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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”