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Whether Silver Grove Schools Should Exist is Issue in Board Race

The most consequential board of education election in Northern Kentucky may be in Silver Grove, where the top issue may be whether the school district should continue to exist.

Silver Grove is faced with continuously small enrollment and low test scores. The high school posted the second-lowest ACT average score in the state, an abysmal 14.4 out of a possible 36.

There are actually two separate elections for the board on Tuesday.

In the regular election, three incumbents face two challengers for the three seats on the ballot. Incumbents Jason Stewart, Jennifer Steidel-Jones, and Nikki Brown face challengers Maurice Paul Hehman III and Tonya Ziegler McCarter. Jennifer Andrew Wade is also running as a write-in candidate.

In a head-to-head race, incumbent Shannon Turner faces challenger Kathryn Dee. Turner was appointed to fill an unexpired term, and this election will determine who holds the seat for the next two years.

In Kentucky, school boards have five elected seats that serve staggered 4-year terms, with two seats on the ballot in one election cycle, and three in the next.

Steidel-Jones has served on the board for the past six year and is a graduate of Silver Grove High School, going on to earn a master's degree in elementary education from Northern Kentucky University, and a Rank 1 distinction.

She has participated in the Institute for School Performance Improvement program and is currently enrolled in the National Institute for School Leadership, working in the education field for 26 years.

Steidel-Jones said that she is proud of the students' well-being and academic success in the district. The district has reduced its number of novice scores on state tests, while increasing in proficient designations. The district, Steidel-Jones said, provides a safe, clean, and loving learning environment.

And for the past three years, the school board has reduced its tax rate, she said.

"We are excited to say enrollment has increased by 9.2  percent," Steidel-Jones said. She also noted that Silver Grove is included in the forthcoming River Cities Training Hub Network, a program created by NaviGo.

Steidel-Jones said that she is happy with the vision presented by the district, noting that it has become strategic and intention in developing processes and protocols to ensure high quality instructional systems.

The district, she said, could use more help from community stakeholders.

"We would welcome volunteers, participation at school events, and (having) members of our community, especially community leaders, to attend school board meetings," Steidel-Jones said. "A symbiotic relationship is key! We must work together to stimulate growth for both the school and the community."

As for closing the school district and merging into another, such as Campbell County Schools, Steidel-Jones opposes the suggestion. Merging, she said, does not erase poverty faced by the Silver Grove families, and would also present other challenges, such as transportation. Silver Grove also doesn't charge its students to participate in extracurricular activities, something that could change for those students in a new system.

"We have full confidence in our district leadership, which upholds our coherent vision for our district," Steidel-Jones said.

Incumbent Jason Stewart was born and raised in Silver Grove, and lived there his whole life, aside from four years in Washington while he was in the Army. He and his wife, Christina, both attended Silver Grove Schools, and now have two children enrolled there.

Stewart also pointed to lowering the novice scores on state tests and the increase in proficient scores, and enrollment, as successes for the current board. The district also provides Chromebooks to all students in grades 7 through 12, expanded its robotics program, and revamped its coding system. The district also received a $5.2 million literacy grant, he said.

But Stewart is most proud, he said, of the systemic and cultural changes in the district.

He said that he is happy with the vision for the district and the schools' administration. He would like to see more parent involvement, though.

If reelected, Stewart would like to continue focusing on the tax rate, and higher preparation for the ACT.

"Our students need to be ready," Stewart said. "Not just for college, but for life as well.

"I believe in what we do and are doing in Silver Grove. But, as of right now, I believe with the teachers, administration, and staff we have at Silver Grove, wonderful things are ahead of us! I have only ever had the best intentions for students."

Incumbent Nikki Brown is a native of Grant's Lick, and moved to Silver Grove nine years ago, shortly after having a baby. The family bought a house there and enjoyed the small school district.

A year ago, she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the school board. In her election effort, she points to the board's lowering of its tax rate for three years, and that $5.2 million literacy grant.

