5 candidates weigh in on issues facing school district
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Leading up to the April 8 election, the News Tribune interviewed all five candidates interested in serving on the Jefferson City Board of Education.
The candidates are: incumbents Tami Turner, John Ruth and Ken Theroff, and challengers Harold Coots and Steve Bruce.
What follows is their response to questions posed.
Editor's Note: The first five questions and answers are exclusive to this online version of this article. Following those are five additional questions which also were published in Sunday's newspaper.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE QUESTIONS
Q: What are the district’s main challenges?
Steve Bruce wants the district to address security and safety shortcomings related to intruders. While some of the buildings have safety upgrades, a number are still in need of enhancements, he said.
“We need to make it a more secure place for kids and staff,” he said.
Bruce also there’s a perception that the district hasn’t put forward clearer plans for its facilities and programming. “I’d like to be a part of doing a better job of that,” he said.
He also said he sees a need for more space and technology. “Take Simonsen,” Bruce said. “They don’t have the electrical grid to charge all of these iPad devices. It’s a structural issue they’ve got to address moving forward.”
Harold Coots said when water stands still too long, it becomes stagnant.
“We don’t want to change,” he said. “If we don’t adjust to the times, and to the needs, then we won’t improve.”
A believer in “continuous improvement,” John Ruth is worried we are failing to prepare students for the global economy.
“We cannot become complacent to the evolving skill sets demanded of our graduates in a global economy,” he said. “How successful we are depends on how willing we are to act quickly.”
“I anticipate sending them to a world where they can compete for jobs and be self-sufficient and not have to scrape by. Education is a great equalizer,” he said.
Ken Theroff is worried that, nationally, two-thirds of students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches perform below average academically. And he noted the number of eligible kids in Jefferson City is only growing.
“It’s as much a challenge for the community as it is for the district,” Theroff said. “The economy is a challenge in Jefferson City … our tax base is not growing rapidly.”
Tami Turner noted the same social issues that threaten America’s middle class — poverty, unemployment, substance abuse — are creating a challenges for the city’s public schools. “Teachers are having to be counselors and parents to these kids,”she said.
She said it’s not solely a public school issue, but a community issue.
“My goal is to unify this community,” she said.
She said when parochial schools need support for their capital campaigns, everyone in the community ought to lend a helping hand. And she wants to see the same attitude toward the public schools.
“We need to be mutually supportive. That’s what a community comes together to do,” she said.
Q: What could be done to improve standardized testing scores?
Harold Coots said he supports limited standardized testing.
“When our teachers are teaching to the test, not to what skills students need later in life, it becomes a problem,” he said.
Theroff added: “I don’t want to see teachers forced to teach to the test, but we also have to keep in mind these tests are a measurement to which we will be held accountable.”
Ruth believes in an education system that has high expectations for everyone involved.
“Academies is one example of a way we’re pushing ourselves to be better, and we must also ensure we have a high focus on the fundamentals leading to that high school curriculum,” he said.
Bruce said that typically 30 to 40 percent of Americans live within 60 miles of their hometown.
“So it behooves us to educate everyone. The kids we’re educating today are going to remain in the area and so we want them to be productive members of our community,” he cautioned.
Bruce said standardized scores are important, because the media pays attention to them and Missouri uses them as a performance measure. “But we don’t want to lose perspective,” he said. “We’ve got to be flexible in our approach so that what we’re doing to prepare kids is not just teaching to the test but is also genuine learning.”
He also said the district needs to do a better job of assessing children who move into the district from other towns. “And we need to do a better job of varying our methods of instruction so that all kids can pick up the material and retain it,” he added.
Turner said facility quality is important, but having an excellent relationship between teachers and students is what engages students in their learning and ultimately makes a difference.
Q: What are the district’s strengths?
Turner said the Southwest Early Childhood Education Center is a key success story for the district. “Studies show the earlier we start to educate students, the more successful they will be,” she said.
But Turner also said district is home to an “incredibly passionate and educated staff that cares about the education of all our students.”
Bruce agreed, also crediting the district for its dedicated faculty.
Coots said the district’s diversity is a strength. “We have people from all walks of life,” he said.
Ruth said the district is in a strong financial position, something that doesn’t happen by chance.
“Among the most important duties of our board is the adoption of and adherence to a sound budget,” he said. “We must continue to elect members who will protect our taxpayers’ assets and adhere to sound financial management.”
Theroff cited the district’s financial stability, strong reserves, relatively low tax levies and competitive teacher salaries as strengths. He also credited the district for having innovative faculty and talented administrators.
Q: Why do you feel you’re the best candidate for the job?
Harold Coots replied: “Why me? I don’t know that I am the best candidate. There are probably people in the community who are more qualified. They just haven’t come forward and volunteered.”
