by Kristy Bailey, Alamance News Staff Writer
As a professional firefighter with 20 years’ experience, Ryan Bowden has a mindset of serving others that he believes will serve him well as a member of the Alamance-Burlington school board.
One of three newly-elected members of the Alamance-Burlington school board, Bowden will join incumbent school board members Wayne Beam; Allison Gant; Tony Rose; and Patsy Simpson, who was reelected to her fourth term earlier this month; and fellow newcomers Sandy-Ellington Graves and Donna Davis Westbrooks.
During his 16 years with Greensboro fire department, Bowden learned to keep a cool head, a trait that’s also likely to serve him well as he and his fellow school board members face looming decisions about how to reopen schools safely and oversee $150 million in construction and renovations in the bond package that voters approved in November 2018.
“I’m the one running towards the chaos. We see people in some of the worst moments of their lives; we try to bring a little bit of peace and comfort during those times. I’ve always been a fairly laid-back person – that’s going to be my mindset on the board, as well.”
– Ryan Bowden
Bowden previously served on a joint facilities task force for ABSS, learning firsthand about the needs and challenges of maintaining aging school buildings and infrastructure, he said in a recent interview with The Alamance News. He ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2018, losing to incumbents Allison Gant and Tony Rose, while the third open seat was secured by retired ABSS educator Wayne Beam.
The condition of ABSS schools was at the forefront of the school board race in 2018; much of the school board race this year focused on whether to reopen schools amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Bowden notes. Like a majority of the state’s 115 public school systems, ABSS closed schools in mid-March and began the current school year with online-only instruction for most students.
“I feel like a majority of folks in the county want to get our kids back in the schools,” Bowden says. “I’m gauging [from] what I’ve heard from the community. Out of hundreds of people I spoke to during early voting, not one of them said, ‘Ryan, we need to keep our schools shut down.’”
A discussion about reopening schools needs to take place sooner than mid-January, the timeframe recently agreed upon by the current school board members, who include: vice chairman Brian Feeley, who lost his bid for a second term in this year’s race; Pam Thompson, who won a seat on the county commissioner board earlier this month; and retiring four-term school board member Steve Van Pelt. (Thompson has repeatedly opposed delaying a return to in-person classes during numerous discussions since this spring.)
Bowden worries about the long-term effects that children could face as a result of spending half of the previous and current school years at home. “During early voting, I had a teacher come up to me and [ask if we could] talk one-on-one,” he recalls. She poured her heart out for the next 30 minutes, finally dissolving into tears in the middle of Holly Hill Mall, Bowden explains. “She felt like the weight of the world was on her shoulders because our children aren’t being as successful as they are when they’re in the classroom. Right now, it seems all one-sided – either open or closed. Maybe with some new board members, we can find common ground that works for everyone.”
As a firefighter, he’s learned to adapt to the potential risks of COVID-19 and community spread. “I’ve been on the frontlines of this since it started,” Bowden explains. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to deal with this virus. We’ve changed our tactics; we take extra safety precautions when we’re in the field. I said it on the campaign trail, [we can reopen with] a safe, common-sense approach. In my heart, I feel we’re doing more damage than good to our children by leaving them secluded.”
One of the more critical traits he’s developed as a firefighter is the ability to keep a cool head in the midst of crisis. “I’m the one running towards the chaos,” he acknowledges. “We see people in some of the worst moments of their lives; we try to bring a little bit of peace and comfort during those times. I’ve always been a fairly laid-back person – that’s going to be my mindset on the board, as well.”
An Alamance County native and 2001 graduate of Southern High School, Bowden graduated from Universal Technical Institute in Houston, Texas, completing his certification in firefighting and HVAC and refrigeration technology in 2004. He and his wife of 14 years, Tina Bowden, also a Southern High School graduate, pulled their 13- and seven-year-old daughters out of ABSS this year so they could attend school in-person, he says.
“In North Carolina, we have about 12,700 licensed electrical contractors. We have only 111 electrical contractors under age 30 in this state – 60 percent of licensees are 60 or older. your statistics are going to be the same for plumbers and HVAC technicians. If we don’t start promoting [skilled trades], what’s going to happen when you need a plumber?”
– Ryan Bowden
The couple saw little choice with their 13-year-old. Born with dextrocardia, a congenital heart defect, their 13-year-old requires a “504 plan” and “IEP,” which are individually-tailored educational plans for students with medical conditions and other disabilities, Bowden explains. “During her elementary school days, we met and tried to get her set up on IEPs and 504s,” he recalls. “It was a challenge; what it boiled down to is the resources weren’t there.” Now, both daughters attend Grace Christian Academy, a private school that The Lamb’s Chapel opened several years ago.
Helping other parents to navigate these kinds of situations in ABSS schools remains a top priority for Bowden, along with improving school safety and promoting programs that will put students who aren’t geared toward college on the path to success.
“In the state of North Carolina, we have about 12,700 licensed electrical contractors,” Bowden notes. We have only 111 electrical contractors under age 30 in this state – 60 percent of licensees are 60 or older. That’s straight from the N.C. Board of Examiners of Electrical Contractors. I think your statistics are going to be the same for plumbers and HVAC technicians. If we don’t start promoting [skilled trades], what’s going to happen when you need a plumber?”
Bowden says he would like to see ABSS find ways to generate students’ interest in skilled trades programs – similar to the vocational classes that were popular when he was in high school – and continue to expand on the fire academy and public safety programs at Graham High School.
“That kind of steered me toward the path I’ve taken,” he says. “Even if they didn’t wind up pursuing [a career], things like that would give kids life skills.” For those who do pursue careers in these areas, Bowden says, “They will have a job as long as they want because the need is there. It’s not just a school system thing – it’s a countywide thing.”
Bowden is scheduled to be sworn into office December 7.