In a candidate forum at the Art Circle Public Library last evening, candidates for School Board met to discuss issues and elaborate on their positions regarding those issues. Hosted by Brad Allamong, president and CEO of the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce, the event was moderated by John Fionte, marketing director of the Cumberland County Playhouse.
Candidates representing the odd-numbered districts are up for election this year. While all nine candidates had been invited to participate in the event, four attended, another sent a representative to speak on her behalf; and one submitted a written statement. Names of candidates not in attendance are marked by an asterisk (*)
Candidates for School Board
District 1 – Candidate Jim Inman [uncontested]
District 3 – Candidate Jay Wright
District 3 – Board Member Shirley French Parris (submitted statement)
District 5 – *Candidate Tony Brock [uncontested]
District 7 – *Candidate James M. Davis
District 7 – *Candidate Tom Delk
District 7 – Candidate Rebecca Hamby
District 9 – Candidate Stace Karge
District 9 – Board Member Aretie G. Patterson (represented by her husband, Commissioner John Patterson)
Each candidate was permitted to give an introductory statement.
Karge, who is a housing counselor with the Crossville Housing Authority, spoke first. “I am first and foremost a mom. I have sixteen children,” she said, amid a ripple of murmurs – and a few gasps – from among some two dozen forum attendees. “I understand what it’s like to have children in the school district.”
Inman followed. A self-described “old, retired school teacher” who spent 30 years in the Cumberland County school system, and noting his uncontested status, he said, “I look forward to representing the people of the first district.”
Wright, a onetime teacher-turned-businessman, said that while he was in the classroom, he – like Inman – always promised himself, “If I ever get a chance, I’m gonna run for school board.”
Hamby said her grandson inspired her to run for school board. “One of the things that stood out to me… was volunteering at North [Elementary School] from the time our grandson started there.”
Commissioner Patterson, on behalf of Board Member Patterson, reading from a prepared statement, said Aretie has “developed and implemented policies, programs, curricula, activities, schedules and budget priorities in a manner that promoted the educational development of students and the professional development of staff members.” He added, “She’s running for re-election and would very much appreciate your vote.”
Moderator Fionte read Board Member Parris’ statement, saying Parris “firmly believes public education is the backbone and foundation of our country’s greatness as people throughout the world seek to come to America to be educated in our schools.”
Candidates were given a set of questions and asked to provide responses. Following are the 11 questions, with each one’s responses. The panel took turns with regard to who answered first.
- What caused you to want to run for the Board of Education?
Karge said she always saw herself running for public office in Cumberland County. “This was something I could not only do, but do well,” she said, adding a word of caution: “Our teachers need fair compensation and they need it now, ’cause if they don’t get it, we’re gonna lose ’em.”
Inman’s answer was brief. “The students. It’s that simple,” he said. “I have always enjoyed watching them be successful.”
Wright said, “I always said I wanted to have a voice. Until you’ve been the first warm smile or high five [in a kid’s day], you don’t understand.” He added that the teachers “love our children and we need to support them.”
Hamby’s response was simple and touching. “We have a lot of kids in our county who live in foster homes or who live in bad homes. We have to be a voice for them.”
Patterson read, “Several community leaders who were aware of my background and experience in public education encouraged me to run.”
- What do you see as the primary focus of the Board
Inman again was brief. “Again, our students.” He elaborated, saying education, safety and their well-being.
“We have to provide every advantage possible for our children,” Wright replied, “to be able to move on when they graduate.”
Hamby said she felt the board’s primary focus was “to listen to our parents and our guardians.”
Patterson replied, “To provide for and support the education of our students in order that they may become successful and productive members of our community.”
The number-one priority “is always the children, followed by the teachers,” Karge said. “It’s so important to keep the needs of the students and the educators and the families all in line.”
- What do you consider to be your number-one goal as a member of the Board of Education? In other words, what do you hope to achieve during your term?
Wright said he couldn’t narrow it down to one thing. He cited three: school safety, turning out productive members of society, and teacher salaries. “I did not step out of the classroom because I did not like children,” he said. And with regard to the second item on his list, he cited too many kids who, when asked what they wanted to do when they grow up, responded that they “wanted to draw a check, just like their parents do.” He stressed being a draw on society is not a way of life to aspire to.
Hamby cited safety as her primary goal, specifically, to “address the bullying issues, from other children, or adults.” She also said she’d like to see all the various entities in Cumberland County work together as a whole.
