School board candidates address high school issues

Friday, March 23, 2012 | 6:54 p.m. CDT; updated 5:43 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 24, 2012

COLUMBIA — Questions about the goals of high school education, ideas about Douglass High School and reducing the dropout rate were the focus of a Columbia School Board candidate forum Friday. 

The Muleskinners hosted the forum at the Columbia Country Club, and former Muleskinners President Diane Booth moderated the event. Three of four candidates for the April 3 election, Rex Cone, Melvin Blase and incumbent Christine King, fielded questions from audience members. Paul Cushing was unable to attend because of his work schedule.

What follows are paraphrases of some of the questions candidates were asked.

What are the major goals of high school education?

Blase and King agreed there was no single goal.

"One of the primary ones, of course, is to prepare them for lifetime employment and therefore, lifelong education, because it's a very important aspect," Blase said.

Cone said a major goal of high school education was to prepare good citizens.

"Part of that is teaching them to learn," he said. "We want them to be lifelong learners."

What do the candidates think of Douglass High School? What would they do with the program?

Blase said, as he understood it, Douglass was used for special education. Most of the audience then shouted at Blase that the campus was an alternative school.

Douglass is an alternative school for students who find it difficult to perform in traditional high schools, according to previous Missourian reporting.

The moderator then quieted those in attendance, and Blase went on to a different point, saying it was important that the district uses all the resources it has. He talked about the shift in the school district's food service and said it could use vacated kitchens to train students to help in an area in hot demand.

King said principal Eryca Neville had done great work to change the perception of Douglass. 

"We believe there are a lot of children who would do better in a small environment if it weren't for the stigma that's attached to it," she said.

King said she wanted to see Douglass become a positive area in the community.

Are candidates dissatisfied with the dropout rate, how would they reduce it and what do they think of current efforts to do so?

Cone said it was important the board set policy to lessen restrictions on teachers. He said the board could find ways to remove restrictions or put things into place to help them in the classroom.

"I would say, the teachers know how to teach," he said.

Blase said although the district was doing a good job, it was far from excellent. He said there was a number of organizations in Columbia, whose members had experience raising families and could identify at an early age children who might have problems, put together a mentoring system to help them.

How would candidates advocate for schools at the state level?

All the candidates agreed visibility was important.

King said that she tries to be visible with representatives when they come to Columbia and that her eventual goal is to spend time in Jefferson City.

"But any time we have our elected officials in, or we get invited to places, I go," she said.

Cone talked about his experience doing freelance work for the Missouri School Boards' Association and how he had been amazed how much it asked board members to talk with the state legislature. 

"That's what you've got to do," he said. "You've got to hit the pavement."

How would the proposed enhanced enterprise zone effect the district?

King said she didn't have an answer to this question yet and that the school board was trying to learn more about the proposed zone. She said the board had done a good job communicating before coming to a decision.

The enhanced enterprise zone is designed to boost economic development by providing tax incentives to qualifying businesses, according to previous Missourian reports.

"In all honesty, I don't want to answer a question that I'm not as educated on yet," she said. "Our board is going to be talking about it in greater detail."

Cone said that any time there is a restriction on taxes, there will be less money. He said Columbia was a town that could stand on its own and that it should sell itself as a strong community so people would come to the area without incentives.

Blase said he wouldn't answer the question because he lived in an area within the proposed zone.

"I feel that a lesson that we learn from this is that we must have a rule within the board that whenever you have a vested interest in a topic that is up for discussion, it's absolutely imperative that you abstain," he said.

The next forum will be 7 p.m. Tuesday at Second Missionary Baptist Church, 407 E. Broadway.

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