Who's next to serve on the Board of Education for Jefferson City Public Schools is what voters will decide April 2, and what's next for the district in terms of priorities and possible improvements was what the four school board candidates talked about Wednesday night at a candidate forum sponsored by the News Tribune at City Hall.
Watch video of the school board candidates forum at the bottom of this article.
The four candidates running for two seats on the school board are Steve Brown, incumbent board Treasurer Lorelei Schwartz, Jessica Green and Stephanie Johnson.
The candidates answered a variety of questions ranging from how they would support the district's efforts to get all of its students reading at or above their grade level; how they would approach serving on the board and have an individual voice; how well the school district communicates with the public; and how to effectively address student behavior issues.
News Tribune reader Jeff Holzem provided a question for the candidates on what they would do, if elected, to change the culture that contributes to lawsuits.
There are six active lawsuits filed against the school district, and four of them allege employment discrimination.
"It starts by having a diverse group of people at the top," who can be sure actions such as firing someone are done for the right reasons, Green said — "just to be sure that we are doing everything that we can do to ensure we are not treating people differently" based on such things as race, sex or age. Green added diversity exists at the district's central office in terms of sex, but not race or culture.
"You can't move that needle immediately, but I do believe that we are moving the needle," Schwartz said of a negative culture that existed in buildings before current Superintendent Larry Linthacum arrived. "I believe that there were people hired for positions that had no business being in those positions," Schwartz said, adding "you have to make difficult decisions sometimes about getting the right people in the right positions so you can move the needle."
Later, she added: "I think some buildings are struggling more than others. And I haven't been in every building to ask every teacher, but I think things are getting better. And I can tell you this: I think that there's a whole lot more of asking teachers and staff about how they're feeling and what their thoughts and concerns are than there was happening before."
Johnson said the performance records of individuals who file lawsuits should be taken into account.
"I don't know if the lawsuits are (from) disgruntled (employees or former employees) or if there was legitimate discrimination that was happening, but I always think, from a board level, it is about first and foremost ensuring that your policies and your procedures are looked at, analyzed and are practiced," Johnson said. She added she would like to see building-level staff survey results to track what progress the district is making.
Brown said the lawsuits filed represent a small percentage of the district's total 1,400 staff members, but even one is too many. He credited the district for having split its human resources and legal counsel positions as an example of a positive step. He later added teacher retention would probably be an indicator of whether the district's culture and climate is improving. "That's where it starts" — visiting with teachers, he said of gauging how things stand.
The construction of Capital City High School and renovation of Jefferson City High School have also gotten much public attention in recent months and years, but there are facility needs that will continue to exist once those projects are completed.
Green said she would push for East Elementary School to have its space needs fulfilled, as well as prioritize renovating the playgrounds of the district's elementary schools and maybe its middle schools' tracks.
"We've got to do something to alleviate the (student) population at our middle schools and on the east end of town," Schwartz said.
Johnson said whether it's a new East School, the addition of an elementary school on the east side, or potentially adding buildings on each side of town — maybe for fifth- and sixth-graders — "I would definitely be committed to something on the east side."
"It does need some kind of help," Brown agreed about the east side of Jefferson City, and giving East School some tender, loving care.
If you see no video player here, please access the City of Jefferson's YouTube page to view the candidate forum video.