The May 2 election is the only time this year voters can cast a vote in the school board race. This made Wednesday night's Candidate Forum at the Clay County 4-H Fair Grounds the only time Kelly Rollings, Dwight Clerk, Forrest Buell, Cody Barnard, Brian Atkinson and incumbents Terry Barr and Ted Jackson could speak face-to-face in a public forum on the issues.
Frank Phillips, the managing editor of The Brazil Times, was the moderator for the two-hour event that drew a crowd of more than 150 people to hear the candidates positions on issues of their choosing.
With no easy or quick solutions to the problems facing the corporation, all of the candidates were anxious to answer written questions submitted by the crowd. Many times the group found they shared the same ideology, but differed on the small details of implementing solutions.
With the teachers' contract in limbo for almost three years, the three candidates elected next week will begin negotiations within a few months for the 2006/07 teachers' contract.
This made the candidates answers to the first question -- "What would you do to do to make a teachers' contract happen?" -- very important to the many teachers in the audience.
The questions were submitted in writing during the forum.
Every candidate said the needed solution will give teachers a raise, balancing the interest of students and the fiscal needs of the corporation.
Rollings said teachers' wages need to be competitive to ensure the corporation does not suffer from "brain drain" as the best and brightest teachers leave for better jobs.
Incumbent candidates Barr and Jackson agreed a solution needs to be found quickly.
"Scheduling is the big stumbling block right now," Barr said.
Buell was also concerned with scheduling after reading teachers' letters that appeared on the Opinion Page of The Brazil Times.
"We can make teachers' lives easier," he said. "They're doing things they shouldn't have to, like taking kids home from school that are sick. There are lots of things that can be done to keep teachers in the classroom. Volunteers can help them do their work with less frustration."
Barnard said sincere conversations with the teachers about problems they're facing would help the negotiation process and Atkinson urged a solution involving a fiscal decision based on the entire future of the corporation.
"Right now there is $750,000 in utility expenses coming from the Capital Projects Fund that in two years the school board won't be able to do anymore," he said. "That expense will return to the General Fund and you don't want to overspend the funds that are available to us."
Clerk agreed with the other candidates, but placed blame for the problem at the state level.
"The biggest problem is not the school board against the teachers' union," he said. "It is the funding cuts from the state legislators and the governor."
When asked if they would close a school facility or change boundaries due to enrollment needs, all candidates agreed that should be the last possible option for any school board.
Barnard told the audience it was only a matter of time before it would have to be considered because of budget problems.
"Low student enrollment is not really a problem (for the corporation)," Atkinson said. "Our schools are filling (with students) as we speak. We don't have under-use, we need to deal with overcrowding."
The past practice of using modular trailers for classrooms is still a viable way to deal with the need for additional classroom space, according to Buell, because they can be opened and closed as needed.
Clerk agreed that modulars were a useful tool in creating additional space, but building renovations should be considered. Schools will not be closed with the yearly influx of students in the corporation, but problems with overcrowding will occur.
Barr said creating a plan to deal with the way the corporation's facilities will be used in the future, the costs involved and whether the community is willing to pay for them, should be done now.
"Sometimes, questions seem to have simple answers, but there's a lot to consider when making a choice. That is why public involvement is needed," Jackson said.
"I'm absolutely against closing a school," Rollings told the crowd. "But a larger building doesn't always mean better. Many times the smaller problems are magnified."
Superintendent term limits
When asked the question, "How long should a superintendent work for the Clay Community School Corporation?" Phillips requested the candidates to explain how they would determine their decision. The three winners of this election will be immediately involved in the selection process for hiring a new superintendent.
Superintendents are hired with a three-year contract with the option for renewal after that time. All the candidates agreed job evaluation was essential to hiring and keeping the right person for the job.
Jackson said a superintendent needs to have energy and a vision for the future, be involved outside their office at each school while remaining aware of the corporation's business functions.
Barr added that a superintendent also needs to have the trust of the school board, teachers and the community to do their job.
"(A superintendent) is nothing more than an employee," Clerk said. "If he's doing a good job, then you keep him. How long he's there doesn't really matter."
Barnard pointed out the Clay Community School Board of Trustees has had difficulty hiring a long-term superintendent in recent years.
"If they're doing a good job then why get rid of them? (former Superintendent) Dr. Rohr, who some people did not like on a personal level, did a financially good job," he said. "It makes me wonder why they got rid of him."
He recommended a one-year probation period as a way to gauge accomplishments and job performance before implementing contract renewal.
Atkinson rebuffed the idea of probation periods.
"With the financial picture the way it is, and the state less likely to give more funding in the future to provide for students, you can't expect a man to fix problems like that in a year," he said.
Buell agreed, saying, "If he's doing a good job I don't think the number of years matters as long as a superintendent's performance benefits the students, schools and the public."
Believing in thinking outside the box, Rollings stood alone in his belief there should be term limits.
"It's good to change things every once in a while," he told the crowd.
Hiring practices during a budget crunch
The question of hiring assistant coaches for sports during a budget crunch caused a mixed range of comments from the panel.
Many of these positions were recommended for elimination by individual program directors when asked to help make budget cuts in the past year, and are presently filled by volunteers.
"No coach does it for the money," said Clerk, who was a football coach at Northview and North Clay Middle School for five years. "When you consider the amount of money an assistant coach is paid it's not much for five nights a week for four months of work."
Atkinson told the crowd that not all assistants are being paid and most are volunteers, so it's not that much of a savings to get rid of them.
"But, if the funding is that tight, we should not be hiring (new ones)," he said.
Participating in sports provides health benefits, builds character, keeps some students out of trouble and gives others something to aspire to while in school, according to Barnard, Buell, Clerk and Rollings.
"You have to have academics to participate in athletics," Barnard said students have to maintain their grade point average to play. "You don't get anywhere by just being a superstar."
With Barr and Jackson's prior experience as school board members, they told the audience that certain coaching positions have to be filled to maintain a specific level of safety for sports, like football.
"We're a fortunate corporation," Jackson said. "Some have had to cut all funding for sports and extra-curricular activities. We did not have to do that."
Wednesday's Candidate Forum for school board and Democratic Party candidates for sheriff was attended by 24 area candidates appearing on the May 2 ballot. The forum was at the 4-H Fairgrounds.
Hear it now!
The first hour of Wednesday's school board candidates' forum can be accessed at:
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