Discipline, lawsuits and diversity bookended a forum Thursday night for Jefferson City Public Schools Board of Education candidates held by the Cole County Democratic Party and hosted at Bones Restaurant and Lounge.
There are four candidates — Steve Brown, Jessica Green, Stephanie Johnson and incumbent school board Treasurer Lorelei Schwartz — running for two available positions on the board for voters to fill April 2.
The forum was moderated by Dan Greeson — a former Eldon R-1 school board member — who read questions that had been handwritten and submitted by the audience of about 35 people.
The second question asked of the candidates was about the six active lawsuits against JCPS and another that was settled within the past year — whether that represents a failure of leadership, and if so, what candidates would plan to do about it.
Green said the district needs to look at each case and figure out what went wrong — "making sure that the district has done nothing to cause someone to leave or be fired because of their age or the color of their skin or whatever the case may be."
"You do have to look at the leadership, but you do have to look at the history of how you arrived at the situation you did," Schwartz said, adding the culture and climate of the school district that's "suffered in the last five to 10 years" is "something that the current superintendent takes very seriously and is working very hard to solve that problem. Some of the lawsuits are carry-overs from that time (in previous administrations)."
She said, "Hiring practices are critical. You have to definitely hire the right people for the right job." It's important, she added, for culture and climate to not be toxic, which means looking at leadership — from building principals to the superintendent.
On the same subject, Johnson responded: "When you have so many employees that are seemingly unhappy, we have to take a look at where that is coming from and why — whether it's in our hiring practices, whether there is levels of discrimination in place. I think it's always important to take those very seriously and to constantly self-evaluate."
Brown said the truth often lies somewhere in between allegations in a lawsuit and those responding to them, but from what he's read and a few teachers he's spoken with, he sees "there's an adversarial relationship, and I don't understand it. Principals in the school should not be adversarial. They should all be on the same team. I'm a former Marine. I understand teamwork. I understand chain of command," but a chain of command doesn't have to be adversarial.
He said he doesn't know where the apparent problem in leadership is, "but that needs to be found out."
The other questions asked of the candidates included their stances on whether to arm teachers, how to provide adequate mental health services for students and whether candidates would make changes to the district's food offerings.
There were several different questions about discipline or diversity — including how to address inequities in discipline; how to address student behaviors in classrooms; and how to ensure equity in education, sports and diversity with the opening of the district's second high school.
Brown said an inequity in discipline and whether there's equity in diversity are issues that should be addressed if they're there or if they arise. On discipline, he added "you do the crime, you do the time," regardless of who a student is.
Johnson and Schwartz said the district's discipline policies and procedures should be reviewed and made consistent and fair for all students.
Johnson said the Jefferson City Boys & Girls Club — where she is the executive director — is in dialogue with Lincoln University and the school district to diversify the district's staff. "We've got to go see what is that best practice, and bring that to Jeff City," she said.
Schwartz said, in addition to the district working on getting a program with LU to grow its own workforce at home, the affordability of and access to extracurricular activities should also be looked at, adding that's been a topic of conversation in recent weeks.
On discipline, Green said policies and procedures are important, but it's also important to have staff "who understand that what goes on at home affects what (students) do at school." She added students should expect disciplinary action, but it's important to redirect students from their behaviors by understanding what's at the root of those behaviors.
She said when it comes to diversity, it's best to start at the top; diversify the central office. She said the lack of diversity there would deter her as a job candidate and make her tell herself "maybe I don't want to do this," because to her, the central office's level of diversity speaks of what the schools look like.