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Where They Stand: Candidates for Bellevue Board of Education

As part of Tuesday night's Meet the Candidates forum, which also included commentary from mayoral and city council candidates, contenders for Bellevue's Board of Education fielded questions from the community.
 
There are four candidates running for three seats on the Board.
 
The Board of Education, which serves the Bellevue Independent Schools (BIS) district, has remained busy in recent months, hiring a new superintendent as well as learning that BIS outperformed itself this past year by 25 points in state rankings
 
The four candidates, three of whom are incumbents, were not surprised, then, to hear the community's questions revolved chiefly around the issue of performance.
 
How can Bellevue's schools continue to increase test scores?
 
Bellevue received encouraging news earlier this month, when they learned that their schools had risen from the 17th percentile in state performance rankings to 42nd, a 25-point increase in a single year, a gain Superintendent Robb Smith called "significant." 
 
When asked how BIS can continue this improvement, candidates focused on their responsibility to create an effective system.
 
Dan Sparks, a 14-year incumbent and 1973 BHS grad, immediately pointed to the superintendent, principals, and teachers. "The staff are the ones we have to say 'thank you' to here," he said.
 
Jenny Swope Hazeres, also an incumbent with two terms now under her belt, said, "The test scores I believe to be a result of a healthy system. What I can do on the Board of Education is to be behind our superintendent and support him, as he supports our principals, who support our teachers, who drive the vision we have."
 
Dan Swope, the third incumbent on the ballot and also a BHS grad, echoed his colleagues, saying, "My plan is to support the superintendent. It's a culture that keeps us moving and on the right path."
 
John Cullick, professor of English at Northern Kentucky University and the only non-incumbent running, echoed his fellow candidates, but urged voters to think bigger. "I find this question to be a bit problematic," he said, "because, yes, our scores went up and that's a good thing, and we can celebrate success. But they're not high enough. Not nearly."
 
Cullick then went on to point out that, even though performance rose considerably, Bellevue Schools still rank in the "Needs Improvement" category. "We've moved in the right direction, but we have a lot more movement in that direction to go in," he said. 
 
Having previously served as English Department Chair, Cullick now trains English teachers at NKU.
 
What should be the Board's number one priority moving forward?
 
When asked for their number one priorities as a Board member, candidates ran the gamut with their responses, from producing well-rounded students to increasing enrollment to the importance of early childhood success.
 
Hazeres returned to the issue of test scores, but to say that they're not enough. "It's easy to get wrapped up in test scores. I don't want to just produce good test-takers. I want to produce citizens, adults."
 
For Cullick it's an issue of enrollment. "How many of our parents are sending their kids to other districts?," he asked, recounting speaking with some parents who sent their children to a private school in Newport. "These parents tell me that, at parent-teacher night, it's like a Bellevue reunion," he said. 
 
Cullick's solution? "I think we need to do everything we can to improve our district's reputation and performance, and prioritize student achievement," he said.
 
Sparks also called attention to enrollment, which he thinks can be strengthened with more attention to early childhood. "I'm a firm believer in early childhood education," he said, praising Bellevue's early childhood learning center as a critical part of Bellevue's school system.
 
Swope, echoing his colleagues but also thinking about what is still to be done in Bellevue schools, responded with broad strokes, saying, "There are a lot of number ones. Excellence in education. Turning out well-rounded adults. We need to increase rigor."
 
How can the citizens work with the schools and Board to help improve our schools?
 
Citizen and parent involvement, the final issue posed to Board candidates, also prompted the most outspoken, passionate responses from the panel.
 
For Swope, the answer is simple but general. "Just show up," he said. "Talk to us; demand results. In my experience, not many citizens will contact us. We need to hear from everybody. 
 
All hands on deck is what we need, citizens and parents."
 
Sparks offered a somewhat more specific answer, also hinting at a need for more parental involvement in schools. "You have four candidates up here. I'd like to see 12 candidates," he said, pointing also to a need for more parental involvement in schools' Site-Based Decision Making Councils (SBDMC). "Sometimes you have two parents running for two spots. If you look at other school districts that are succeeding, they have great student parent involvement."
 
Hazeres took the opportunity to praise the Bellevue Alliance in its role in keeping citizens informed about happenings with the schools. "I cannot say enough how much the Bellevue Alliance has meant to me as a board member and a parent," she said. "It has opened up a highway of communication from the school buildings to the community. I absolutely love it."
 
Hazeres didn't conclude, though, without also echoing her colleagues, saying, "The question should be how will you be involved, not will you be?"
 
"I have to say, I think there is a lot of community support for the schools," Cullick added, but not without also mentioning Superintendent Smith's new approach to strategic planning meetings, urging parents to attend and participate in meetings and engage the district's strategic planning website, currently in the works. "I think that's going to be the number one way citizens can get involved literally in the next few months."
 
The winning three candidates on November 4 will join, or rejoin, current Board members Julie Fischer and Vanessa Groneck.
 
Written by Pat LaFleur, RCN contributor
 
Photo: Bellevue Board of Education/RCN file