COLUMBIA — Five candidates for Columbia School Board sit still, heads bowed, eyes closed, under wood panel ceiling in the Second Baptist Church. The room is silent as the reverend prays.
"In the name of Jesus, amen," he says. "Amen," the audience echoes as people shift in their seats and fix their eyes on the 17 candidates seated at the yellow plastic-covered tables at the back of the room.
So began the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People forum at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night. School Board candidates Jan Mees, Dan Holt, James Whitt, Phil Peters and Jonathan Sessions answered questions from audience members about the bond issue, the academic achievement gap among students and how they thought limited funds should be distributed.
Question: Money is tight. If you had to choose between spending money on music versus on a trade program, which would get the funding?
- Sessions: "It's a challenging question, and it's (these) tough calls that this board's going to have to make. What's going to have the most drastically negative effect on student learning?"
- Peters: Trade. "We haven't focused as much as some communities have on young men and women who aren't interested in going to college."
- Holt: "The job skills component is closer to our mission."
- Mees: "Would you rather be shot or hung? It's not easy making choices like this ... I do think our students need to have more life skills."
Question: Have you considered making marriage skills a curriculum that needs to be taught in the public schools?
- Sessions: He called relationship education "vital." Schools need to "teach about healthy parts of relationships and the way we communicate with one another."
- Peters: "I think it's something we need to do in schools," he said, but added he didn't know enough about what was already being done to speak further.
- Mees: Cited money as "the main cause of divorce sometimes" when speaking about the importance of finance education. Mentioned classes that might address relationship issues.
Whitt answered both questions at once. "Trade skills lead to income," he said, listing several other benefits, such as life skills. "And when you add all those up, it's certainly going to help your marriage."
One audience member inquired about the recent closing of more than 20 schools in Kansas City. Would the candidates consider offering jobs to black teachers who'd lost their jobs there?
Most of the candidates answered with comments about the importance of growing a more diverse teacher population, but a few expressed doubts about the effectiveness of drawing teachers from that situation.
When asked about the achievement gap — disparities in test scores among students of different races and household income levels — all candidates agreed it's a problem that needs serious attention from the board and community. Respect between students and teachers, community investment and learning from programs that have been successful elsewhere in the country were all mentioned as part of the solution.
All five candidates expressed support for a bond issue going before voters on April 6, which would bring in $120 million for bricks-and-mortar projects in the district.