Dougco candidates debate merit-based pay, morale

A clear split emerged between candidates at Thursday night’s Douglas County school board race debate between candidates who supported current board actions and those who would like to see the pace of change slowed.

DougCo candidates Jim Geddes, Barbra Chase and Julie Keim. (Photos courtesy of candidate websites)
DougCo candidates Jim Geddes, Barbra Chase and Julie Keim. (Photos courtesy of candidate websites)

Four the board’s seven seats are up for grabs in November’s election and all are contested. Two feature incumbent candidates, Doug Benevento in District E and Meghann Silverthorn in District G. All candidates were present at the debate, which was moderated by EdNews’s Todd Engdahl.

Candidates answered questions selected by Engdahl and Dr. Gary Steuven, the principal of Platte River Academy, which hosted the debate. Questions focused on the role of charter schools in the district and the effects of recent district-wide changes on school performance and staff morale.

Most of the debate’s disagreement focused on the current board’s relationship to the district’s teachers, with opposition candidates citing decreased performance and low employee morale.

“You may hear some candidates cherry-picking numbers,” said Barbra Chase, a candidate for District B and one of the four candidates opposing the current board’s approach. “But don’t be fooled. Achievement is down.”

Jim Geddes, her opponent, praised the board’s actions and said that Douglas County was an exception to education’s general decline.

“We’ve spend an incredibly amount of resources in the past 30 years in this country and it’s hard to see much improvement,” said Geddes.

But in Douglas County, he says, things are different.

“They’ve done a tremendous job over the past few years,” Geddes said.

All the candidates said they were in favor of increased school choice.

Silverthorn, who was part of the current board’s initiative to equalize funding to charter schools, emphasized the work she has done to increase that choice.

“I am really proud we’ve expanded our partnership with charter schools,” Silverthorn said. “They are part of our family.”

Rhonda Scholting, Silverthorn’s opponent in District G, also supported the proliferation of charter schools.

“The district has actually done an incredible job increasing parent choice,” said Scholting.

Here’s what candidates said about some of the important issues of the election:

Merit-based pay system

The district’s newly implement merit-based pay system ties teachers’ salaries to their performance on state-mandated evaluations. The program rolled out this year to much controversy and some confusion.

“The problem this board has is not in making good policy decisions,” said Bill Hodges, who is running against incumbent Benevento in District E. “The problem has been implementation.”

In the case of merit-based pay, Hodges said the evaluation system was presented poorly and should have been piloted before teachers’ pay was tied to it.

“Teachers found out after the fact what they were being graded on,” Hodges said.

Julie Keim, who is running in District D and opposes the current board actions, said teachers did not oppose the merit-based pay but wanted to have input into the evaluation system.

“Not a single teacher I’ve talked to doesn’t want pay for performance,” said Keim. “They want a fair evaluation system.”

Current board member Benevento defended the program, saying any new program has some bugs to be worked through. Its overall effect was good.

“The pay for performance plan had this effect,” said Benevento, who is a current board member. “Our least effective teacher got zero for a raise. Our most effective teacher got much more. We think we set our incentives right to get the best teachers.”

Geddes agreed and said that good ideas should be implemented as quickly as possible.

“Good change cannot come too fast,” he said.

Chase said the board should have moved more judiciously, saying that a consultant for the district told them they weren’t prepared to implement the program.

“It’s my understanding that we spent $85,000 for a consultant who said no you aren’t ready yet,” said Chase. She also said teachers and school administrators should involved in decision-making.

Low employee morale

On this issue, candidates decisively split along those supporting the current administration and those who didn’t.

Chase, Sholting, Hodges and Keim all said the district had a morale problem.

“[Teachers] feel disrespected and unheard,” said Hodges. “They live in fear for their jobs.”

Geddes said most people would adjust to the district changes.

“When there are changes, not everybody’s going to be happy,” he said. “If they want to leave, they’re free to.”

He also said that the morale problem had been overstated and most teachers were happy with the changes.

Silverthorn agreed, saying teachers were happy with their school environments and would get used to the district changes.

Teacher’s union involvement

Following last year’s cancellation of a collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union with the district, the union’s role in the district remains a source of division between candidates.

Current board member Benevento said the money the district paid towards the union is now being put into the classroom.

“We cut out union administrators that were doing nothing in the classroom,” he said.

Hodges, a retired district employee, said the union represented many teachers in the district and should not be ignored.

“You can’t ignore 60 percent of teacher voices,” said Hodges. “We’re not talking about a collective bargaining agreement.”

Reynolds said teachers would adjust to the changes.

“Teachers are used to being represented by a union,” she said. “I believe what we’re doing is unique.”

But she said, teachers should be free to join a union, if they wish.

“I believe if teachers want to join unions, for professional reasons, that’s their prerogative,” said Reynolds.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.