UPDATE: RCN has now added comments from candidate Joyce Baker. See below.
Three of five seats at the Covington Board of Education are on the ballot this November while a fourth seat remains vacant following the resignation of member Denise Varney. That seat, along with the one belonging to member Jerry Avery, is not up for election until 2014 and the Kentucky Department of Education will appoint someone to fill the remaining two years of Varney's term, likely after the November 6 election.
Ten candidates filed for the race but one, Joseph Petty, has withdrawn, leaving two incumbents, Glenda Huff and Mike Fitzgerald, and seven challengers, Joyce Baker, Christi Blair, Everett Dameron, Kerry Holleran, Tom Miller, Rebecca Pettigrew, and Jo Rogers on the ballot.
This race is likely the most competitive in Covington this cycle and is also the most contentious with various factions campaigning for and against others and with heated rhetoric lobbed at various forums online, most notably within a Facebook group called Fix Covington Schools. Three candidates, Dameron, Miller, and Rogers, are being supported in unison by some in the community affiliated with that group.
Nine candidates, including Petty who has withdrawn, spoke with The River City News to discuss the issues dominating this race marked by its large field and passionate candidates. Mike Fitzgerald could not be reached in time for this post but his voice will be added here as soon as possible.
Here are the candidates in alphabetical order:
Baker has spent her entire life in the Covington Schools system, first as a student and then as a mother whose children graduated from Holmes High School. She also spent thirty-six years as a teacher and administrator in the district. "I have a perspective of going through the whole system," Baker said. "Because of being a teacher, I have been on the other side of the table as far as being inside the classroom. As a board member, that's the other side of the table."
Baker said that the district is making strides in test scores but an added difficulty to consistent success comes from the hands of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. "I don't think the state is any help with changes in the evaluation systems, the testing system, and they want to throw the ACT on as a form of evaluation, which I don't know is a positive in all regards," she said. "I don't think it should be mandatory in the eleventh grade for statewide testing. I think with all the changes in the testing you can never get a true evaluation because they change them all the time."
"I think Covington is trying to do some things right now," Baker said. "I've been in some of the schools, I see some of the positive things happening with the kids. I do see more communication with the children and the teachers." She said she recently attended an open house at Holmes and noticed how teachers were instructing the students to explain to parents how the school year had been going, rather than having th eteachers explain. "I think that's showing the child is learning."
As for some of the criticism lobbed at the district in online forums, "Anybody can sit on a computer all day and look up statistics and you can make statistics say anything you want them to say, positive or negative," she said. "I think really to get a true evaluation you need to come into the schools and see what is happening in the buildings. You need to know the kids. Kids are not just a number, which is what statistics are."
Baker said the Covington school district faces challenges stemming from a troubled population. "I know some of the comments made (online), that other districts have the same kind of kids," she said. "Well, our poverty level has risen. You need to know where these kids are coming from and know the kids, and let the kids know you care about them in order to reach their potential. Part of that is removing some of the barriers to learning. If they're hungry they can't learn. If there is chaos going on their home, they can't learn. Removing some of those barriers, I think all those things are important."
Baker taught at Holmes and then worked as an administrator at the adult high school and also administered a self-contained teen parenting program and juvenile delinquets program. "One reason I feel like I want to run is because I feel I can make a contribution and make a difference," she said. "I think we still strive to have high academic standards even though some children are coming from different standards of living, a different home situation. I think we try to pull all students to their highest potential but it's hard to do that when you have students who are transient in the district." Baker said that in her experience some students will move from Covington to Newport to Cincinnati all in the same year or move around the city and attend different schools in the same year. "Sometimes we get kids two weeks befire the testing window and we still get scored. If people want to look at those statistics, they need to look at the transient students."
As for her platform, Baker would like to increase communication between the district and the neighborhoods as well as City Hall. higher test scores in the district, and more after-school and before-school programs.
