Thursday, March 23, 2017
Joplin R-8 candidates deal with questions on transgender bathrooms, teacher retention, other issues
One was designed to draw the candidates out on their beliefs on transgender bathroom issues, while the other, inspired by the recent death of her friend and classmate, Spencer Nicodemus, dealt with how the candidates felt about safety issues.
Otherwise, tonight's forum was more notable for what was missing, rather than what occurred during the two hours.
The most obvious thing missing was board candidate Elizabeth Talkington. Rumors indicate her face has been seen on milk cartons and that an all-points bulletin has been issued.
The best thing that was missing, although it makes it a bit more difficult to write about the forum were the laugh-out-loud moments from previous candidate events
In 2015, we had the spectacle of incumbent board member Anne Sharp suggesting that test scores were down because the board never encouraged Superintendent C. J. Huff to work on them (for seven straight years).
The same year, candidates Nancy Good and Melinda Campbell were asked by Rylee Hartwell (tonight's moderator) about Joplin's poor performance on MSIP (Missouri School Improvement Plan). Neither was aware of what MSIP was and how important it is to Missouri school districts.
At the same forum, Nancy Good blamed God for the district's overspending, instead of turning her gaze at someone who only thought he was God. Those who attended that forum still refer to it as her "Good God moment."
A year earlier, the laugh-out-loud moment came courtesy of incumbent Board President Jeff Flowers who said with a straight face that there was no teacher turnover problem.
This year's forum also did not provide any electric moments like the one provided by eventually successful candidate Debbie Fort in 2014 when she said, "I am sick to death of blaming the tornado," something that was done by incumbents Flowers and Randy Steele.
What we did see tonight was a serious discussion of issues by four people - Ron Brewer, Derek Gander, Deborah Gould, and Brent Jordan- who elected to sacrifice their time and volunteer their services to help the children and taxpayers of the Joplin R-8 School District.
A brief summary of their thoughts on the issues is featured below:
Fine arts- All four were in favor of maintaining funding for fine arts
Going along with the crowd- All four said they were independent and did their own thinking. No one broke from the crowd on that one.
Working with the superintendent- They all wanted to do it.
Consolidating sports at the three middle schools- The candidates took a stand, favoring seeing what the parents want and seeing how much money it would save.
The lack of African American teachers in the district- NAACP President Jim West noted that while the district has 372 black students, there are only six black teachers and asked what could be done about that. Gander noting "I'm all about diversity,' added that "everybody needs to get along," and said, "if the teachers aren't there, we can't hire them." Brewer and Gould suggested recruiting African-American teachers, while Jordan said Joplin teachers should be paid more.
Four-day school week- All four wanted to find out how it would affect education, how teachers felt about it, how parents felt about it, with Gould noting the problems parents might have with paying for day care on that fifth day. None of them said how they feel about it.
Dealing with low standardized test scores- Gander suggested smaller classroom size, retaining teachers, improving teacher pay, and giving teachers more time to teach. Brewer, noting that smaller classroom sizes might force the district to need more buildings, said, "We'll have to look at everything." Gould was critical of teachers being forced to "teach to the test," and advocated "giving teachers the resources they need." Jordan took a completely different tack, saying that part of the reason for low scores was that Joplin's private schools, Thomas Jefferson and College Heights, were skimming off some of the best students.
Top goals- Gould, Jordan, and Gander all listed retaining teachers as their top goals, with Jordan saying Joplin should be 'the Mecca of teachers." Brewer listed teacher retention as one of his goals, but said "overall administrative transparency" was his top goal.
Taking care of special needs students- All four said they supported special needs students.
And now for the questions that drew out the candidates a bit more, and in some surprising ways.
Retired Missouri Southern State University professor Bob Steere asked the candidates their views of charter schools and voucher schools and it appeared the research they had done had been minimal.
Brewer said (charter schools) were all in Kansas City and St. Louis, While he correctly noted that many of the charter schools are failing, he stated incorrectly that only a few legislators were pushing them. In fact, last week the Missouri House passed a bill that would enable charter schools to expand to Joplin and four of the six Joplin-area representatives voted in favor of the bill.
Gould says funding for public and private schools should be separate.
Jordan seemed to embrace the parental choice concept and said the best thing to do would be "to make Joplin better. If we create a better product, parents won't feel the need to move their kids elsewhere."
Michaela West's question on transgender bathrooms was one of the few in which the candidates veered from their Neil Gorsuch-like avoidance of taking a tough stance.
"We need to have separate bathrooms," Gould said. "There's some things you just can't change. I am not for that."
Jordan said, "The safety of our students has to come first. If there is a student who feels he or she isn't safe using a particular bathroom, we have to find out how we can make sure he or she feels safe. Top down, bottom up. What's the safest thing for these kids?"
"Some of my best friends are gay and lesbian," Gander said, which is only germane in that everyone has to go to the bathroom. "What about the locker room? We still have to deal with locker rooms."
Brewer also stressed safety as the number one concern and suggested, "Look at what laws are currently on the books and follow those."
Another of West's questions, though the answers were not as wide-ranging hit a more emotional tone, as it dealt with the recent death at Irving Elementary School of her classmate Spencer Nicodemus, assaults at Joplin High School, and other safety issues.
The four candidates all said they were concerned about student safety, with Brewer, Gander, and Jordan all suggesting outside contractors to look at district facilities.
-A record must have been set for "good" and "excellent" questions, as the four candidates began nearly all of their answers by telling the questions what good and/or excellent questions they had asked.
-The idea of having the public ask some questions worked well.
_The forum may have lasted a bit long at two hours, but some of the answers definitely cried for follow-up questions.
(Note: This post has been corrected to remove a statement that candidate Elizabeth Talkington did not interview with the NEA. In fact, she did. That is what happens when I rely on a faulty memory instead of checking what I have already posted previously. I apologize for the effor.)