Six of the seven registered candidates running for the Jefferson City Public Schools District's Board of Education in the April 4 election gathered at a forum Thursday night and answered questions reflecting the status of local, state and federal education systems.
About 40 people gathered downtown in the private events room adjacent to and operated by Bones Restaurant. Cole County Democrats hosted the event in conjunction with the Capitol Women's Political Caucus and the local branch of the American Association of University Women.
Capitol Women's Political Caucus President Peggy Cochran moderated the forum. School board candidate Joshua Harmon had a place reserved for him at the table at the front of the room with the other candidates, but he did not attend.
After each candidate gave a three-minute introduction about who they are and their background, they had the opportunity to give one-minute responses to pre-submitted questions written on index cards.
The first question Cochran presented asked candidates to identify their main priority if elected. Candidates Paul Graham, Scott Hovis, J. Don Salcedo and Victoria Sterling's answers each addressed a lack of trust and transparency in the district — between teachers and administration and the board and the community — on issues ranging from promises to address overcrowding at East Elementary School, teacher grievance policies, and public access to board meetings and information.
Lori Massman and incumbent school board Vice President Steve Bruce's answers focused more on providing teachers in the district with the resources to overcome added responsibilities like dealing with behavioral issues and to strengthen curriculum.
The second question asked candidates for a literal elevator pitch if they happened to have a few moments with Gov. Eric Greitens and his educational liaison.
Everyone agreed more funding for public education is needed, even if they didn't necessarily expect quick responses by people in power at the Capitol. Sterling proposed asking more questions of Greitens to get answers.
"Why did you make the decisions that you did regarding the budget? What research did you do? Who suggested these ideas to you? What money is supporting this decision?" she said she would inquire. She hoped this would cause Greitens to mull over where his priorities lie. "Do they lie with parents, teachers and students?"
Cochran then asked the candidates how they would resist predicted efforts at the federal level under the leadership of recently-confirmed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to funnel more money out of already under-funded public education into endeavors like school vouchers, charter schools and other pro-private education initiatives.
"I support our superintendent. I think we have a great financial guy over at our public school system, and I think the two of them put together and we as a board will work through it and fight as hard as we can," Massman said.
"I will be at the state Capitol lobbying state representatives, state senators as much as I can as a board member and tell them what we need at our local school district, from them, from the state," Salcedo said.
"What you have to do is not be afraid to stand up and say what you want and look people in the eye and tell them that they're making poor decisions," Bruce said. He added "we have to go find allies that we can pull together," when it comes to building coalitions with political weight behind them.
The next two questions asked the candidates how they would address behavioral issues within the local district and how they would prioritize providing students with nutritious food options. The last two questions of the night focused on the district's two high school plan — the funding for which is also on the ballot in the April election under Propositions J and C.
Cochran first asked candidates how strong their support is for the two high school plan and then what, if anything, makes this election's ballot proposals more likely to pass than the ones that failed in 2013.
"Please don't penalize our teachers and our students by voting against this bond issue. Vote for it and against me," Graham said of what he would be willing to accept of voters' decisions. He hoped voters would support the greater good of a second high school, even if it doesn't immediately address other issues in the district.
Other candidates echoed this sentiment. "If this school bond doesn't pass, it's going to set us back another 20 years," Hovis said.
Most candidates said the clarity of ballot language and district leadership in terms of putting more information in front of the public and sooner has improved this time around. Salcedo distanced himself from whether the two high school plan succeeds and said he would abide by whatever voters decide.