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Part One: School Board Candidates Debate

The nine candidates seeking three seats available on the Covington Board of Education appeared together at a forum/debate sponsored by OASIS, Inc at Ninth Street Baptist Church in the city's Eastside Thursday night. The event was moderated by Mark Neikirk, director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at Northern Kentucky University, with questions to the candidates from Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News (and author of this post).

The event allowed for opening statements, three questions for all candidates to answer including two from the audience, three minutes of direct questioning for each candidate from Monks, and then closing statements. The race features two incumbents in Mike Fitzgerald and Glenda Huff and seven challengers in Joyce Baker, Christi Blair, Everett Dameron, Kerry Holleran, Tom Miller, Rebecca Pettigrew, and Jo Rogers. To read interviews with each candidate (except for Fitzgerald) conducted by The River City News click here)

School Board member Krista Powers is not seeking reelection. Another vacancy also exists on the board due to the resignation of Denise Varney and that seat will be filled likely after the election by an appointment from Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday. Board member Jerry Avery is the only one definitely returning to the board next year as his seat and that of Varney are not up for election until 2014.

Coverage of the debate will be in two parts. This first part below will cover the first round of questioning that includes questions from the audience. Look for coverage of the direct-questioning portion here at RCN on Sunday morning.

Question: What are your thoughts on the Ron Clark Academy program that has been implemented and recently expanded in the district?

"There's always going to be a new education guru coming down the pike," said Rogers, a former high school teacher who currently works for the University of Cincinnati and lives in Old Seminary Square. "When I began my work as an educator, we had Harry Wong, and then we had Ruby (Payne), and now there's Ron Clark. I think you have to stick to the basics before you can latch on to any of these wonderful programs. There may be great elements to Ron Clark programs but you have to have kids who can read. You have to have the basics covered before you buy into any sort of program." Rogers referenced having seen a video of a Holmes teacher standing on top of a desk which is an element of the Ron Clark program. "You don't have to have gimmicks. You have to have talented people and resources and those people need to have the back-up from a school board to help them teach the kids."

Pettigrew, a mother of two children in the district that lives in Peaselburg, said that she has not had much experience with the program. "There are a lot of pretty good programs in CIPS (Covington Independent Public Schools) as far as kids go," she said. "I think when I was training to be a teacher, we did have to learn how to overcome a lot of obstacles that kids in our district have and one of those is, education is not a priority, so you have to get their attention."

"One of the things I have heard going door to door is that Covington seems to change programs periodically so that a teacher in the third grade suddenly has to start using a different method and she's getting children from second grade in the new year who haven't had that model of teaching," said Miller, whose granddaughters attend CIPS and who graduated from Holmes like his daughters did after him. He lives in Austinburg. "She spends half the year catching up second graders, now third graders, up to where they should be so that they're constantly behind." Miller discussed a conversation with a teacher that suggested these new programs should start in the first grade. "Let those children already out of third grade continue where they were so the teacher doesn't have to waste time introducing something new. Granted, there are many new methods and many of them are very good but I don't think it's always wise to do them because they are new."

"It's so exciting to step into a classroom that is painted as a jungle, and what (the Ron Clark program) has accomplished in our district is, its getting the children more engaged than sitting at their desk on a daily basis," said Huff, who has been on the school board for twelve years and whose four children graduated from Holmes before attending college. She lives in Wallce Woods. "(Teachers) learn different strategies to get the kids engaged. The students in the Ron Clark program, and it's just a method, are doing better on our test scores than what our other students are doing. We want all classrooms there." Huff mentioned the excitement some students feel when a strobe light is used on occasion in a Ron Clark classroom when a task is performed well.

Holleran, an attorney whose daughter attends CIPS and who lives in the Westside, supports the program. "It's about energy and I know about Ron Clark for two reasons," she said. "Our principal thinks it's the coolest thing to happen to teaching. I take her perspective to mean something. She's in there everyday. We have a wonderful mayor in this city and he told me the other day he is personal friends (with Ron Clark) and sponsors kids to go through the program (in Atlanta where Clark's Academy is located). (Secondly) my daughter thinks it's the coolest thing in the world, too." Holleran discussed a hip-hop video that she said helped her daughter with division work. "She went on YouTube, finds the video and it's these kids singing this hip-hop song, but changed to math lyrics, and she got so energized. After that we did thirty division problems and she there and did all of them. The excitement poured through."


