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Columbia School Board candidates discuss achievement gap, tax levy and budget issues

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 | 11:18 a.m. CDT; updated 8:12 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Columbia School Board candidates, from left, Rex Cone, Paul Cushing and Melvin Blase meet with the Columbia chapter of the NAACP in an open forum on Tuesday at Second Baptist Church.

COLUMBIA — The achievement gap, tax levy and bond issue ballot proposals and balancing the budget were among the topics Columbia School Board candidates addressed at a candidate forum Tuesday night.

The Columbia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hosted the forum at Second Baptist Church. Virginia Law, political action co-chair of the local chapter, moderated the question-and-answer session. About 30 people were in the audience.

Three of four School Board candidates for the April 3 election, Melvin Blase, Rex Cone and Paul Cushing attended the event. Christine King was unable to attend because of a schedule conflict.

Additional questions were directed to four candidates for City Council.

School Board candidates shared their views on the following paraphrased questions.

1. What specific expertise and professional experience would you bring to serve the Columbia Public Schools? 

Rex Cone said as a freelance media producer, he knows how to put clients first and help them.

"I am an independent person with my own thoughts," Cone said. "But as your representative, I will listen to you as clients."

Cone said his responsibility as a School Board member is to seek out and talk about education so people can feel comfortable telling him what they want. He said he will try to get more people involved.

Paul Cushing said being a IT programmer, he has great organizational and collaborative skills. 

"I deal with people every day," he said.

Cushing said he is not afraid to ask people about their concerns.

Melvin Blase mentioned a book he has written, "Institution Building: A Source Book," that deals with working together to develop a business. He also talked about his other roles such as the director of MU's international program. 

Blase said his former expertise includes how to meet a payroll.

"I had the experience I am willing to use it here as a very helpful member of the board," Blase said.

2. What have you done personally to close the achievement gap?

Cone said he has been a long-time classroom volunteer and likes to help kids read.

He is also involved in a partnership program at Parkade Elementary School through his work for Parkade Baptist Church.

Cushing said he spends time with a boy from a single-parent family. He is trying to motivate him to study hard for college as his mother's time with him is limited. 

Blase said he favors a training technique that simulates real-life situations for students.

"I would argue that we can start from the third grade and we can build various levels of sophistication as we go," he said.

3. What's your long-range solution for balancing the budget without continuing to float tax levies and bond issues? 

The best single solution we have as alternatives to property taxes is to learn to write grants, Blase said.

Cushing said one solution could model Florida's practice of making property developers pay one-time levies or impact fees.

Cone said people need to understand that the district needs the tax levy increases to offset a loss in state funding.

"It's easy for us to always blame this on something else, but this is the reality," he said.

4. Which expenditure categories are most deserving of scrutiny and cuts?

Cushing said he can't say one program is more important than any other because parents have specific issues related to their children.

Cone said squeaky wheels generally get the most attention.

"Every issue that you feel strongly about probably will not be cut as much," he said.

Blase suggested setting classroom thermostats one degree lower during the winter  and one degree higher in the summer. It's a solution he discovered in the United Kingdom.

"It's a simple solution to a very complicated problem," Blase said. "(It's) not the only solution but the one I have seen work."


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