Coots said, of the five candidates, he’s the one who is most open to new ideas.
Bruce said he’s mindful of the need to provide a quality education for every child.
Before he worked for the state, Bruce worked at the Prenger Family Center for Court Administrator Winston Rutledge. “He once told me, ‘As you make decisions in regard to children and their families, if it’s not good enough for your kids, it’s not good enough for theirs,’” Bruce said.
Bruce has two children enrolled in North Elementary School, and his wife teaches third grade there. “That’s a large part of what motivated me to get involved,” he said.
Bruce also noted Callaway County is the fastest-growing section of the district. “We need to keep an eye on that,” he said.
John Ruth’s work on the Board of Education is inspired by his two daughters.
“I do believe communities are a reflection of the strength, or lack thereof, of the schools. We’ve chosen to live in the community I was raised in. I want my girls to have as good, if not better, opportunities than I had,” he said.
As bank president, Theroff said: “My experience in the world of finance and business can be of benefit to the board.”
He also said he “doesn’t have a specific agenda, other than to help maintain our excellent school system.”
Turner sees her nine years of service as a strength. During her tenure, the Jefferson City Academic Center was created, the district’s Title I pre-school program was launched and professional development for teachers was expanded.
And there’s more left to do, she said.
“We’re at a crossroads in Jefferson City, as a community moving forward, and not just for the public schools. In order to remain competitive and vital, we’ve got to have new facilities,” she said.
Q: Do you support district leaders’ decision to become involved in the Baldrige Program, a nationwide awards program that has helped manufacturers and other institutions become more efficient?
Steve Bruce said a number of public and non-profit organizations engage in Baldrige work. “It’s a tool, like anything else, if we can use that tool and become more effective in our mission to teach kids, and support kids to be successful, then we’ll have done what we set out to do,” he said. “I think, bottom line, it will help improve outcomes for districts families and kids and that’s a good thing.”
Coots is skeptical of the administrators’ decision to involve the district in the Baldrige program, arguing it’s a very time consuming process that may or may not yield benefits.
“I think it’s going to look good on somebody’s resume,” he said.
John Ruth sees the Baldrige program as a plan for continuous improvement and believe success requires constant innovation.
“You’re either getting better or your getting worse,” he said.
Theroff said he favors any process that “can help us systematically improve our performance.”
Turner views the Baldrige program as a way to evaluate the district’s performance. “Baldrige is helping us involve our parents and community,” she said.
Editor's Note: The following questions also appeared in Sunday's newspaper. They're reproduced here for those who have not read them yet.
QUESTIONS PUBLISHED IN PRINT AND HERE
Q. Voters last April rejected a proposal to build a new high school to replace the 1964-era building that has served the community for decades. Do you support plans to build a new high school, or schools, for the district? If the answer is yes, what do you propose?
Harold Coots supports offering parents and students a choice.
He envisions building a second, new high school in the community, where the administration’s plans for career academies could be implemented, while preserving a traditional setting at the existing high school which would be updated.
By letting parents and students vote with their feet, the board would get an accurate idea of what patrons prefer, he said. An enrollment pilot project could be tried and studied before it is permanently adopted.
“If everybody is gravitating toward academies, then maybe we need more academies?” he said. “People need a choice.”
Coots also is interested in re-examining the programs offered at Nichols Career Center. He noted Linn State Technical College has assumed responsibility for some adult classes, but he’s not certain they should continue to be offered at NCC.
“If we have a space problem, why do we provide space for other entities?” he asked.
John Ruth said it’s not a question of one versus two high schools.
“The issue is we have a space need, and it’s existed for a long time. There are many ways to solve that issue,” he said.
Making it possible will require taxpayer resources, but Ruth has said his “first impulse” will be to support the recommendations of the Long Range Facilities Planning Committee (LRFPC). He is asking taxpayers and patrons of the district to be patient with the board as it seeks a solution.
“This community … we can be short in our memories,” he said, noting that tax increases for middle school construction, and some elementary schools, failed the first time. “Asking voters of Jefferson City and South Callaway County for bond and levy approval has never been easy. I don’t bring those questions to the taxpayers easily.”
Ruth wants to pay close attention to what the LRFPC is thinking and saying, and will do that by attending the meetings and talking with liaisons Dennis Nickelson and Ken Theroff.
Tami Turner served three years on a committee charged with examining the high school’s space needs, and was a proponent of the plan to build a new high school to replace the 609 Union St. campus.
She agrees with Ruth that supporting the outcome of the LRFPC is important.
“We’ve got a space issue at the high school … the board is all in agreement we want to support the LRFPC’s recommendations,” she added. “I’m in favor of proactive change, so we can plan and execute what’s needed for our children’s education. It’s time we move forward.”