The Licking Riverside real estate agent has a daughter and a granddaughter in the Covington Indpendent Public Schools system, one at John G. Carlisle and the other at Sixth District. "The quick fix is the reputation," Blair said. "Get people to start saying you have good schools in Covington. I think that's something we need to work on." Blair is not running a traditional campaign and has not held any fundraisers or ordered any yard signs and is instead going door-to-door to spread her message and handing out campaign business cards. She uses herself as an example on how to overcome the negative perceptions associated with Covington schools. When Blair first moved to Covington, she wasn't sure if she should send her daughter to the district.
"I don't think (CIPS) has the best image and it needs to change, because I told them when I first move here, I didn't know what I was going to do," she said. "One of the first things I said was, I heard terrible things, but I gave them a chance." Blair says her daughter loves John G. Carlisle and her teachers. "I think there's a lot of stereotypes against Covington schools and I don't like it. A lot of negative. It's not a positive image." One way she suggests building up the pride in the district is by increasing the support of the athletics programs and school spirit programs across the district, not just at the high school level.
As a real estate agent, Blair understands the importance of attracting families to the city and the challenge of overcoming the perception of the school district. "You see the same thing in Newport," she said. "I have a listing there and my client said, 'I send my kids to Fort Thomas schools'. I would love for Covington and Newport to work together on things. We're close, we're both independent, we have a lot in common. We could learn and grow from each other."
She notes that when her own parents graduated from Holmes High School, the district had a stellar reputation. She would like to see that again. "I really want to make a difference," Blair said. "I think one of my strengths is, I have two first-graders in the district. I do have some wisdom and life experiences and I'm dedicated. When I put my little one in school, I decided that this was going to be my focus at this point in my life." Blair is also a member of the parent-teacher association at John G. Carlisle. "One thing I'm doing, anything I learn I share. I love telling people and other moms what we're doing at John G. Carlisle."
This is not Dameron's first trip to the rodeo of school board races. For more than ten years he has been a consistent critic of how the district spends its money and has made at least four previous attempts to get elected to the board to institute from within what he sees as needed changes. This time around, though, there's a difference. "More people are engaged. I'm not a lone voice in the wilderness," Dameron, of Licking Riverside, said. Once Dameron started consistently posting to Facebook various points regarding the amount of money CIPS takes in and how it is spent, more people got involved with his message, and from that the Fix Covington Schools group emerged.
He points out, however, that Fix Covington Schools is only loosely organized. "This is not a solid organization. There's no elected individual, no leader," Dameron said. "It's a source for the community. My role is to be very factual and to try and reference where those facts came from. I have made a concerted effort not to attack any certain individual. No one speaks for the group or for anyone else."
Dameron also makes clear that he is not interested in cutting the budget yet. His focus would be on directing more of the roughly $47 million budget into the classrooms, he said. He also said that the district's academic performance is still the main issue. He says that while campaigning and talking to the public he has heard of stories of graduates that can't read on a high school level and can't pass a test for military service. "We need to require students to meet grade-level (standards) before being passed on, particularly in the early years," he said. "An emphasis should be placed on the early grades. The board's role is to support programs that support that."
Dameron, who first moved to Covington in 1972 and has owned rental properties as a full-time career since a few years after that, says his main focus, in spite of what some of his critics have said, is not to reduce the property tax. "You have never heard me say that the first thing I want to do is cut the property tax," he said, though, "It is high." This year marked the first time in a decade that the school board did not take the full 4% increase and instead only took the compensating rate.
One other goal would be to create a standing budget committee different than the one the school board has now. He would include two board members, two administrators, and three citizens from the community, similar to the City's audit committee. "The first year would be unbelievably hard work," Dameron said.
Holleran, an attorney who was recently elected president of Covington's Westside Action Coalition, has a daughter at John G. Carlisle School. During the course of the campaign, she has found herself on the receiving end of many attacks from within the Fix Covington Schools online group. "The main thing is, I don't understand it. I don't know what it is I did to make them hate me, dislike me, whatever you want to say." Holleran said. "I don't understand their anger because that's not who I am as a person. When I see a problem, I don't just get mad and post about it online or look for a group of people to discuss my anger with. Instead, my problem-solving skills kick in and I find a way to solve the problem."