"It's an energizing program, it's an exciting program," said Fitzgerald, who has served sixteen years on the board and whose children and grandchildren attended or attend CIPS, like he did. Fitzgerald lives in Latonia. "The best way to judge Ron Clark is to come to one of our schools and visit a classroom and you'll be amazed."
"I saw the (Ron Clark) video and read a book he wrote. It's a teaching method that's very interesting," said Dameron, who owns rental property in the city and lives in Licking Riverside. "(But) it seems we're always changing methods. Ron Clark does not do this for free. His little trip he made last year was about a $15,000 bill for him to show up and I'm sure those training sessions are not free. Before we spend money we ought to look at an issue that's unbelievable to me. I'm talking to children and parents and they tell me they don't have workbooks, they're copying text books." Dameron also noted a conversation he had where he said he was told that a classroom of twenty-four students only had two iPads available. "There's a lot lacking in class."
"I heard of it from the schools' website. I've not seen it in John G. (Carlisle)," said Christi Blair, a real estate agent with a daughter and granddaughter attending CIPS who lives in Licking Riverside. "I'm pretty open-minded and think outside the box. My question would be, does it work? If teachers think it works, why not?"
"As an educator, I think you need to grow," said Joyce Baker, of Peaselburg, who worked as a teacher and administrator at CIPS for thirty-six years and who attended the district's schools and sent her children there as well. "If I use the same techniques I learned in college in the seventies, I wouldn't be a good teacher today. You have to expand your horizons a bit. I do feel like I learned something from each of these programs. I implemented a lot of those techniques in my classes. Children learn differently. Ron Clark may not be the best program for every child because it is a very active learning environment and some children need that. (Teachers) are so excited because they see children learn and grow. They are raising the standard there."
Question: What is your assessment of CIPS's budget, how money is spent, and what changes would you like to see made?
"The budget contains a lot of items besides the general fund and a lot of the budget has grant money in it," Baker said. "Grant money has to be used in certain ways. This may be a time where look at making a few programs, reducing the size or changing some things to utilize them, but the thing in the budget that is vital to remember is, fifty-one percent is used on instruction. But we have a lot of other things in there that have to be addressed." Baker emphasized transparency and also noted that the cost to educate a special needs student, of which CIPS has a large population, drives up the cost-per-pupil.
"It's a huge amount of money," said Blair. "I think it's not in all areas spent effectively. There could be other things that are priorities. Some things are upside down." She also suggested that the budget is difficult to read for the average person. "It's very vague and obscure. I would like to see it more clearly written for everyone. It would increase communication to the public and people would know where the money goes. When I look at it, I don't know why my kids don't have nice books. Where do the kids fall into this picture? They shouldn't be at the bottom. My kids should come before the Ron Clark Academy. I think that's why a lot of people are upset. You don't see your child getting the money spent on them."
Dameron said that the district took in $58 million and spent $51 million. "That's a lot of money," he said. "We hear things like, 'we don't have books' and you start wonder where that money is going." Dameron criticized the district for spending what he said was $151,000 for legal services last year and said that Kenton County only paid $70,000 while Newport and Owensboro spent just $22,000. "This year's (Covington) budget is $160,000 (for legal services)," he said. "There's something wrong there. They spent $240,000 for copier services. That seems strange to me. We're copying books rather than buying them. We have an architect on staff, one of the few in the state that does." Dameron said that the architect costs the district $91,000 annually. "You go through the budget and see hundreds of thousands of dollars being wasted that is not in classroom. Take that money and put it in the classroom in the form of staff and education materials."
"I've seen our school budget for the past sixteen years and yes it's a lot of money and we do spend a lot of money," Fitzgerald said. "But what's a dollar compared to a child? We need to make sure all our children are getting the right kid of education and that they are getting a good education." Fitzgerald said that the school buildings' infrastructure is in good shape because of the architect being on staff. He also said that the lawyer fee is high often because of questions from the public that require legal research. "But our school district is doing well, our budget is fine, and our students are learning."
Holleran said that the district cannot change the amount of money given to it by the Commonwealth of Kentucky or the federal government. She thanked Covington Partners and administrator Janice Wilkerson for going after more federal grants to support the schools. Holleran also said that while the schools portion of the property tax in Covington is higher than it is in the Kenton County Schools district, for parents the higher cost is worth it. "If I moved my  house to Kenton County and by some miracle it was worth the same amount, I would pay twelve dollars less a month," Holleran said. "It's about $150 a year more that I pay personally to have my child go to Covington schools." She noted that her daughter, because of the higher tax, gets free breakfast and lunch and no athletic or school fees. "We do pay more but our parents are rewarded."
Huff broke down the budget into percentages, saying that 51% is for instruction, 12% is for administration, 5% is transportation, 3% is maintenance, 4% is utilities, 1% is insurance, and legal services and other costs are 5%. She said that the district now has a 7% contingency budget while the state requires only a 2% reserve. "We are doing as best we can as far as controlling our budget," said Huff. "We didn't raise property taxes this year because our budget is sound. It's the first time we've ever had contingency the way we're supposed to and our goal is to have a bigger one."