Steve Bruce, who serves on the LRFPC, is hopeful the group can put forward a plan that clearly demonstrates the district’s needs and can be supported by the public.
“Most Jefferson Citians and folks in Cole County who pay taxes understand the importance education plays in having a strong community, a strong economy,” Bruce said. “So I think if you can provide a clear, responsible plan — that folks can understand and they can see what the return on their investment will be — they will be supportive of it,” he said.
Theroff, who is a member of the LRFPC, said it’s premature for him to say what he thinks ought to be done, specifically. But he does believe the district’s demographics reveal a space-crunch is on the horizon, and he’s encouraged by the participation levels and tone of the meetings.
“We have a very diverse group from a broad spectrum of the community involved. As far as I can tell, all are coming with an open mind. The group has made good progress … in formulating ideas for the high school issue,” he said.
Theroff said he wants to gather more information — specifically numbers of what the various plans will cost — before announcing what he’ll support.
When the issue came before the voters last April, Theroff hadn’t yet been appointed to the Board of Education, and was looking at the issue through the lens of a bank president.
“I really liked the idea of getting Linn State Technical College to come to town and expanding Lincoln University,” he said.
(Plans for the new replacement school last April, which failed with voters, involved selling campuses to those higher education institutions.)
“The last proposal didn’t turn me off,” Theroff said.
But he said — as a father — he also likes the idea of two high schools, where the education settings would be smaller and more extracurricular opportunities could be offered to teens.
“My opinion is, even though we’ve got some big classes coming, we can’t allow ourselves to get in a hurry making this decision,” he said. “We have to know the costs and have a better idea of what class-size projections will be. The goal of the committee is to define that … to put a price tag on all those options.”
And, Theroff is open to allowing others to “think outside the box.”
“Should we consider a small high school in Holts Summit? Should we talk about converting the two middle schools into two high schools?” he asked. “The committee needs to consider those ideas.”
Theroff said people who feel strongly should engage in the process by attending meetings and participating where appropriate.
“This is everyone’s challenge,” he said.
Q. Do you believe the board operates in a transparent manner? If not, what could be changed to improve board operations?
If elected, Bruce hopes to keep the lines of communication open.
“I think it would benefit the district and the board (to look) at ways to make the board meetings decision making a little clearer to the public,” he said.
People who attend the meetings sometimes feel their statements are made at times when decisions were already foregone conclusions, he said.
“They’d like to know where board members are and a little more information about how the decisions were made,” Bruce added. “Decorum and protocol are important, but whatever we can do to make it as clear and as open as possible, then it’s going to benefit the district.”
Coots also wants to “open up” communications.
“Over the recent years, I have noticed how the public is not encouraged, but discouraged, from discussions on school board issues,” Coots said.
He said the public is invited to address issues that pertain to items already on the agenda. And he noted people can request items be placed on the agenda, provided the request is made five days before the meeting.
“But if something comes up during the meeting a person would like to question, I do not believe questions would be allowed,” he said. “We cannot expect our students to express themselves if their parents are not allowed to express themselves.”
Turner and Ruth said the board approves policies that guide district administrators, but it does not manage the day-to-day operations of the district.
She compared management of the district to the management of a business.
“Our job is not to be in the trenches … in the buildings. The teachers and staff have a chain of command,” Turner said. “Our main responsibility is Dr. Mitchell.”
Turner said the board doesn’t dictate how the district’s money is spent, because financial planning is a task left to Superintendent Brian Mitchell and Chief Financial Officer Jason Hoffman. It does approve the final budget.
“If there are questions or concerns, we get those answers prior to the board meetings,” she said. “If a citizen has an issue, they have a right to bring it up.”
Often at the board meetings, district leaders — administrators, teacher, principals — present reports to the board to update them on the work being done.
“Our role is to get those reports and, if we’re not happy, we can address them with Dr. Mitchell,” she said. “Dr. Mitchell’s door is always open.”
She said the board evaluates the superintendent’s performance and sets new goals for him annually.
“But we have to trust Dr. Mitchell and his leadership to run the district to the best of his abilities,” she said. “We want to provide him with everything he needs to be the best leader he can be.”
She noted board members receive constituent calls, but often those calls are directed to the appropriate person in the chain of command.
Turner noted the board also evaluates its own performance, as well.
Ruth said the board operates in a professional manner under processes established by the Missouri School Boards’ Association.
He noted the board attempts to keep the lines of communication open via community surveys, town hall-style meetings and frequent calls with constituents to resolve concerns. He also noted the board also adds people to their agenda to permit presentations longer than three minutes.
“Yes, we are transparent, both in intent and in practice,” he said.
Theroff has served at only four meetings, but he feels the board operates in a transparent manner. Sometimes legal limitations demand that some work be done in closed sessions, he said. “We have a lot of issues we have to deal with that are sensitive in nature,” he said.
