This is part two of RCN's coverage of Thursday night's debate/forum that featured the nine candidates running for three seats on the Covington Board of Education, In part one, the issues of budgeting & spending, the Ron Clark Academy, and the tenor of the campaign and its often contentious online back-and-forth. To read part one, click here.
Part two of the coverage will focus on the 3-minute exchanges the panelist (Michael Monks of RCN, and author of this post) had with each candidate and the candidates' closing statements. The recaps below are in the order in which the final round of questioning took place.
Holleran was asked why she became part of the court proceedings when would-be candidate Mark Young filed a lawsuit in an effort to have his name placed on the ballot for the seat vacated by Denise Varney. Holleran, a criminal defense attorney, said that Young only sued the Board of Elections and the County Clerk but not the school district and not the Kentucky Department of Education. She did not believe that Young's interpretation of the law was correct and "wanted to make sure that other parties had a voice."
In a recent interview with RCN, Holleran said that she could not see anything that Covington Independent Public Schools was doing wrong. With ACT scores among the lowest in the state, Holleran was asked to clarify her statement. "I didn't mean we have the results that we want," Holleran said. "What I mean is, I'm in the schools as often as I can be and I see teachers who are dedicated, administrators that are dedicated, our kids who have textbooks, and I see no problem with running copies and sending copies home."
In her closing remarks, Holleran compared the role of a board member to that of a judge in a courtroom. "We want our judges to be unbiased, to look at what the prosecutor says and what the defense attorney says, to look at both sides. We want them to be the kind of people who walk in a board room and treat it as a sacred place and make decisions based on the evidence given. I hope I have shown you that I have that temperament. Vote based on that temperament and not people who have come out online and say, 'it's my way'. We have children we are making decisions for and I hope I have shown you that I am that kind of person."
After twelve years on the board of education, Huff was asked why the voters should send her back for four more. "I'm compassionate about these children," she said. "When I look at the budget I look at how that budget is affecting these children. I put faces to the budget and I also am a product of a family that didn't have a lot of money and we're not saying that because of our demographics that children cannon learn. We're saying because of our demographics we have to overcome barriers every morning before we can teach those kids. ... I believe in this district, I believe in what we're doing. I support the staff. They work endless hours to try to educate our children. Things like social media (criticism) has not only damaged them in many ways, it's damaged our children and I want to be a positive reinforcement."
Huff reiterated that sentiment in her closing remarks. "I challenge you, when you go to the polls, you think about who you want to represent your children. There are folks out there who can't get to their teachers or their superintendent and they can get to you (board members). We see each other all the time. We talk all the time and we respect all the time. Remember one thing: behind the financial things you hear is that there are children involved. Every decision we make is because we have to make it for these children."
Huff also reinforced her support for drug-testing student athletes and those involved in extracurricular activities and called Superintendent Lynda Jackson "a gift" to the district.
Asked if there were any candidates running that should not be on the board, Miller said, "Any of the candidates running, including the incumbents, have good qualifications to be on the board. I do think that sometimes change is necessary." Miller said it may be time for some new ideas and new blood. In an emotional moment, Miller explained the impact that serving as a mentor has had on him in a short time. He teared up talking about the student who he said suffers from attention deficit disorder. "He comes from a very dysfunctional family, very similar background to mine in many ways," MIller said. "Getting to know him in these last two weeks has been a very changing experience for me and I've seen the need for more people, adults, to be involved, to be friends to these kids so that they can go into the classroom easier and learn."
In his closing remarks, Miller said, "I believe in very traditional education. Use whatever methods are required to give children basic education, teaching them to think, not just write answers for a test. Think beyond the test. Not all students should go to college but they should be, upon graduation, capable of going in and applying for a job, filling out an application, knowing how to spell 'Covington', and there are students applying to Gateway who have to ask."
Miller also offered his own twist on the district's motto, Destination: Graduation. "As for the ACTs, they need to be raised," Miller said. "I don't measure a system solely on the ACT, but what that graduate can achueve when he graduates. The destination is education, not just graduation."
As a mother of two children in the district, Pettigrew was asked if that gives her an edge in understanding the schools more than a childless candidate. She said it offers her a unique perspective and that she gets to be in the schools with the children and to go on field trips. "Kids come home and tell us things," Pettigrew said.
Pettigrew also supports stricter enforcement of a school uniform policy. "No fights in the morning," she said. "I get to pick and that's it." She explained that her daughter, who nearly always follows the uniform policy, will come with an infraction when she occasionally slips up. Meanwhile, students that rarely follow the uniform code are not cited.
Pettigrew also relates to the poverty factor facing many children in the district, as she was born to a 15-year old mother and 19-year old father. "There were a lot of things to deal with outside of school to focus," Pettigrew said. "It's hard to learn when you're hungry and wondering what's going to happen. There were certain teachers that I had, that if I didn't have them, I wouldn't be the person I am today."
In her closing statement, Pettigrew reiterated her unique perspective that she has from having children currently enrolled in two of the district's schools.
