All eight candidates vying for four seats on the Cherokee County Board of Education were in attendance to answer questions on various issues at the forum put on by the Cherokee Council of PTAs.
More than 100 people attended the forum at Woodstock High School, moderated by Tribune Managing Editor Rebecca Johnston, where the candidates had one minute to answer each question from the audience.
With the May 20 Republican primary election approaching, the candidates got a chance to explain their views on important issues.
Both Menard and Williams said technical education is important for students.
Menard said not every student wants or needs to go to college for their career, and presented alternatives that are already offered for Cherokee students, as well as additional technical education options that the district is working to provide.
“What we can do — what we’ve been attempting to do in the county — is to create a college and career academy, which is a specialized tool that works in conjunction with the technical colleges in our area, allowing them to share resources and provide a designated track,” Menard explained. “The pathways and career clusters — we need to implement all of those. There’s 17 of them and they provide insight into opportunities that aren’t necessarily at the college.”
Williams suggested schools can continue to offer student opportunities to gain skills and certifications, “while we’re trying to get our legislators to do their part.”
Williams said she’s “very excited” about how Cherokee High School already offers students a chance to become certified nursing assistants before graduation.
“They also have American Sign Language, which helps them to have another skill,” Williams said. “I would like to see us graduate kids with not only skills, but certifications.”
When it came to Common Core Standards, Williams said she understood that school administration and the school board had decided to implement the standards, but said she had some concerns.
“Being conservative, on principal alone, I don’t like the idea of the federal government telling us. I think it should start with the family, the teacher,and we should come up from that way,” Williams said. “But as far as Common Core is concerned, I do have some concerns about the financial responsibility. As well as, I do have some concerns about the standards.”
Menard said he supports the Common Core Standards, and wants to see them to continue to be implemented. He said “one of the worst things we can do is have indecision.”
“I think it’s unfair to our teachers, to our students and to the community to have standards that we take up for a year, year-and-a-half, and then decide we don’t like them and move on to another set of standards,” Menard said. “Do I believe that Common Core is the ‘end-all’ for any of our education problems? I don’t. But what I do understand, is that when you make a decision you have to implement that decision. You have to back that decision, and you have to assess what effects that decision has made.”
When asked about how they would cut spending in the school system, Menard said there’s already been “a lot of spending cuts in the last few years.”
Menard said he’d be willing to cut spending on programs that aren’t working, but said his main priority is not to cut the already tight budget.
“The revenue base has dried up and state austerity cuts have really cut into what we’re doing,” Menard said. “Anybody that’s been to a board meeting, anybody that’s looked at the budget discussions, understands that at this point in time, the school is riding a razor’s edge. So, related to cuts, my great hope is that we have cut enough to survive this. I do not personally look to go in and cut.”
Williams said she would cut spending based on “prioritizing.”
“We need to look at everything we’re doing, and say, ‘Does this help the student learn? Does this help the teacher teach? Does this help the support service for the student?’ If the answer is no to any of those three questions, it needs to be a secondary priority,” Williams said.
When asked about how they would encourage students to graduate, Williams said the foreign language requirement “hinders students from graduating.”
“American Sign Language is a tactile, kinesthetic language, as opposed to a spoken language. Therefore a lot of students with different types of dyslexia, learning disabilities … it actually will help their graduation requirements,” Williams said. “That’s just one little example of something that could help. I’d love to see American Sign Language in all of our schools.”
Menard took a different approach, and asked why students dropped out in the first place.
“It’s because they don’t feel that their education, at that time, fits with what their plans are after school. We need to change the discussion as a community — not to ‘Where are you going to college after school?’ We need to change that to ‘What are your plans after high school?’ We need to value the fact that completing high school is something that is significant,” Menard said. “It is a springboard to the rest of their life. They’re being told constantly they have to go to college and they have to graduate college.”
Menard also said class sizes in elementary school should be lowered, and it should be a priority.
Menard said losing children’s interest in elementary school leads to a loss of interest in high school, and “Once you’ve lost a kid, it’s hard to get them back.”
“Once they get behind, they can’t make it up,” he said.
Only one candidate was a member of the PTA, but both said they had experience in local schools.
Menard said he was a current member of the Carmel Elementary School PTA, and has been the treasurer for the past few years.
“I appreciate the PTA — I see it from the inside,” Menard said. “I believe in its positive role. As for the public schools: I’m public school raised. I was the first in my family to attend college and the first to graduate.”
Menard said he’s active in his children’s education and helps with a lot of homework.
Williams said she isn’t a current member of the PTA.
“For every year up until two years ago, I was always a room mom for one of my three students,” Williams said. “I spent a lot of time making phone calls, making sure we had somebody to sell ice cream, that type of involvement.”
The candidates were asked about the district’s yearly financial audit process and transparency surrounding the audits.
Menard explained, “as someone who has been a licensed CPA,” the audit is used to make sure the district’s financial statements are accurate and valid.
“That’s handled through a third party,” Menard explained. “The third party communicates that through financial reports. Financial reports have a letter that states whether or not they have identified that our results are accurate, including the statements. It’s a very transparent process if you’re familiar with what the process is.”
Menard said transparency “boils down to communication.”
“We do need to communicate more,” he said.
Williams said “two minutes” to ask questions about the budget is not enough.
“I would hope that as a board member, I’d like to foster a culture where it’s OK to ask questions,” Williams said. “I’m not always going to know everything, but I’m going to try and find out what you need to know.”
Williams said transparency is important for taxpayers.
When it came to teamwork, the candidates agreed it was important.
Williams said “It’d be silly to think we’re all going to agree on every issue.”
“We need to listen, we need to really think and consult with each other,” Williams said. “When it comes down to it, we vote our conscious for what is best for our constituents.”
Menard said in order to avoid “addressing the same issues,” board members should recognize when the board votes on something.
“You discuss what the problem is, you provide what you think is the solution to the problem,” Menard said. “We have a vote as board members, after we’ve had the discussion. And we make the decision, and we decide by voting … after that, we need to agree that we just voted on something.”