Apparently, sunny Saturday afternoons aren’t the best times for getting the public involved in political discussions.
A school board forum sponsored by the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote Committee demonstrated that point Saturday, when little more than a dozen people — nearly half of them from the media — showed up to hear the five candidates debate.
The small turnout did, however, provide a good atmosphere for some specific discussions of issues on the candidates’ minds.
The five candidates, including one-term incumbent Karla DeSpain, two-term incumbent Chuck Headley and challengers Arch Brooks, Henry Lane and Martina Pounds, are competing for two spots on the school board in the April 6 election. Also on the ballot is a $22.5 million bond issue that would pay for school maintenance, additions and renovations.
A beginning that allowed candidates to ask questions of each other led to some good-natured kidding. Underneath the jokes, though, lay some serious issues about which they disagree. Headley, who is very supportive of the bond issue, and Lane, who strongly opposes it, questioned each other about their different outlooks.
Lane, who is making his sixth consecutive attempt to win a school board seat, stood by his belief that the district has enough space, that projects to be financed by the bond issue aren’t clear enough and that it asks too much of taxpayers. Headley said the district needs the money for important maintenance work and construction to help “shelter” students and get rid of trailers.
The candidates also talked about teacher recruitment. DeSpain asked Brooks about his strategies for bringing in good teachers. Brooks, making his second bid for the school board, offered none but said the district does too little to recruit minority teachers. He asked Headley to detail what the district does to entice minorities.
While Headley cited no specific programs, he gave examples of efforts that might have an effect. Those included internships from classes with minority students at the MU College of Education, attempts to get more minority substitute teachers and efforts to encourage minorities in the district to think about teaching as a career.
Candidate Pounds, who is making her first run for a school board seat, asked about getting teachers for an alternative elementary school, a subject that came up at another recent forum.
DeSpain said that while she’s unsure the district should have a school just for students with behavioral problems, she supports the idea of “breaking the mold” by restructuring schools.
“I love the idea of principals and teachers doing something different and all being on the same team,” she said. “I think teachers will rise to this kind of opportunity.”
More questions on specialized schools stemmed from a discussion about Ridgeway Elementary, the district’s only magnet school.
Ridgeway is a smaller school that admits students from all over the district based on applications. Its Individually Guided Education program, which includes multiple-age classes, has achieved very high test scores over the years. Mayoral candidate John Clark, who participated in a mayoral candidate forum immediately preceding the school board forum, asked candidates whether the Ridgeway method should be extended to more elementary schools, perhaps six to 10.
“I don’t see the necessary benefit of this,” said Brooks, who is also a candidate for mayor. His main concern with curriculum is that teachers are using old “kill-and-drill” methods of teaching and just trying to make the time go by.
DeSpain said she depends on teachers and principals to know what kind of programs specific schools need. She doesn’t think the Ridgeway method could be duplicated easily because it depends on having the same number of students every year.
Lane and Pounds expressed interest in trying the method in at least one other school.
The candidates all agreed there is a need to better distribute experienced teachers across the district. Headley and Lane believe incentives, such as higher pay for working at more challenging schools, would be effective.
DeSpain said the district is making progress by giving struggling schools their first choice of teachers, while Pounds said incentives aren’t necessary.
“There are experienced teachers who want to take the challenge of difficult schools,” she said.