Roger co-wrote a book with her husband titled Educating, Not Babysitting and was asked if she saw a lot of babysitting going on in the Covington schools. "I don't know if I see a lot of babysitting," Rogers said. "Looking at the test results I'm afraid there's not a lot of educating. I think you have to change the culture of the entire district to one that says we can, we will and these children can and these children will. Poverty is a part of their life, you can't necessarily change the income level of their parents. I know from personal experience as an educator, you can make a school the best place a that a child can be all day long."
"I think it takes a special person to teach and educate in an urban setting and I think it takes a special person to be successful at running an urban school district and I think there are measures of success in this district," she said. "As a school board member I would like to be able to be used as a resource for these teaching who are having a difficult time reaching children."
Rogers, in her closing statement, said that she hopes to be able to offer some solutions to the problems the district faces. "I think these children need to be able to read at or above grade level by the time they are in the third grade. That has to happen for them to be successful." Rogers also said that promotion to the next grade should be based on academic achievement and not time spent in a classroom. She also hopes to bring in more outside help from the community. "We have a wealth of knowledge and experience. We need to be inviting. We need help. You are the people that can help us and we need to make sure you feel welcome at the schools to help us."
Baker spent thirty-six years as a teacher and administrator in CIPS and believes that the standardized tests are part of the problem the district faces. "The state is putting mandates on these tests," she said. "They cnage the test on a regular basis. We don't change it, the state does. They test at the beginning of the year, the middle, and the end. I think that's part of the problem."
Baker thinks that her position as a teacher and an administrator would translate well to serving on the board. "You don't have to have all teachers on the board but because I've been inside the classroom and I've dealth with various administrators, I can bring that different perspective.
She also supports school uniforms, saying that they were "an advantage to some degree" but that enforcement needs to be more consistent. As for her assessment of the superintendent, "We haven't always agreed, but she has an open-door policy where you can go in and talk to her," Baker said.
Baker used her closing remarks to describe what she views as the board's role. "Board members are something like directors of a company," she said. "You have to know what's going on in the warehouse before you can make decisions on how money is spent in the office. They need to see us in the schools, to know what's going on. We need to see programs in action so we have more evidence to go on. These children aren't just numbers. They are people, they have families and issues we need to work with." Baker closed by reciting a quotation she kept above her desk, "Kids don't care how much you know, they want to know how much you care."
Blair thinks that her role as someone who has a daughter and a granddaughter enrolled in the district would be an asset to her service on the board. "I work as little as possible," the real estate agent said. "I can stretch money, I can focus and be available. I don't want to just be a board member. I want to set an example and be a voice." She emphasized that improving ACT scores should be a priority.
"I'm very passionate about this. I never thought I'd be sitting here," Blair said during her final remarks. "A year ago I was scared to go to my first PTO meeting. I felt like I was needed. I can make a difference with the help of other people. I can bring people together. I want to be a parent leader." She added that she has the time and ability to serve effectively and can learn new things quickly. "I feel like this is a way to give back to my community."
Dameron has run for the school board multiple times before but this time he has more open support in the form of people holding fundraisers and endorsing his candidacy in tandem with those of Miller and Rogers. What's different this time? "In a word, social media," Dameron said. "People are beginning to understand what role the board is and what's going on with the budget and so forth. The board is a managing entity for the district. They control the budget, the money, the tax rate, hire the superintendent who hires everyone else. The board also sets the tone and culture of where they go."
Dameron has been a consistently vocal critic of the district's spending practices and said that he wants to direct more funds into the classroom.
"I have a different take than some on the role of the board," Dameron said in his closing statement. "The board of Procter & Gamble doesn't know how to make soap. They set the standards, control the money, hire the people that are the experts and hold them to high standards." He said that he wants to support the quality of education for all students while more effectively engaging the outside community and reducing administrative costs. Dameron suggested the formation of a budget committee that would consist of board members, administrators, and citizens. He also said he is a strong supporter of early childhood education.
"The only way to increase the ACT over the long term is to reach down to make sure that kids coming out of third grade are at grade level."
Fitzgerald has served on the board for sixteen years and asked why the voters should send him back for another four year term, he said he looks toward the future, not the past. "I'm seeing our district go through some hard times," he said. "We've had special educators come in and try to correct some of our deficiencies, but everything we've done, and still we have problems."
"As a board member there is not much I can do but encourage the rest of the board of education and superintendent to look towards other goals." Fitzgerald also expressed concern about the job market facing graduates. "Every child that graduates from high school, those that do, only fifty find jobs when they get out," he said. "We need a skilled labor force, more vocational students, they have to know how to read technical books. Vocational is not an easy task to go through."
Fitzgerald is also a strong supporter of drug-testing student athletes and those students involved in extracurricular activities. "I'd like to see drug-testing throughout the whole school system, for our teachers, too."
The veteran board member used his closing remarks to talk about the time he spends in the schools where he talks to teachers, students, and staff members. "We have a tremendous staff in our schools and that's going from bus monitors to principals," he said. "As for our test scores, there's a lot of kids that maybe, going to college is not what they desire. That's why I say get more vocational studies in, more hands-on training."