With the May 20 Republican primary election approaching, all eight candidates vying for four seats on the Cherokee County Board of Education were in attendance to answer questions on various issues Tuesday at the forum put on by the Cherokee Council of PTAs.
When asked about how they would work together with other board members if elected, candidates Mike Chapman and Susie Tlacil gave different answers before the crowd of about 100.
Chapman explained when he was previously on the board, he was elected by his fellow board members four times to act as the board chair and two times as vice chair.
“The reason for that was, as a board, we worked together well and we communicated well. We didn’t always agree on stuff, but I’ve got to tell you, we were never far off,” Chapman said. “Somebody would raise an issue or question something, and we have an excellent superintendent that paid attention to what board members’ concerns, which were being said to them by the public, and he would modify a proposal for whatever action the board had to take. So when we had a board meeting, we were pretty much in agreement about what was going on.”
Chapman said, since he left the board just more than a year ago, “There’s been a degradation in that realm.”
“There’s an ethics policy out there that says if you vote and lose, you’ve got to follow the board’s choice, and that’s got to happen,” Chapman said.
Tlacil disagreed, and said she found it “really interesting” some candidates running for various school board seats were saying “you have to listen to what other people say.”
“I’ve been to the board meetings for the last several years and there’s no discussion that ever happens,” Tlacil said. “The first way you bridge the divide between the members, or you begin to have a conversation where you need to be working with others, is to have the conversation. You’ve got to open up the floor. We’ve got to stop having 7-0 agendas. We’ve got to actually have a discussion. So, that’s where I’m going to start.”
Tlacil said board members can “agree to disagree or have a discussion.”
When it came to the Common Core standards, the District 6 School Board candidates had disagreements.
Tlacil said “we can’t afford” Common Core.
“We haven’t bought textbooks in seven years and we’re talking about implementing a $95-per-student test,” Tlacil said. “That’s crazy; we don’t have the money.”
Tlacil said she went to a curriculum review and there were three parents and 12 administrators.
“I can’t stress enough how important local control is. Local accountability to local tax dollars,” she said.
Chapman said the Common Core standards were approved during his time on the board and explained what the standards entailed.
“It is a minimum set of standards in language arts and in math. Our teachers and the system can, and we do, have a curriculum that is much more rigorous than the minimum. So, there is no effect, whatsoever,” Chapman said. “The federal government doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re teaching our kids. We have a vetting process for our curriculum, which includes parents that come in and look at the curriculum, and agree to the curriculum that’s in our school system.”
Chapman said he was a board member who had the view “the federal government has got its fingers in our pie.” However, Chapman said he cannot find a connection to Common Core, and said he’s willing to listen to people who can find a connection.
When asked about how to cut spending in the district, Chapman said “teaching and education is a people business.”
“You have to hire the right people, compensate them fairly and hold them accountable for performance,” Chapman said. “And we’ve got to get class sizes down, that’s where the bulk of the money has got to go. Oh, by the way, we have to feed the kids. We’ve got to have buses. We’ve got a police department, we’ve got all those things.”
Chapman said the job of the school board members is not to cut spending, it’s to make sure the money is being put to work.
“We have one of the lowest overhead costs in the state right now; our system is lean,” Chapman said.
Chapman said all sorts of “non-education” parts of the school system can be made more efficient and he hopes to work on that on the board.
“This is a business and that’s an area I see some opportunity,” he said.
Tlacil said “I wish I could tell you” how to cut spending in the school system.
“One of the things that’s frustrated me the most is that our budget that’s online is so broad that how could any person possibly know what goes into those numbers,” Tlacil said. “That information is not available to the public.”
Tlacil suggested zero-base budgeting.
“Let’s start from zero, find out what educates our children and prioritize,” Tlacil suggested. “Right from the get-go there’s got to be things in there. Certainly there are things that are not directly educating our children. Let’s review it, and remember this about the kids, and teaching the kids, and nothing else. I just can’t reiterate enough, transparency first.”
When it came to technical education opportunities for students, Chapman said “it’s easy to say ‘Let’s do something technical,’” but there are too many careers to have programs for every single one when working with limited resources.
“For 12 years, I was on the board. And I run a factory, and one of my pet projects that I worked on for those years in conjunction when I was for nine years on a technical college board, was to come up with a way to address technical education,” Chapman said.
Chapman said the new Teasley Middle School was approved when he was on the board, along with the subsequent repurposing of the old building into some sort of technical-based alternative high school.
“It’s very important that we develop a curriculum that addresses the needs for technical education in our community,” he said.
Tlacil said Cherokee High School has already made strides with its welding and nursing programs.
“It’s important that we expand that to the other schools,” Tlacil said. “I really want to expand the program beyond those. I’ve already reached out to Debra Murdock at Cherokee High School to share with her ideas I had working with CISCO for years.”
Tlacil said she’s putting together a list of equipment she has “personally accumulated” to donate to the school to get a CISCO certification program started at the high school.
When asked about how they would help encourage students to graduate if elected to the school board, Chapman said he would work to reinstate high school graduation counselors.
“The graduation rate is clearly an area that we can improve upon and need to address,” Chapman said. “One proven way to improve the graduation rate was high school graduation counselors that became unfunded during the recession.”
Chapman said they helped improve the graduation rate and he’d try to “look under the rocks” to find funds to reinstitute.
Chapman added that if students aren’t on track by third grade, “the potential for dropping out of high school when they hit 16 is huge.”
“So, attention needs to be way back at the beginning, that’s were the focus needs to be,” he said.
Tlacil said she agreed with Chapman.
“It goes back to early education,” Tlacil said.
She added “high stakes testing is killing the motivation of our students.”
“High stakes testing tells them ‘You’re stupid.’ They’re in third grade, they’re not stupid, they have a whole lot of time left to learn,” Tlacil said. “One of the things we need to look at is how high stakes testing is damaging our kids.”
The candidates were asked about transparency and how the school board can ensure transparency for residents.
Tlacil said she’d like the online budgets to be searchable and more detailed.
“I very much would like to have budget hearings,” she said. “Every year that we create a budget, parents and teachers and any citizen in the county should be able to come and say their two cents about how we’re spending the dollars.”
Tlacil said transparency “should be relatively easy.”
Chapman said when he was on the board, “We worked hard to make sure that the budget was transparent.”
“Anyone can speak to an agenda item at a meeting. The budget is online. You can search through that budget and if you can find the minutest of detail, all you have to do is pick up the phone and ask, and you will get that information,”
Chapman said. “If somebody wants detailed information, they get it to them right away. And I’m not talking Open Records Requests, I’m talking the budget stuff.”