Brown points to trips and fundraisers for students, and scholarships for its graduates.

Moving forward, Brown wants to work more with students and the community to improve achievement.

"I currently have two children that attend Silver Grove Independent, and they are my number one reason to make sure that all the students are pushed to their highest potential," Brown said. "I know that not all children have the love and support that my children have, so I want to be able to stay on the school board to continue to provide this support to these children as much as I possibly can. I also want to continue to see the taxes decrease as they have over the years."

Shannon Turner, who is looking to be elected to fill the entirety of an unexpired term to which she was appointed last year, grew up in Campbell County, and settled in Silver Grove when she visited the city in 2005 and fell in love with its small town charm.

Turner points to the distribution of Chromebooks to students in grades 7 through 12, and the new literacy grant as achievements for the current board. There is now a book shelf at the firehouse for children, a new program offered in cooperation with the Campbell County Public Library.

"I believe that we must continue to offer a school system in our local community where children and parents can have direct access to education," said Turner. "Rising tensions among the community do affect the students. I believe everyone has the right to be heard, but it must be done in a respectful environment where constructive discussions can be held. Posting negative items on social media is not the way to improve the educational services we offer our children as future leaders of our community."

Turner said that if she is elected, she would like to improve communication with the parents and caregivers of the students. She would also like to improve communication with the community leaders and businesses.

"Yes, I have considered consolidation," Turner said. "No, I do not believe we should consolidate with another school district. There is no easy solution to the issues facing Silver Grove. Our school did not get in this condition overnight. It took years to get to this status, and it may very well take years to get out. I strongly feel that just  shutting a school system down is not the way to improve our community. From personal experience I know that the small school system works better for many children to overcome their anxieties about school and achieve graduation. This is our responsibility, not Campbell County's."

The interview with candidates for Silver Grove board of education was conducted by email. For the challengers, their responses to the issues facing Silver Grove were shared in unison.

Challenger Maurice Paul Hehman is chief of the Melbourne Fire Department a member of the Campbell County Fire Investigation Team. His two sons are in the military. He spent three years on the board of education at St. Phillip's School, spending one of those years as president. He also works at Art's Rental, and said that he has been involved in the community for his whole life. 

Tonya Ziegler McCarter has lived in Silver Grove her whole life, raising her family there, with many family members a part of the school system, she said. She worked as office secretary for the schools from 1998 to 2004, and is a supporter of the Silver Grove Boosters, and was a key team member in the organization of the PTA Halloween Carnival for many years.

Jennifer Andrew Wade, the write-in candidate, has been a supporter of Silver Grove, along with her family, for over 20 years. After college, Wade married her husband Joe, a Silver Grove graduate, and has recently moved into the city from Alexandria. She believes her outside experience and love for this town give her a fresh prospective to bring to the school board.

Kathryn Dee, who is running head-to-head against Shannon Turner,, said that she and her fellow challengers believe it is time for a change.

Dee is a third generation business owner in Silver Grove, and said that she has participated in many tough decisions faced by the city, including the pursuit of a Safe Route to Schools grant for sidewalks and the consolidation of the city's police department into the county's. Dee recently graduated from the Campbell County Citizens Academy, strengthening her knowledge of county government, she said.

With the school district struggling academically, and its test scores ranking towards the bottom in the state, Dee and the rest of the challengers want to see more rapid improvements.

"Because we have witnessed a consistency of below-average test results, if elected, we would be open to new opportunities that can provide additional benefits to the students and families of Silver Grove," said Kathryn Dee. "Our students deserve better educational resources, and we believe, with the help of the current administration, teachers, and staff of Silver Grove Independent Schools, we can help lead our school to better results."

The challengers have expressed an openness to discussing consolidation with Campbell County Schools. They have also discussed the need to reevaluate reciprocal funding.             

"We want change, so we are open to any possibility for additional resources to benefit the students," Dee said.

Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor