Jefferson City School Board candidates took questions from teachers in a candidate forum Monday night.
Five candidates are vying for three positions on the school board: Incumbents Brad Bates and Scott Hovis and newcomers Mike Harvey, Tapiwa "Felix" Madondo, and Suzanne Luther. Four of the five candidates joined the forum. Hovis was traveling and was in meetings during the virtual forum hosted by the Jefferson City chapter of the National Education Association.
Candidates were asked to list three things the district does well and what can be done to enhance them.
Bates said increased class offerings through Nichols Career Center and Advanced Placement courses, a 90 percent graduation rate and programs such as Career Ladder were the top things the district does well.
Madondo also listed Career Ladder and added improved communications and renovations.
Luther said academics have always been strong, and she added the district has also shown a focus on early childhood and been proactive in helping students gain skills for the workforce.
Harvey said facilities and faculty have been highlights, but he'd like to see a continued focus on the graduation rate and retention of faculty. Harvey said he wants to see Nichols Career Center impacted by the upcoming bond issue.
Candidates were asked how the district could draw teachers of color to the district.
Madondo said the district should recruit from Lincoln and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He said it's important to sell Jefferson City as a great place to live.
Luther said the district needs to showcase the community.
"It can't just be bringing diversity to the teachers, we need to show that we are a diverse community where different components of the community also support diversity," Luther said.
Harvey said recruiting is a challenge for the whole community.
"It's a good goal and it's a way to diversify, I think, if we reach outside the city," he said.
Bates said as the community and country become more diverse, the district needs to avoid an echo chamber and look for different perspectives and schools of thought.
"It is of the utmost importance to have teachers and staff and administration that looks like the students they teach," Bates said.
Candidates were asked about how to retain teachers.
Luther said pay is important, but teachers need adequate resources and trust.
Harvey said self-esteem is very important. One of the reasons people want to come to work is that there is something there to welcome you, he said, such as a classroom and students.
Bates said pay is a top priority. If a teacher has to "battle" in their classroom with disciplinary issues, the kids don't get to learn, so he said the administration should help teachers when a child is having a particularly bad day, he said.
Madondo said pay is important, along with training. Teachers should have access to resources to purchase things for their classroom, he said.
"As board members we have to be present and be visible in our schools so ... students, teachers, staff, can see us. And when they see us, we are just like them, and they're more likely to have a better working relationship," he said. Teachers should not only see board members when awards are being given, he said.
Candidates were asked how they would support teachers and why a teacher should vote for them.
"Let them know that they are appreciated every day," Harvey said.
"I'm going to have your back," Bates said to teachers.
"I will listen to you," Madondo said. "And I think that's probably one of the most important things, is to listen."
Luther, a former teacher, said she has shared experiences with teachers and she could offer input on the relevance of things like professional development.
"Jefferson City School District Superintendent (Bryan) McGraw has instructed the district to find a way to get the base teacher salary to $50,000 over the next five years to recruit highly qualified staff. Given this, how will you as a board member both raise starting salaries while also rewarding teachers with continued years of service to the district?" asked Melanie Thompson, social media manager for the JC NEA.
Bates said the bond issue, if passed, could free up funds for teacher pay.
"Our district hasn't grown that much, so the needs as far as another brand new building aren't on the horizon right now, so I think that gives us an opportunity to boost our teacher pay," he said.
Madondo said he's in favor of raising the pay and looking for savings somewhere else. The district needs to reward teachers for their loyalty, he added.
Luther said the bond issue could help, but would also expand childcare, which could alleviate costs elsewhere.
With proper management, Harvey said, the plan to raise pay can and should work.
Candidates were asked about the benefits or detriments of supporting teachers in the role of collective bargaining, citing the system used in Columbia Public Schools.
Madondo said teachers should be able to as long as it is fair and honest.
Luther said the role of the board is to be open to different views and make sure that decisions take teachers' wants and needs into account with or without collective bargaining.
Harvey said it doesn't make sense to compare Columbia and Jefferson City. He said while collective bargaining may be in the future, he doesn't see it as a tool for Jefferson City now.
Bates said he has no experience in collective bargaining, but said if it's needed, it could mean the school board has failed in its responsibilities to listen to teachers.
Candidates were asked how they would gather information for decisions from stakeholders.
Bates said having kids in the district provides some connection with teachers. He said he has an "open-door policy" and is very proud that he's returned every phone call, text and email he received as a board member.
Madondo said he wants to hear from teachers and get them involved in board meetings.
"Just show up, be present, take part in the process," he said.
Luther said she would participate in things that are going on, engage on social media and other communication methods, talk to Parent Teacher Associations, be aware of what is going on in education around the state and country, and visit classrooms.
Harvey said social media is a tool that can be used to connect with people to make informed decisions.