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Covington School Board Candidates Talk Consolidation, Other Issues

There are five candidates running for three seats on the Covington Board of Education and four of them attended a forum on Wednesday night hosted by OASIS, Inc. and Ninth Street Baptist Church.
 
The board is made up of five members. With member Joyce Baker - the top vote-getter in 2012 - not seeking reelection, there will be at least one new face elected on Tuesday. Incumbent Glenda Huff is seeking a fifth term on the board, but did not attend Wednesday's event. April Frese Brockhoff, who was appointed to fulfill an unexpired term in 2015 before being elected to complete that term last year, is now seeking her own four-year term. Mike Fitzgerald, who has served multiple nonconsecutive terms on the board and lost his reelection bid in 2012, is back on the ballot. First-time candidates Danielle Axtell and Tom Wherry are also seeking seats on the board.
 
Wednesday's forum was moderated by Reverend Richard Fowler and involved questions from the audience and a direct, extended dialogue between Fowler and the candidates.
 
The first question from the audience was related to students' drug use.
 
Danielle Axtell, who is on the site-based decision-making council at Holmes High School, and who has a child at the school, answered first. She said Covington Partners does a lot of research on drugs and kids, and the organization brings that information back to coordinate with people who run after-school programs. "There is some partnership there," she said. "You have to make sure you are on the same page, of course. But kids see their role models who are dealers, and these places give kids other avenues to consider."
 
April Frese Brockhoff, who has four children in the school district, agreed with the assessment of Covington Partners, and added that the organization does an annual survey which is used to coordinate services. She also said that the school board could be part of a city-wide collaboration on planning for drug prevention.
 
Tom Wherry has spent the last year intensively talking to teachers, administrators, and students and prides himself on knowing the people working in the district, he said. Wherry also agreed that Covington Partners has 16 years of expanded services. He said he would strongly urge people to get involved with the mentoring program, also organized by Covington Partners, and said someone taking an interest in a child makes a huge difference. The board of education needs to be more involved with the community, Wherry continued.
 
Mike Fitzgerald stated that his three sons were never involved with drugs, and neither are his grandchildren.
 
"The problem lies with the parents," he said. "You have to spy on your kids if necessary, know who they are running around with. Parents have to be involved. It starts with the family."
 
The second question put the candidates on the spot asking if they would explore the possibility of consolidating Covington schools with the Kenton County School District. Covington Independent Public Schools is consistently ranked among the lowest-performing districts in the state, while Kenton County ranks in the upper third.
 
Wherry answered first.
 
"It is not something that has ever been proposed to me," he said. "But I'll do my homework, and talk to all the participants, and learn from the answers. I am not sure what that would look like."
 
Brockhoff said she would have to see what the community members thought about that idea.
 
"Parents have maximum involvement right now," she explained. "That could go away, and it would take away local control. We would probably have only one person on a board. Now it is set to impact kids in the greatest way. I think we would like to retain our independence."
 
Axtell said the communities along the river are unique, the thought of merging into the suburbs and giving up control has more cons than pros.
 
"I would be open to discuss it," she concluded. "But I would need a lot of convincing."
 
Fitzgerald wasn't as open to the idea.  Having been on the school board previously for 16 years, he remembered when there was an idea to consolidate the Covington with Ludlow Independent Schools.
 
"Covington is Covington," he stated unequivocally. "Other communities are other communities. We are doing just fine. Covington taxes go to Covington schools."
 
The next segment was a dialogue between Fowler and each of the candidates. He began with Brockhoff, noting that she was brought in to fill another person's term, and asked her what she had learned.
 
"I learned  that it is not as easy to have an impact as I thought," she said. "I have also learned that what is important to me might not be as important to others, and that I am part of a team and function as part of that team."
 
She said being on the school board is very different than being part of a site-based council because the site-based council makes immediate decisions whereas the board has more than one school to consider. Overall, she wants to see the board work together.
 
Fowler asked about Glenn O. Swing Elementary being rated as "distinguished" by the state and Latonia Elementary's "proficient" rating, and how those improvements could spread to the other schools in the district that are ranked lower.
 