One criticism from the Fix group towards Holleran is that they don't know where she stands on issues. She says she explains her platform directly to voters on the campaign trail. "I have spent two years in the throes of this school district," she said. "I've been on a site-based council (she says the Fix group's accusation that she did not attend many meetings is "false"), I started a PTA. I have met with teachers, administrators, gone to site-based meetings of other schools, not just the one my daughter goes to. I've met all the principals. I have tried to look from a global perspective at what the district is doing."
"I haven't figured out anything we are doing wrong," she said. "It's not the results we want, but the methods are right and we're getting commended by national experts on third grade reading programs. We're making strides academically. They're small, that's for sure, but it's happening."
Holleran, who has been endorsed by the Covington Education Association, credits superintendent Lynda Jackson for putting the district on what she sees as the right path. "We had $12,000 in the bank when Lynda took over and now we have more than a million. Before Lynda we were violating the law because we didn't have enough (in the bank)."
"What I think is, we have a tough population of kids to serve and we have a city full of parents who are the people that need to step it up." Holleran said. "We need to open up meetings to parents, reach out to parents in some ways that I'm afraid we're not reaching out. We have to reinvent ourselves and figure out a way to reach them."
"What I'm telling voters is, I'm a single parent. If we have a parent on the board who also knows what she's talking about because she's attended meetings, we're going to have a better perspective of what works and someone who relates to parents and get them in the buildings." She adds that she would like to see more mentoring and adoption of classes by the surrounding business community. "What i think our board isn't doing, is being the voice of the schools to the community and we need to remember that that is part of the board's job, to be the PR arm of the schools. We're having board meetings and making decisions almost in a vacuum. We need to get the greater community here in the schools."
One of two incumbents running for reelection, Huff has served on the school board since 2000 and currently serves as its chair. "I believe in what we're doing and I believe we are heading in the right direction. We just need time," Huff said. "All the data we have in front of us on a routine basis, we are making progress on test scores across the board."
Huff, of Wallace Woods, said that her time spent on the board has brought needed change to the organization. "When I came upon the board, there was a lot of unrest," she said. "I do believe at that time, people had their own agenda and weren't really willing to work together to get the work done and provide the best education for our children." Huff said that her first goal was to get the board unified and to show respect for each other. "It's OK to disagree but let's do it in a manner in which we can work through it and that is when we started getting our packets on Friday to where we could go through them on the weekend and start asking our questions and then if we saw an issue we felt strongly about, I could call my other board members and we would talk it out before we sat at that table." Those changes, Hiff said, created more efficient meetings that were hours shorter than previously.
Huff also supports Superintendent Lynda Jackson. "Mrs. Jackson is a very strong leader," Huff said. "She has a very strong academic background and talent to work in that area. She's got a very good rapport with our children. There's not many superintendents that can go in a building and automatically the arms are raised around her waist for hugs because they know she's open and loves children. It would be a waste of talent to let her go. We need her and we are fortunate to have her."
Huff, whose three children all graduated from Holmes and went on to college, has also been a target of criticism from the Fix Covington Schools group online and in public. "I respect their opinions," she said. "I just don't feel that they take the time to get educated before they express their opinions and by being educated, I mean every one of the board members, all of the staff, have tried to reach out to the folks to come in for a meeting to where we can give the data and show what we're talking about and no one has shown up."
Some affiliated with the group have made several open records requests that were never picked up after being prepared, Huff said. "That's a lot of time, money, and work taken away from our primary job, educating these kids, to get documentation ready for someone to review and when they don't even show up or call to cancel, it just makes you wonder about folks."
A series of YouTube videos were also created to crticize the schools by a user under the name of WhyRUrKidsSoStupid. "I'm quite sure that the comments said online, especially the negative ones, and I haven't seen any positive ones, are talked about (at school by students)," Huff said. "Those kids go to school the next day and what are they thinking when they go? Are they confident in the person standing before them? It's not doing them any good not to have any self confidence in us and I think that's what this website and others like it, are doing."
