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.
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.