"I don't think $50 million is too much to spend on a school system if it is going to actual classroom use," Miller said. "In going over the vendor list issued by the Board of Education, there's $228,000 spent on out-of-district travel that includes $16,000 going to the Galt House in Louisville. The Galt House is a lovely hotel but Louisville is dull of lovely hotels that are a lot less expensive. We also spent $300,000 to Cincinnati Bell which I find a $300,000 phone bill to be slightly excessive when we don't have textbooks, when we don't have iPads in school for children to use"
"I like the budget," Pettigrew said. "A lot of public schools in Ohio have failed levies for years and still have high fees. We have free breakfast and after school programs. As for books, my child at Glenn O. Swing (Elementary) has books. In fact, I got my iPad last week and my fourth grader is teaching me how to use it because she has it in her classroom." She added that she would like to see teacher being paid more and said that Covington is one of the lowest-paying districts in Kentucky.
"For each child, the budget of $51 million spent is about fourteen to fifteen thousand dollars," said Rogers. "For that money you could send your child to Summit Country Day and your child would get an education." Rogers said that she added up all the money from the general fund. "I came up with a grand total of $34 million which is a far cry from $51 million spent, so I do believe there are obvious problems with the budget." Rogers said that "nothing is free". "As a board of education member I feel it would be my duty to the citizens and all the taxpayers to go over the budget with a fine-toothed comb, ferret out waste, and make sure money goes to kids for iPads, for textbooks, for lab equipment, before travel."
Question: This race has resulted in some contentious back-and-forth in online forums. What are your thoughts on that and would you be effective in working with anyone else running?
"I work right now with a diverse group at UC," Rogers said. "Retired physicians, surgeons. I get used to working with different egoes. You have to realize you are all there for a common goal and you have to be willing to put aside ego and differences and reach across the table and say, 'we didn't agree with that while campaigning, but now we're here, we do agree the reason we're here is to make sure children in this school district get the best education possible'. As long as that is truly your goal to become a board of education member, I think we can all work together. Reasonable people can disagree."
Pettigrew cited her experience of being the oldest of seven children for making her prepared for dealing with people during disagreements. She also works as a bill collector so has experience in dealing with angry folks, she said. "I'm good at dealing with people," Pettigrew said. "My 8-year old has given me a unique perspective."
Miller joked that his ex-wife was big into astrology and was always doing his chart and that since he is a Libra, he knows how to strike a balance. "I have always prided myself on my ability to get along with people, even those I disagree with," Miller said before hugging Huff with whom he has had public disagreements. "I worked a long time with a lot of people and never had problems getting along and reaching a consensus. I'm a team player."
Huff also cited her work experience has helping her learn to work in difficult situations. "I work for the IRS," Huff said. "I deal with taxpayers and tell them good news and bad news." She explained that the current board works well together by receiving their agendas and item descriptions on Friday and communicate with one another over the ensuing days leading up to the next board meeting. "Respect is a very high quality that we try our best to always have. And there are times where we don't agree. We understand points of view and we vote the way we have to vote. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions."
"Facebook has been an unpleasant place for me lately." Holleran said. She explained that she often receives messages from supporters asking if she had seen the latest thread on various online forums in which she feels attacked. "I feel like when we're all in the same room we all get along well and I feel like in real life we all get along but on Facebook it's kind of nasty. I've been called names, linked to people calling people names. We all do have the good of the district at heart and I think we can all work well together." She also cited work experience as a criminal defense attorney that must work with prosecutors as an example of being able to work through disagreements.
"It's a difficult question for me. I'm very opinionated," Fitzgerald said. "A lot of times I'll speak before I think which sometimes gets me in a lot of trouble. Earlier this year when I was chairman (of the school board) I made the statement,'if people quit flappin' their jaws and get involved things would be better'. To me, it looks like what I said did come around and people have gotten involved which is a good thing."
"This whole (Facebook) phenomenon was new to me but my tactic was to be factual and back up where my facts came from," Dameron said. "I never attacked anyone as an individual, only ideas and what is being done." Dameron said he wants to see less discussion by board members and administrators behind closed doors. "We need to have those discussions in public, to engage the public and ask people to be involved in those discussions. One of my main goals is to reach out to the community and engage them. I think we can get along if we all have the same goal of improving education."
Blair said the she enjoys Facebook but since becoming a candidate became more aware that people would be watching what she may say online. "I'm a single mom and I'm poor so we love the computer and I love to talk on it and voice my opinions," Blair said. "I'm not going to hold back and not say what I think. If I see something wrong, I don't want to be called 'negative' because I'm pointing out that something isn't working. I would like it to be fixed and I think social networking can be used in a positive way. It's about conversations."
"I didn't get on Facebook until I decided to run as a candidate because people said you need to communicate with people," Baker said. "I got on and read some of the and I find it appalling. I think some of the name-calling is third-grade playground antics. I don't intend to lower myself to those kind of standards. We're supposed to be setting standards for children. This is not an example of what board members should be." Baker explained that she is able to communicate disagreements in a respectful manner. "I think we need to come together and come to terms that we are the examples for the kids and we need to show respect for each other."