"We support the Professional Learning Community in all our schools," Brockhoff said. "Each school has to have the same opportunities to grow teachers."
 
Fowler asked Axtell about improvements she would seek in the district.
 
"Well, the teachers have begun meeting as a collaborative group," she stated. "We have great teachers. I think they would like more prep time. Northern Kentucky has some issues with substitute teachers, and we need to find some substitute teachers. Also we have a CTE program and an advance placement which we need to merge to have both worlds come together to be college and career-ready."
 
Fowler asked about what is being done to get all the students ready for the ACT and the SAT even if some students are not ready for college.
 
Axtell said the district has after-school programs to prepare the students for the tests, but even though it is a big improvement the district is not where it would like to be.
 
Fitzgerald took a moment to praise the absent member, Glenda Huff, saying that he had served with her and she was good on the board. Fowler asked him what the financial status of the board was when he served, and Fitzgerald said he honestly couldn't remember. He told the moderator that they had auditors who came in and made sure everything was on track.
 
Fowler asked about the fact that the board chose not to raise taxes, and asked Fitzgerald if that was a good move.
 
Fitzgerald said he thought it was a good move, and stated that "wise people make judgments" where to spend money and on what, and if there is a problem the board can step in.
 
Fowler asked Fitzgerald about how Holmes High School could be brought up to the same level as highly-rated Beechwood and Ft. Thomas Schools. 
 
"We have outstanding students at Holmes," Fitzgerald said. "The problem is somewhere, I am not sure where. The teachers have a lot of stress and maybe we ought to have a teacher representative come in and voice their concerns."
 
Wherry was asked to look at Kenton County, which is rated as "proficient", and Campbell County and Boone County, which are rated as "distinguished and progressing", and to compare Covington to those districts.
 
Wherry stated that he had all the confidence in the world in the kids in Covington, and said that the district needed to find the problem and get rid of it. He was then asked if Superintendent Alvin Garrison is doing a good job, to which he answered yes, from what he saw, he was doing a great job.
 
As far as the issue of having teachers at the schools that shouldn't be there, and who might be bad teachers, Wherry countered with a question: do people know the passion that is out there?
 
"I'm telling you, the passion is out there," Wherry stated. "We need to cheerlead everyone who works there."
 
Fowler asked about the adequacy of the facilities, and Wherry acknowledged that when he went to sports games at other schools he would see high-end facilities. He said he wanted to give his students the best opportunities in every way.
 
Each candidate was asked why people should pick them to serve on the board.
 
Axtell said that both of her children want to graduate and come back and teach at Holmes, because the school has made such a difference to them.  
 
"It might be self-serving, but I want to make the schools in the district the best they can be so my kids can come back and have a wonderful district to teach in," she said. "The kids that play basketball in the alley, and the little girls who come to my school from Sixth District for a tea party, I want them all to have the same great opportunities."
 
Brockhoff stated that she has spent the last twelve years involved in the schools, and that she isn't afraid to fight for the kids.
 
"The opportunities come from our teachers," she stated, "from (students') relationships with teachers. If we increase our retention of teachers, we can increase our student achievement. It all comes down to working together to create opportunities."
 
Wherry said if they are to hang their hat on the professional learning community (PLC) program, the board and district have to implement it in an effective way.
 
"I have passion and I am not afraid to do the work and the follow-through," said Wherry. "The teachers are excited, and we need not to wait till May to implement the programs. We can tweak it. If it is tweaked it is a game-changer. We also need to push the Footsteps to Brilliance. We need to go knock on the doors and make eye contact to make sure people are using this program," he said of the literacy program for early learners.
 
Fitzgerald said that he has lived in Covington for 68 years, and five generations of his family have gone to Covington Public Schools. He said the district has lost the students that would have gone to vocational school, but the district is working to give students the best opportunities.
 
"We need to give our kids the best, because they are our future," Fitzgerald said. "They are our biggest asset. I believe I have experience and knowledge, and I love Covington. I will do the very best I can."
 
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor
Slideshow Images & Captions: 
Tom Wherry