“A good education begins with having good teachers. Period,” Patterson said. “My number-one goal is to support the teachers and working with the director of schools toward staff development.”
Karge’s goal is “to listen and act on behalf of students, teachers and administrators with common sense.”
Inman stated, “Every student should feel safe in school and [not have to] worry about anything happening to them in school.” He further cited a need to “keep the education system going and improve on it as much as possible.”
- What are your top three perceptions of our School District?
Hamby said she believes teachers are leaving for two primary reasons: “salaries are not there [and they’re forced to be] teaching to the test.” Her second perception is “teachers are spending money out of their own pockets for supplies”; and third, budgeted money is “not being used where it needs to be used.”
Patterson cited much-needed improvement to school facilities finally being undertaken, improving test scores and further ensuring the safety and security of students and teachers with the addition of SROs in each school.
Karge said an “us vs. them mentality” needs to be addressed. “There’s a straight divide and we need to come together,” she said, adding, “You cannot teach a child effectively who is tired, who is hungry or who comes from a situation that is less than ideal.”
“We need to up the ante on communication,” Inman said. Also, “Our teachers cannot teach [effectively] because they have to teach to the test.”
Wright said in his experience, teacher dedication is extraordinary in Cumberland County. “Drive by any [school] on a Sunday afternoon and see how many cars are there,” he challenged. “Each child is welcomed every day; they usually greet you with a high five or a fist bump and they’re ready to roll.”
- What do you see as having the greatest impact on student achievement?
Patterson said, “The early emphasis on reading proficiency. Studies have shown that a student who is not a proficient reader by the third grade has only a five-percent chance of success in life.”
Karge cited teachers and faculty. She gave an example of how a teacher taught her son algebra in one semester by relating it to a football field. “The teachers are the difference,” she stressed, “especially when children don’t have access to the internet.”
“One of the greatest impacts on our students are our teachers,” Inman said, cautioning, “It’s getting harder and harder to get students to go into education.”
Wright cited class size. “Trying to teach thirty eighth graders… you get nowhere,” he said, noting most of a teacher’s class time is spent on “crowd control” in that kind of environment. He added that parent engagement is key to children’s success in the classroom.
Hamby said teaching time is crucial – and if teachers have to spend their time teaching to the test, the kids aren’t learning adequately. She spoke of her grandson, who was not proficient in reading when he entered the second grade, and his teacher, who spent many hours working not only with him, but with Hamby on methods to help improve his reading. By the end of second grade, he was reading at a third-grade level; and now, in sixth grade, he’s reading at the college level. “It’s because of her work and her dedication,” she acknowledged. She expressed concern about the county’s ability to retain good teachers. “We don’t have the incentives to keep the teachers,” she said.
- A cooperative relationship with the County Commission is essential to a prosperous Board of Education. How would you develop and maintain this relationship for the betterment of the school system?
Karge said she has an existing relationship with both County mayoral candidates and with members of the County Commission; however, she said he realizes some BOE members have spouses on the County Commission or other roles in local government and that’s an issue of concern. She said she feels a professional distance needs to be maintained, lest there be any perceived conflict of interest.
Inman said there needs to be effective communication between the County Commission and the School Board. “I will know our school board budget,” he promised, “and I will communication with them as much as possible, especially with the budget.”
Wright said he knows several County Commission members already and said working together has got to be a priority; otherwise, “we’re just gonna keep butting heads and nothing’s gonna get done.”
Hamby, whose husband Michael is a candidate for County Commission in the 7th district, cited a need to learn to compromise. “We need to work together,” she said.
Patterson read, “Under Tennessee Code Annotated, the BOE has no taxing authority and can only present a budget to the Board of Commissioners for an up-or-down vote. Accordingly, it is imperative the BOE establish the transparency, trust and credibility with the commissioners.” Then, taking aim at Karge’s conflict-of-interest comment, he said, “They’re two totally separate entities; there’s no conflict of interest. It’s like a husband in the Army and a wife in the Navy. No conflict of interest. Period.”
- One challenge that faces the Board of Education is making the best use of the limited funds it is provided through the Basic Education Program formula. If elected, how would you ensure the funds are used in the best possible way? What would your priorities be in determining the best use of these funds?
Inman’s priority would be knowing the budget. “I’ve already started delving into the budget,” he said. “The first priority is students, teachers and [then] everybody else.”
Wright said putting the students first is the only option. He said in business, “you take care of your employees, and your employees take care of your business,” explaining the students of Cumberland County are the business of the School Board.