Huff notes that the board and superintendent have been able to cuts some of costs associated with the district, particularly in the area of legal counsel where CIPS is turning more often to clerks to handle some of the work load. She also points out that the academic standards are trending upwards while the ACT scores continue to struggle, with Holmes ranking near the bottom in statewide results.
"I think that the test scores, especially the ACT, are going to improve dramatically because what we're doing is even our tenth graders are taking the ACT because that's what their parents want," Huff said. "So if they reach a certain score or below a certain score, they go to an ACT bootcamp and we've got a lot of strategies as far as that's concerned because the ACT is what's going to get you in and out of school. These kids are taking exit exams and passing them for their courses so it makes me wonder why they are not doing as well on the ACT."
Miller, of Austinburg, recalls a better time in history for Holmes High School. When he graduated as a member of the last class before integration, Holmes was a much lauded institution of secondary education in Kentucky. Students would come to the school from surrounding communities outside of Covington. Miller believes that the school can have that reputation again. "We need to direct money to where it's going to affect education," Miller said. "There may need to be some reorganization that needs to be done. Why do we have more administrators than any comparable district? Do we need all those administrators?"
Miller, who retired from WCET-TV and whose campaign has been closely associated with those of Dameron and Jo Rogers, has been particularly harsh in his criticism of candidate Kerry Holleran and superintendent Lynda Jackson. He apologized for referring online to Holleran as a twit and Jackson as "blondie". He says of Jackson, "I think she's a very nice person who cares about children, but I don't see strong leadership from her and I don't see her fighting for education or reform." As for his criticism towards Holleran, "I've never been able to find out what she's about. I've asked her, my daughter has asked her, and we've got nothing. She thinks everything is fine and I don't."
Miller has grandchildren in the district and that's why he decided to run. "For the most part, (the district) doesn't expect much of children in schools. They use excuses," he said. "I see this board as complacent and unimaginative. Their excuses are poverty, dysfunctional homes and families. I don't agree with that because we've always had that in Covington but we expected kids to learn. The standards were high."
He says one problem for teachers is that they don't get enough administrative support. Miller also wants to put a stop to the excuses and that is why he supports Dameron and Rogers in their bids as well. "Our philosophies about education very much gel," he said. "All three think that children can learn regardless of economic level, ethnic background, what kind of home life they have, if they are given the opportunity and the challenge."
His first priority would be to tackle the district's finances. "We have a lot of waste and those things need to be looked into," he said. "It's not to cut the budget but to focus it on classroom support."
Pettigrew, of Peaselburg, has two daughters currently attending schools in the district. "I was a mother seeing that their education was not what I thought it should be and I got involved that way," she said. "I really would just like to make the schools better for my kids, really. I don't have any interest in lowering taxes for people, I just want to make sure people have the money they need to have a good education."
As for the crowded field of candidates in a contentious campaign, "It's bizarre," she said. "I think there's a lot of misinformation being tossed around. True information gets twisted and spread around and by the time the candidates have it, it sounds like a lie." She still believes that she could "definitely" work with any combination of the candidates, though. "I've tried really hard to maintain a good rapport with all of them, hard though that may be sometimes."
Some concerns Pettigrew has is what she sees as teaching to the state tests and a lack of homework. "It seems to have changed a little bit when they changed the testing that they used," she said. "I saw a lot of teaching to the test with my kids. They didn't teach anything that wasn't on the CATS test and I felt my daughters were falling behind because of that. My daughter stopped bringing homework home in the fourth grade, or had the same assignment over and over with slightly different content. It was basically a copy of the CATS test."
Another issue is the district's finances. "When I heard the numbers of how much we bring in I was puzzled at how we couldn't afford music or art classes."
"I tell (voters) I would like to change the way we spend money and the way we teach to the test and as some other candidates have mentioned, would like to see some more consistent discipline where the rules apply to everybody." Pettigrew said that she has seen inconsistencies with enforcement of the school's dress codes where regular violators are rarely penalized but those that typically follow the rules are punished on the rare occasion that they breach it.
