Columbia School Board candidates answer questions at community forum

Thursday, March 8, 2012 | 11:31 p.m. CST; updated 2:39 p.m. CST, Friday, March 9, 2012

*An earlier version story of this story gave the incorrect date for the next forum. The forum is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

COLUMBIA — School curriculum and the relationship of the school board with district staff were discussion topics at a school board forum Thursday.

The forum was hosted by Columbia Parents for Public Schools, the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association and the Columbia Council PTA. About 20 people were in the audience.

Three of the candidates running in the April 3 school board election attended the forum: Christine King, Rex Cone and Paul Cushing. The fourth candidate, Melvin Blase, was unable to attend.

The forum was held at the Activity and Recreation Center on Ash Street. It opened with a presentation by Superintendent Chris Belcher about the proposed bond issue and tax levy increase and how the money raised would be used.

The forum started with a two-minute introduction from each candidate, then followed a unique structure that combined rounds of questions and breaks for conversation. 

As they walked in, people who attended the forum had the opportunity to write questions on cards and put them into a bag. During each round of questioning, each candidate picked a question from the bag, then had a minute to answer it. After every few rounds, there was a 10-minute break for attendees to approach candidates and ask specific questions. By the end of the forum, each candidate had answered seven questions. They were then allowed two minutes for closing statements.

School curriculum

King and Cone both answered questions about their roles in regards to school curriculum.

King said the board members know they set policy and are leaders, but they also have to set the framework for a discussion about curriculum issues and to go through a fair process. She acknowledged that she is not an instructional or curriculum expert. However, though it is not perfect, the current instruction and curriculum process works, she said.

She mentioned the process the district went through to approve new language arts materials in 2010, which she said was fair.

King said her role is to take information from experts, talk about it as a board, get questions answered and let experts “roll with it.”

Cone said his role as a board member regarding curriculum would be to set policy, oversee the superintendent and make sure that teachers, employees and staff feel safe.

“When you have good employees, they’re going to enjoy what they’re doing, and if they feel valued, they’re going to be even better employees,” Cone said.

Cone said he believes curriculum should be left to professionals. He said he thinks the board has to support changes initiated by teachers. He said the board has a role as “spokesman” for the community to talk to people and find out if it’s a direction they really want to go. He said it has to be so transparent that people are willing to come to board members and know that their opinion as a member of the community will be shared.

Collective bargaining

Both King and Cushing drew cards asking them their thoughts on collective bargaining. Collective bargaining refers to negotiations between employers and a group of employees, sometimes represented by a union.

Cushing said educators need to be heard by the board.

"Obviously, the teachers need a voice," Cushing said. "I thought it was the legislature, but from what I've heard it's not. They should have a group or groups to represent them."

King said the current school board members recently voted on a policy that would allow teachers to have exclusive representation. She said she voted in favor of the policy and would work with whatever way the teachers decided to communicate with the board.

Relationships with the board

All three candidates present described what they believe to be the relationship of the board to teachers and administrators. 

Cone said he would depend on input from teachers to help guide his decisions in district matters.

"You have to rely on your employees," Cone said. "You have to rely on the people who know what they need."

Cushing said he has been meeting with teachers at different schools. He has tried to visit schools once a week or once every two weeks and will continue to do so as a way of improving communication between teachers and the board.

"I'm sure every teacher has some issues they would love to discuss with a school board member," Cushing said.

King said when she is working on a problem, she first goes to Belcher because she understands the order communication proceeds through.

"I try to really respect that quote, unquote, chain of command, just like I do when parents contact me or when teachers contact me," King said. "I really try to re-emphasize that chain of command, if you will, so we get everybody in the boat to solve the problem."

Columbia Parents for Public Schools President Sarah Read said the questions asked at the forum would all be put on the organization’s blog so candidates who were not asked certain questions can answer them online.

The next forum will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday* at the Columbia Public Library, 100 W. Broadway.

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