Hamby concurred students are the number-one priority. “We need to make sure our children have every tool possible to reach their goals… and a sound and a safe place [to learn],” she said.
Patterson read, “The BOE goes over the budget line item by line item to establish appropriate priorities in the best interests of our students, our schools and our teachers.”
Karge said the students are the priority and should be treated as such. “The funds aren’t going to increase,” she said. “We have to make the best use of our funds. … Let’s find the money and let’s put it to work.”
- What would you consider fair and appropriate for the employee share of the cost of insurance?
Wright said he didn’t have sufficient information to make an informed, adequate decision.
Patterson read, “In researching this topic extensively, I learned that the 80/20 contribution plan… is the most widely used plan in Tennessee. This is a plan that is fair and equitable to all.
Karge said her understanding was the teachers had been given unclear and conflicting information regarding voting for one of the insurance-plan options… and then the Board of Education ignored their wishes anyway. “Share the cost,” she said, noting the chosen plan is “not fair to teachers who don’t have kids.”
Inman pointed out that the teachers had been getting insurance instead of raises; he said he preferred the 80/20 share. “It’s much more equitable for everybody.”
- What was the last school you visited and what caused your visit?
Hamby said she last went to North Cumberland Elementary School for her grandson’s Pre-K end-of-school program.
Patterson read, “I recently went to Homestead Elementary to see for myself just how vulnerable that school is in providing the necessary safety precautions to reduce the odds of a school-shooting incident. Having an SRO in each school is a great first step, but much more needs to be done to ensure the safety of our students and teachers.”
Karge was at Stone Memorial High School for graduation and eighth-grade night, and at Martin, where she served as a 4H competition judge.
Inman said he’s been subbing periodically at Cumberland County High School since his retirement nine years ago.
Wright was at Homestead Elementary School for his son’s kindergarten graduation; he’s also been at all the elementary schools in connection with the fourth-grade walking tours.
- Have you attended any BOE meetings in the last two years?
Amid laughter, Patterson read, “During the two years I have served on the Board of Education, I have attended every BOE meeting except one, when I fractured my hip.” He noted committee meetings often start early, “and any school board member who is employed must be prepared to sacrifice. … We should not have school board members who will not be able to attend these crucial meetings because of a conflicting work schedule.”
Karge said she has served on several BOE committees over the years, as well as watching meetings online when she’s not able to attend in person.
Inman said, “Since I decided to run, I’ve been to every board meeting.”
Wright said he attended the meeting right after the school shooting in Florida, to see what the response would be.
Hamby admitted, “I have not went to any meetings in the past two years.”
- Not all students will leave our school system and attend a four-year college. What can be done to guide the over 40% of our graduating seniors toward a successful career path?
Karge said only three of her 16 children have attended college. “College is not for everyone, but learning is,” she stressed. “Trades are so important. TCAT is a phenomenal resource [and] learning is always important.”
Inman cited statistics that show approximately 30 percent of students in Tennessee go on to college; and of those, five to 10 percent of them graduate. He noted that with TN Promise, those percentages have gone up. “I have always encouraged my [students] to go to TCAT,” he said.
“I’m a firm believer in trades,” Wright said, adding TCAT boasts a 90 percent placement rate. “We need [tradesmen]. Not everybody [needs] a four-year degree. Trades are a fantastic way to go!”
“We need to get back to teaching real-life skills,” Hamby stated. “Not everybody is cut out for a four-year college [and] there’s nothing wrong with being a blue-collar worker.”
Patterson said, “A successful career does not necessarily require a four-year college degree. Our TCAT – Tennessee College of Applied Technology – offers many various career options for a high-school graduate.”
Each candidate was asked to provide a closing statement.
“I really appreciate all the work of our BOE. We all have the same goal – we are passionate about our students, passionate about our teachers and passionate about our families,” Karge said. “It all works together.”
Inman, the only uncontested candidate who appeared, said, “I look forward to working with [the School Board] and working for our students.”
“I’m running strictly because I care,” Wright said. “I want to see our county succeed. Education is the number-one way to do that.”
Hamby said, “My passion is for children that need someone to stand up for them.”
To her husband’s apparent relief, during the eleventh question, Aretie Patterson arrived from her Building and Grounds Committee meeting and was able to give her own closing statement. Reflecting on her recent rehab after breaking her hip, “I met a lot of people who had gotten their training at TCAT. I have a lot of admiration for [TCAT]. I’ve enjoyed being on the Cumberland County School Board and I hope I’ve made a difference. I think I have, in a small way.”