As the first day of early voting for the April 23 Municipal Election wound down Wednesday, nine Johnson City Board of Education candidates fielded questions regarding school safety, funding, vouchers and technology during a forum held at the Johnson City Public Library.
The forum was hosted by the Johnson City Press Editorial Board.
Seven candidates are seeking four four-year terms, and two candidates are seeking the two-year unexpired term left by Jenny Brock, who is running for a seat on the City Commission.
Candidates for the four-year seats include incumbents Chairwoman Kathy Hall, Vice Chairman Richard Manahan and Tom Hager. Newcomers John Hunter, a local banker; Jonathan Kinnick, a local business owner; Kenneth “Herb” Greenlee, Carver Recreation Center supervisor; and Mahmood “Michael” Sabri, an associate professor at Northeast State Community College, also are vying for four-year terms.
Greenlee was absent from Wednesday’s forum.
Board Secretary Sheila Cox is vacating her four-year seat for the two-year unexpired term, while newcomer James Povlich, a father of three and graduate of East Tennessee State University, also is seeking the two-year term.
During the forum, each candidate had a minute and a half to answer five questions that were asked to the entire panel.
The following questions and answers were taken from the forum:
Q: What do you of school voucher plans that the General Assembly is now considering supported by Gov. Bill Haslam? What impact could school voucher plans have on city schools, like Johnson City?
Cox: It seems to move children away from their community and leaves us comfortable as we abandon those neighborhoods.
Povlich: I can tell you I’m not for vouchers. I don’t believe in vouchers and until I know what the vote is I have hard time telling you what my answers would be.
Hager: The biggest concern I have is our teachers and administration are held to other accountability standards and I’m not sure the taxpayer money would be under the same scrutiny with vouchers as it is under the current system, so at this point in time I could not be in favor of vouchers.
Hall: People keep saying that the governor’s program is not going to harm us, but I’ll tell you the first year it would take $16 million out of public school funds and by year four it’s $80 million, and there’s no way that could not affect Johnson City Schools.
Hunter: If there is a problem with the school system, let’s invest the dollars back into the school system and figure out the problems. To be honest with you, if the private school system is doing something better or right, then maybe we need to reduce the amount of regulations with public systems so they can perform better.
Manahan: Everything seems to rolling downhill from the federal to the state government to the local communities and that really puts a tough situation on our commissioners, who is our funding body for the education in the city of Johnson City.
Kinnick: If a school is failing the students, then removing the students and money isn’t going to help the problem. That’s not a productive solution.
Sabri: I am in favor of vouchers. ... We are in the United States. United States means freedom and freedom starts with education, so as far as I’m concerned let’s limit the voucher system and see what happens.
Q: What do you think can be done to better communication between the Board of Education and the City Commission, particularly on fiscal issues?
Sabri: If we have five points that we need to talk about and if we agree on two, let’s move on those two and get them out of the way instead of wasting our time on the other three, so my approach is that I will look at the Commission members and see what we have in common and start from there.
Kinnick: Consistent and ongoing communication — I think that’s the key and in doing it we need quarterly meetings, joint meetings, additional workshops on the budget. This time of year, in particular, is a big issue with that.
Manahan: We’ve got to work and try to just do what’s right and help the commission with the funding concepts and so they understand our programs as well as the rest of the city and I thank each one of the city commissioners for their support.
Hunter: There are other entities that we can pull into these conversations, especially when it comes to budgeting and other factors that would be essential to successful communication.”
Hall: I think as long as we respect each other’s needs and respect each other’s opinions, communication is great.
Hager: I see part of the problem between the two boards is state unfunded mandates. They suffer that as much as we do and there’s only so much money to go around, and to me it’s just being able to meet with them and explain our situation.
Povlich: I think by having the ability to communicate ... and if the commission and the school board each identified goals that are common and agree to keep our schools at a certain standard then both parties have an idea what the finish line looks like.
Cox: I will strive for trust between the two entities and one example over these 12 years that I have served that has worked very well was when both board were given the same information at the same time and they came to a very reasonable conclusion together.
Q: We have an ever-changing world of digital technology coming every day. What would you like to see the Johnson City school system tap into?