She also pointed out that she learned on the campaign trail that not enough people have been paying to the school board. "It's been very interesting. A roller coaster ride with ups and downs," she said. "Not too many people care about the school board race. Most of them have no idea that there were three seats up and most don't even know who's on the school board now. That's provided some added difficulties."
Petty, a Latonia resident who volunteers as a karate teacher at one of the schools, has decided to drop out of the race but wanted to offer some parting words to the remaining field. "I think that there is way too much politics in the schools. Not in the system, but on the school board," he said. "Everything has got to be like they all have to have a type of campaign they're running on. I mean, really there is no campaign anyone should be running on. Everyone should wanting to run on the same thing, to me."
Petty originally entered the race to fight for more after-school programming that takes place after five o'clock, arguing that there is not a lot for kids to do other than be on the streets but what he sees as the politics involved in this school board election prompted him to exit.
"Mainly, I believe it's Jo Rogers, Tom Miller, and Everett Dameron," he said. "I think they're trying to get on the board and run it ragged. I mean, how can you say you want to be part of the board of education when you have a meeting and you stand up and want the board that is seated to get rid of the attorney because they don't like how she does things? I mean, I think the board itself is doing fine right now. They don't need any criticism like that from candidates in the public eye."
"To put on the internet and say the board isn't doing what they're supposed to do, I feel that have no balance to say stuff like that," Petty said. "I don't like running with someone that is not there for the good of the students. I hope the voters are smart this year. Covington is about always sticking together and for some people to come in and make promises about things that they can't really do? The board runs as a team, not individuals. For one person to say they can do this or that, it's a team thing."
A former high school teacher who now works as an instructor at the University of Cincinnati and lives in Old Seminary Square, Rogers is running on a platform of high academic standards and expectations. "We have a community that is vibrant except for (the schools)," she said. "That is the missing piece of the puzzle." Rogers's husband Jon Ryker taught at Holmes High School and other districts in the region while Rogers worked at Bellevue High School and substituted in other districts. They wrote a book together titled Educating, Not Babysitting.
She has particular disdain for the notion that the district is challenged by the amount of impoverished students attending the schools. "You need to get an education. It's something they can never take away from you. Education is a way out of poverty," she said. How do you get a poor kid to learn? Rogers says, "You respect these kids. You promise not to waste their time. You say to them, we're going to learn something very important and I value your time."
"Parental income does not ever determine intelligence or capabilities." Rogers noted that a lot of the grade schools are doing well, "but something happens in the middle school and the high school." Higher standards would fix that, she said. Her campaign has been closely linked to those of Tom Miller and Everett Dameron, but after an early campaign flier implied they were running as a slate, something that is not allowed by state law, she is careful to note that they are running with similar philosophies independently of each other. Joint fundraisers and campaign materials for all three have been created by individual citizens, and not their campaigns.
She notes that poverty in Bellevue, a city with demographics similar to Covington, was never an excuse there. "Teachers are willing to put forth an excuse, 'oh well, our kids are poor'," she said. "That's like telling me I'm short. It is what it is, you deal with reality. I know these kids can do better."
Her priorities would include making sure that all third-graders can read at or above the grade level. "That's key," she said, noting a phrase that children learn to read until the third grade and afterwards start reading to learn. She also wants to work toward increasing Holmes's current 15.8 ACT score average to the twenties. "That's a dream," she said. Rogers also notes that only three-percent of Holmes graduates meet all the requirements to be considered college or career-ready. "We have to flip that number. They have to be able to get a job."
In her current role at UC, she sees students from other urban school districts also struggling in post-secondary education. "The problems we face are not unique," she said. "There's been a breakdown of the education system in the United States."
As for the current board, Rogers has little regard for their efforts. "I hear them say things and as an educator, I think, 'you think that's a good idea?' And nobody says anything," she said. "These are other people's children. Their future depends on this."
"Ask those kids, any 3,900 of them, 'what did you learn in school today?'," she said. "The answers aren't very pretty sometimes. This school district can be better than it is."