With 1,200 employees and 9,000 students, Theroff said micromanaging likely would lead to mistakes and could harm the district.
“There is more broad policy discussions in the board meetings,” he said.
Q. Next year, with the freshman class at Simonsen 9th Grade Center, the district is launching the academy model of learning. Students will continue to study the fundamentals, but they also are allowed to pick an area of concentration … each with a focus on a similar group of career fields. Do you support the plan to implement academies in grades 9-12?
Bruce, Ruth and Turner are proponents of the academies because they think students learn more when the material seems relevant.
Turner noted teens who attend academies have higher test scores, go on to post-secondary education more frequently and have higher graduation rates.
She said students still get a “core education” — the basics — but they are “more engaged and see the relevance in what they are learning.”
As a business major, Ruth took statistics classes in high school and college. But when the same information was applied for the first time to insurance and financial planning, “a light bulb went off for me,” he said.
Spring break of that year, Ruth took his insurance exams.
“That’s when I decided to go into this field,” he said.
Bruce said: “I like the premise because it will give more kids the opportunity to be connected to the learning and be successful.”
A proponent of traditional vo-tech education, Coots harbors concerns about academies, although he’s not totally opposed to the idea. He believes they will benefit college-bound students who will be able to focus on specific areas of study.
“But for the students who aren’t planning to go to college, which academy do they take? What if they want to go into the military? Or construction?”he asked.
Theroff noted academies have been launched and are moving forward. He said the registration sessions for eighth-graders were successful and he believes the large majority of students will be assigned to the academy of their choice.
“I’m certain there will be some first year growing pains,” he said. “And I know our staff is dedicated to working on those.”
Q. Would you support examining, or changing, the boundaries for the schools within the district?
Harold Coots wants to keep the district’s tradition of neighborhood schools, but he noted the district already uses socioeconomic balancing to adjust populations in the schools.
“I live on the west end and my kids went to Lewis and Clark Middle School, on the east end,” he said. “It’s already happening.”
Ruth said having an equal mix of diversity in the schools is a good goal, but changing school boundaries is within the purview of Superintendent Brian Mitchell. He doesn’t want to see emotions drive decisions, and he feels some advocates in the community may be over-simplifying solutions to problems at the city’s most-urban schools.
“Everything is on the table, but we need data-driven solutions,” Ruth said.
Turner said she would be open to looking at school boundaries if Mitchell is.
“If he felt it would be beneficial to student performance, it’s definitely something I would consider,” she said.
Bruce is open to the idea.
“I think, going forward, that’s an issue that needs to be considered, as the plan (for future facilities) is developed,” he said.
Theroff said he is open to adjusting schools’ boundaries. He said he would consider it to facilitate the building of a new elementary or equalize socioeconomic factors, but “not at the expense of neighborhood schools,” he added.
“It’s important for families to live close to the elementary school they attend,” he said.
“It’s a very emotional issue when you start changing school boundaries,” he said. “It’s hard, but we’ve got some work to do.”
Q. If elected, what are your goals for your time on the board?
Theroff said his number one goal is to address security concerns, particularly related to school entry and access. He said a safety report, currently being conducted by the Jefferson City police but not released yet, will clarify what steps the district ought to take.
Theroff also wants to address the district’s facility needs. He’d also like to improve relations with the community and he’d like to enhance communication between faculty and staff and the administrators. Finally, he wants to continue to strive for financial stability within the district.
Coots said, if elected, he’d like to see “the high school situation resolved” because he doesn’t support housing students at three separate campuses.
“We need more room,” he said.
Coots also wants to work to reduce the 3.5-mile busing radius for high school-aged students.
Turner’s goal is to see the LRFPC’s recommendations for solving the district’s space issues “come to fruition,” she said.
She also wants to expand pre-schools in all of the district’s 11 elementary schools.
And she wants to raise standards.
“People have come to accept mediocrity,” she said, noting she wants students to experience success in every venue, from the football stadium to the classroom. “Kids need to know what it feels like to be winners.”
Turner is a big believer in the need to create strong one-to-one relationships between teachers and students.
“Through a strong budget, we will provide teachers with the facilities and technology they need to give every student a good education,” she said. “We’ve got to get them to the finish line.”
If elected, Bruce said he hopes to redirect district funds to security-related projects.
“We can do it now,” he said. “It’s a paramount, district-wide issue.”
Ruth said he has a broad goal of seeing students be successful, but he’s leery of specific agendas. He sees the need for the schools to reinforce traditional family values that today’s students may not experience at home.
“I’m prepared to take a stand to see that kids have high morals, high character and a great work ethic,” he said.
As a financial planner, Ruth feels in tune with the American economy. “I think I know what’s needed to prepare for college and life after that,” he said.
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