decisions that some of those who could make or break you politically would have made … but I made the (decision) that was best for Richmond County Schools. I have loved my service. I wouldn’t take anything for these last 12 years.”

In the year 2000

With experience in the mental health field and having worked inside Richmond County Schools as a third-party vendor with students, Easterling felt compelled to help.

“On the outside looking in, I saw so much that … I thought, you know, some of our children (do) not have a voice,” Easterling said. “The parents were not educated in terms of knowing enough about school law or children with disabilities. I’m not saying Richmond County Schools was doing anything wrong … just so much more I felt like people should know about, things I thought we could do differently to help these children.”

But she couldn’t put her finger on just how to have an impact on policy. Enter Richmond County Commissioner Kenneth Robinette, who has served Easterling first as a source of motivation, inspiration and guidance and over the years as a sounding board.

“Kenneth said ‘Pam, why don’t you run for school board?'”

The idea, Easterling said, sounded preposterous — at least at first.

“I grew up in East Rockingham,” Easterling said. “I thought … nobody knows me. I could never do that. I just thought … I want to do something and I can’t do anything by being where I am. There are things I think we could change. I learned quickly you can’t (change things) on a local board.”

That learning curve on the board would have to wait two years. One of the candidates for the board in 2000 was one-time Richmond County Schools superintendent Herman Williams, who filed to run for office after Easterling. All of a sudden, Easterling said, she found herself in a contest against, among other candidates, her former high school principal.

“Of course, you’re intimidated by your principal anyway” when only in the hallways of a school, Easterling said. She noted that feeling didn’t completely go away by the time the 2000 May primary rolled around, “and here I am, just this little girl from East Rockingham, at one time scared of my shadow.”

“I was thinking, ‘why’d I do this?’ Nobody knew me. I went from door to door, from Rockingham to Hamlet, up to Norman and Derby. Nobody knew me.”

She lost by some two dozen votes — close enough to call for a recount. Easterling said it was Robinette who mentioned she could request a recount. Though the result didn’t change, the experience taught Easterling something of herself.

“Either way (the recount) turns out, this will not deter me form seeking public office again,” Easterling said at the time. “In two years, I ran again. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, but I just kept it in my mind I am always going to do the right thing.”

School uniforms

Easterling said she wasn’t an early supporter of such a defined dress code but upon visits to county schools, she saw right away that something needed to be done about the way students were dressed for school.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back with me … was the high school.”

Some high school students, Easterling said, “were coming to school in their pajama bottoms” or spiked heels. Some of the young girls, she said, “they’d push the envelope. ‘Let me see how much skin I can show.'”

The problem was compounded, she said, when young teachers — not much older than the students themselves — dressed a certain way that, at best, could create confusion among the professional staff and students.

“We expect them to act professionally, but … we’re setting them up if we don’t do more than tweak our policy,” Easterling said about that time.

Rockingham Junior High School

The historic Rockingham Junior High was a giant of a school. But it was also old and outdated, Easterling said — and falling apart.

Though former students and staff reminisced that it should be maintained — an approach that would have cost far more than the eventual demolition and construction of Rockingham Middle School — Easterling said the idea of saving the school simply wasn’t logical.

“It did not even pass the common-sense test,” Easterling said.

Tearing down the building “wasn’t popular, but it had to be done.”

Hiring a new superintendent

Easterling credited Dr. George Norris, who last month announced his retirement effective June 30, with taking Richmond County Schools “in a direction that otherwise we may not have gone.”

But simply hiring Norris, who had served as superintendent in three school districts in North Carolina and Tennessee prior to beginning work in Rockingham, “definitely wasn’t the popular thing to do,” Easterling said.

One of the more immediate changes was Norris’ insistence that Richmond County modernize its system in the form of middle schools, eliminating junior high schools. That led to the Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy in Hamlet, changed from a primary school. Of course, that change didn’t come without controversy or complaints.

The 2014 election

Easterling said it wasn’t easy to decide whether or not to run again for re-election. She described the decision-making process as “a fast-moving train — when’s a good time to get off?”

Though the school system faces numerous challenges — many of them related to budget cuts — there didn’t seem to be much in the way of new challenges.

“I’ve been through everything that a school board could go through,” Easterling said.

Still, she chose to run one more time. She cut back on paid advertising and instead relied on a solid base of supporters. Easterling no long had to worry about a lack of name recognition. And yet, by 9 p.m. on Tuesday, May 6, Easterling knew she had only the May and June board meetings left.

“The people spoke,” Easterling said. “I came up short. I have given it my best shot. I don’t think that I didn’t go back in for something I did or didn’t do. Just luck of the draw.”

Even her position on the school system’s perfect attendance policy, which she cites as arbitrary and unfair, hasn’t changed despite her stance being a bit controversial. Easterling’s position is that the state’s perfect attendance policy indicates that if a student is in school until 11:30 a.m., then that is counted as a full day. In the local system, however, if a student leaves early or arrives late — regardless of time of day — three or more times, the student is counted as absent. In certain scenarios, a student who misses more class time by leaving shortly after 11:30 a.m. than a student who leaves early or arrives late could get perfect attendance, where the other student could not.

Students are generally at the mercy of their parents, and sometimes their ability to schedule medical appointments at certain times of the day. The idea of achieving perfect attendance is intended, Easterling said, to be a positive accomplishment. The local school system’s policy could detract from that effort.

But Easterling noted her taking the difficult side is nothing new.

“I gave ’em hell when I needed to,” Easterling said. “I didn’t change my view. I did not let it go.”

What’s next

It’s clear that Easterling has a passion for public service. At age 56 — Joe Richardson, 74, was re-elected to the board on Tuesday — there is plenty of time for Easterling to weigh her options. She lives outside the city limits of Rockingham but county and state offices are open to her.

“I will continue to advocate (for children),” Easterling said. “I’m a product of Richmond County Schools,” as are her two daughters along with a granddaughter currently enrolled in the local public school system.

Easterling said she hopes to continue her active participation with the Richmond County Schools Education Foundation, a board to which she was a appointed because of her board of education seat. Her business has sponsored the last two foundation golf tournaments for fundraising. And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg in terms of Easterling’s giving to the school system.

Primarily used as a sanctuary for mental health treatment, Easterling also lent Big Pine Retreat to numerous student groups and Richmond County Schools staff gatherings — at no charge. Easterling also recalled why she chose to run for public office in the first place. It wasn’t her idea, initially — and she wasn’t in it for the money, having given back each $225 monthly check she ever received.

Photo courtesy Big Pine Retreat Staff and students with Richmond County Schools have used Big Pine Retreat, a Hamlet-area resort used for team building, problem solving group outings, free of charge in recent years thanks to owner and outgoing Board of Education member Pam Easterling.

Photo courtesy Big Pine Retreat
Staff and students with Richmond County Schools have used Big Pine Retreat, a Hamlet-area resort used for team building, problem solving group outings, free of charge in recent years thanks to owner and outgoing Board of Education member Pam Easterling.

“I have given a lot to Richmond County Schools but I never wanted anybody to think I was doing it just because I was on the board,” Easterling said. “I don’t know if there’s anything down the road for me politically. When my (campaign) signs were pulled up … I usually save them for the next year so I won’t have to spend any money. But (this time) I trashed ’em. So I will not be seeking another seat on the board of education.”

As for other offices, such as county commissioner or state delegate, Easterling was noncommittal: “Well, I don’t know. We’ll see.”





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