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School board candidates participate in first public forum

Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 9:18 p.m. CST; updated 11:41 a.m. CST, Thursday, March 8, 2012

For more on the 2012 Columbia School Board Election, click here.

COLUMBIA — Columbia School Board candidates found themselves being asked to define their priorities if elected at the first candidate public forum.

The Columbia Chamber of Commerce hosted the forum at the Chamber of Commerce Building on Thursday. Co-chairs of Government Affairs Committee Scott Ward and Kellie Ann Coats moderated the event for the candidates running in the April 3 election. Ward led questions on behalf of the chamber and Coats facilitated questions posed by the audience.

Programs to prioritize

The chamber asked what program the candidates would fight hardest to keep if there were a situation where some needed to be cut.

Most candidates agreed that choosing which activities are the highest priority was difficult.

"There's no easy answer when you have a good school system," candidate Melvin Blase said.

Incumbent Christine King pointed out activities that kept kids engaged, safe and active in school, specifically mentioning athletics, music and drama programs, among others.

Candidate Paul Cushing said he favored vocational education programs, mentioning that these had benefited him in the past. He said that after graduating from high school, he immediately went to work and eventually went to vocational school.

"It's given me a life skill and something I can take with me," he said.

He talked more about vocational education during a later audience question about why it is important to stress these kinds of programs.

"If we could rescue the ones that are struggling with school and be able to put them on a path that will give them a marketable skill right when they come out of high school, that would be fantastic," he said. "That's really what I would like to see."

Improving math and science

The chamber cited a statistic that Missouri fourth graders rank in the bottom third nationally in math skills and that a low number of math, engineering, technology and science degrees are awarded in the state.

The chamber asked what candidates would do to improve that trend.

King mentioned programs at Benton Elementary School like its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program and a partnership with MU as ways the district is working to improve that statistic. She said it is important to find ways to make the teaching field attractive.

"We need to create role models for these kids," she said.

Blase said students have to want to learn, and talked about how simulation exercises could help them see how what they learn can be used to solve real-world problems.

Candidate Rex Cone said the district needs to give teachers and the administration permission to try new things, change what isn't working and improve what is already in place.

Bond issue

One audience question was about how the candidates would prioritize spending bond issue money.

Cushing said his top two priorities were taking care of crowding in the schools and seeing more technology.

Cone said his first priority was eliminating trailers. After that, he mentioned work with infrastructure that is already in place, the continuing education of teachers and revisiting infrastructure to make sure there won't be future problems.

Blase said the district needed to stop the physical deterioration of facilities, finish what it had started in terms of completing facilities and invest in simulation exercises.

King said her immediate priority was crowding in elementary schools, citing plans for a new elementary school in southwest Columbia and a new early childhood learning facility that would accomplish this.

"So we all know that bonds can't be used to pay teachers and for operating revenue," she said. "It's just for bricks and mortar and that sort of thing."

Community involvement

This question led into another about the problems of passing bond issues when people who approve them no longer have children in schools. The question was about how the candidates would encourage people to get involved when they don't have children in the district.

Candidates agreed it was important to get this group to invest in schools.

Cone said it is important to remind people in the community that everyone comes from somewhere and is part of a bigger picture. He said because of the people who came before him and had the foresight to build good schools, he and his family have benefited.

Blase mentioned work the Columbia Kiwanis Club had done in individual schools as an example of getting the community involved. The club is a community service organization.

"I would challenge the older members of the community to get involved in helping teach the kids learn how to read, helping them to work math problems," Blase said.

The next forum will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 8 at the Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 W. Ash St.


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