Povlich: If we are able to use computers, like an Apple iPad for instance, where a child can download his book, utilize his book, his materials and has it at their fingertips, I think it becomes more cost-effective in the long run where you’re not having to change your books every two years.
Hager: It is an issue that will have to be dealt with and anything that we can do to help our teachers in the classroom and also help our students in the classroom is something that we should investigate and do.
Hall: Making sure we have the infrastructure and machines that we need to do the mandate that the state has given us and then dream a little bit and see how it could improve education, making sure that it’s accessible and it enthralls our students.
Hunter: I’d be interested to see if we can enter into some sort of co-op with other schools to increase buying power, because, like Mr. Hager said, we’re going to have to increase our purchasing capital for new computers for the new Common Core with testing and other requirements that are coming on board.
Manahan: In 2008-2009, we spent $405,000 of our budget for technology. In 2012-2013, the proposal’s $173,000 and we want to do more with technology, but we may have to cut back before the year’s over.
Kinnick: We have to look at all these details, because we don’t want to get something that just works for the classroom or testing. We need to get something that works for both to use our money wisely, so it is not a simple answer. It’s complicated.
Sabri: The whole thing is how we approach it. Technology is going to be changing, so we have to stay one step ahead.
Cox: The infrastructure to provide WiFi and broadband should be one of our top projects as we prepare our students for a world class in the 21st century world of education.
Q: What are your thoughts on school safety?
Hager: We really are ahead of the game with most systems in that we have (the HEROES program) in place. We have requested some additional resource officers from the city in next year’s budget.
Hall: I’m really proud of our system and how they’ve approached this through the HEROES Grant. It’s done so much. SROs are a vital part of safety, but I think the mental health component has also been very important to our students.
Hunter: I’m in support of increasing funding for SROs at the elementary level, but...the mental health aspect is probably even more important that the SROs because it hits it before it comes that far along, so we need to make sure that piece stays in place as well.
Manahan: As far as the SROs, I think there ought to be one in every school. It’s expensive, but it’s inexpensive if you have a situation like that, and I certainly don’t support the proposal that we train teachers to carry weapons or particular teachers in a particular building.
Kinnick: The HEROES Grant, the funding runs out. Both of those items are going to be big issues as far as budget but they are important, so we’ve got figure out what we can do.
Sabri: I’m saying that we should force the teachers to have arms, but if a teacher is able to provide security for himself and his students or her students, why not? That will help us have that many less SROs in the schools.
Cox: Besides SROs in our schools, I really feel that the counselors have enabled immediate attention to problems that before would’ve taken months and this helps prevent loss of learning time.
Povlich: What’s the price tag of our children? If we put a price tag on it, we have to look at our children and ... if an incident happens here, it’s not going to happen on my watch. I’m going to fund this program best I can.
Q: What is the most glaring student need not currently being addressed by our school system?
Hall: “We took our technology budget and it’s often the easiest thing to cut ... so I think we’re inappropriately funding technology and I’d like to see that change.
Hunter: The shortfalls are derived from the unfunded mandates. It’s a shell game that we have to play and it’s at the expense of our children’s education.
Manahan: The technology is the major issue and, in fact, technology was the only issue that we had problems with in our accreditation process. We were criticized on not spending enough money on the technology.
Kinnick: Our own budget, we cut $225,000 out of technology four years ago. We’ve added last year and we’re looking at adding half a million dollars of one-time money this year from the fund balance, but we need to make it recurring. It’s not going to go away.
Sabri: What we really need are results and what give our students who graduate from Science Hill is a diploma. What they also need is a scholarship to go to college, because if they don’t go to college, how many of you think your child with a high school graduate education will be able to make a decent living?
Cox: I think our students need more discipline. ... I think we need to coordinate our efforts among the students, the parents and the teachers to help alleviate this problem.
Povlich: With the Common Core, we have to train our teachers the Common Core. If our kids are taking tests on this Common Core and the teachers haven’t been trained, how do we know the students are being taught the right way to take a test, so I think that teachers need to be trained, greater in-services, more in-services.
Hager: I believe its 36 states that have agreed to what is called Common Core curriculum, and I think we’re trying to put all students’ achievement into one basket and I don’t personally think that’s the way we should be going.