With a continued decrease in state and national funding predicted for the next several years, six local residents are competing to step up to the challenge of leading Fulton Public Schools.
Incumbents Scott King and Clint Smith are facing off against newcomers Kathy Brandon, Kevin Habjan, David Hunter and Linda Davis in the race for three open school board seats.
King, who is finishing his first three-year term on the school board, said he decided to run again because "I feel like there's a lot more to do to make the district better that I'd like to help get done."
"There's so much going on, there's a lot of funding issues out of Jefferson City and I think we're on to some good things in the district," King said. "I think overall the district is going in the right direction and we're making the most of a difficult financial situation."
One of the areas King said he would like to see as a priority is continued improvement in test scores, noting the district's assessment programs should help with that goal.
He also addressed the challenge of replacing Principal Teri Arms at the high school.
"We're going to be getting a new principal at the high school next year and I think that is a transition that will require some patience," King said. "I think it's going to require everyone in the district coming together behind whomever it is and moving the district forward in a positive way. Whether you agree with the decision or not, you've got to ... move on."
Although he was one of only two board members - including Rodney Latty - who voted to renew Arms' contract for next year, King said that one decision should not be a primary factor in deciding votes in the school board race.
"I guess that's the nature of politics," the IBM IT specialist said. "It's unfortunate that some people will vote on one single issue ... regardless of the body of work a candidate had or a board had while a candidate was on it."
King, whose sons Joshua and Dylan attend the high school and middle school, said he hopes to get the opportunity to serve on the board again.
"As challenging as it's been, I look forward to those challenges," he said. "I want to contribute my opinions to the growth of the district."
Currently serving as school board president, Smith said he decided to run for a second term on the board because he wants a chance to put what he has learned over the past three years to good use.
"It takes three years just to figure out the system and how things work," he said. "Maybe this next three I can give back a little."
If re-elected, Smith - an executive with Callaway Electric Cooperative - said he would like to see a continued focus on student safety.
"That, for sure, is always going to be on the list," he said.
Smith said the economic downturn and a bad budget situation also will continue to be a concern.
"It's been a tough three years. We've had to close the alternative school, we've had to let staff go, and the next three years are probably going to be worse," said Smith. "We've got some tough decisions to make, but we need to make sure we retain quality staff - whether that's a bus driver or a teacher or an administrator."
He said another goal is to decrease the dropout rate and increase the graduation rate.
"I look at that balancing point, and we need to grab those kids that aren't as strong," Smith said. "You've got to be able to get to all those kids, or do the best you can."
As for the board's recent decision not to renew Arms' contract, he said that was based on the information the board had at the time.
"We were given information, and the board made a decision on the information we were given. If the community comes to us with concerns, it's our obligation to ask questions and get some answers," Smith said. "The board asked some questions more than once. You have to have the respect that the Board of Education has more information than the public has."
Smith's wife - with whom he has two children, Lincoln, 7, and Ava, 17 months - teaches kindergarten at Bartley.
Brandon, a mother of two who moved to Fulton 2 1/2 years ago after her husband was assigned to the public defender's office here, said she decided to run because "I feel like there needs to be more room for parental input into the schools."
"I think parents have some important things to say about the quality of our teaching materials," Brandon said, specifically mentioning math textbooks. "I feel like we lose some parents because they feel the materials aren't challenging, especially at the elementary level. We're losing parents to homeschooling and other districts because they feel like they don't have any say-so."
She also had some concerns about how the budget is being handled.
"My understanding is the superintendent intends to ask for an operating levy. I think for that to pass, the board needs to make a case that the money now is being spent wisely," Brandon said. "We seem to be spending a lot of money on assessment and how we're doing, but the library budget is so low our students at the elementary schools in kindergarten and first grade aren't allowed to take books home."
Currently staying at home with daughters Audrey and Lydia, who are in the sixth and third grades, Brandon is a certified K-12 library/media specialist, and found the library policy appalling.
"The No. 1 thing in education research seen over and over again is access to books," she said.
Brandon said she thinks she would be a good addition to the board because "I'll be the one to ask questions."
"If you want to do something, you have to make your case," she said. "I think the board owes it to the taxpayers to ask those questions.
"I think parents want more choices and I want to be on the board to give them a voice for those choices."
Habjan, whose wife -Â a learning specialist at Fulton High School - has been with the district for 14 years, said he decided to run for the school board because he wanted a way to get more involved in the community.
"I've been around the education arena for a while, so I thought that would be a good way (to get involved)," Habjan said.
An operations technician at the Callaway Nuclear Plant and member of the Knights of Columbus, Habjan said he has met with all of the building principals recently to find out what their concerns and issues are.
"Most have told me, and I agree, we need to attempt to keep class sizes small," he said. "Although it will be difficult with finances, I think it should be our main goal to keep those classes as small as possible."
Habjan said he does not have any complaints with the district now.
"I just want to see what I can do to improve it," he said.
"We really need to focus on maintaining and improving what we have now," Habjan explained. "As a district, we need to maintain our (financial) buffer as much as we can. The economy's not getting any better, so we have to be really careful."
Habjan said he and his wife decided to move to Fulton seven years ago so their children - Emily, 12, Luke, 10, and Ryan, 7 - could attend the schools here and because they liked the community.
"We've been very pleased with the school, and I'd like to see it continue to succeed," he said.
Hunter, who unsuccessfully ran last year, said he decided to campaign for the board again because "some of the problems from last year continue."
"Fiscal problems, of course, are No. 1, and I still think there are some communication issues," Hunter said. "The board and school district are very proud of their computer system - and they should be - but they need to make better use of that so parents can be better informed."
One example of that, he said, would be providing more information on current board members and short biographies on the six school board candidates.
Hunter said he also feels the district is behind in informing people about what is being done with bond-issue money.
"The baseball field isn't done and I don't think they're going to see any action on it at all this year," he said. "I think it's a tragedy the bids went out so late on the heating and air conditioning units that they only got a few done when school started.
"Communication was great when they wanted us to pass this bond issue, but I haven't seen much since."
Hunter also took issue with the phrase, "We've cut to the bone," which he said he has heard used in board meetings repeatedly over the past several years.
"There's a lot of things that can be cut back," he said. "I think we need to look at our curriculum - the elementary turns over every three years. ... I don't think that's necessary."
Hunter - a physician psychiatrist at Fulton State Hospital whose wife teaches kindergarten at Bush School, and whose daughter, Lauren is a sophomore - said he still believes early-release days were a mistake.
"It causes us to add days at the end of the school year, it creates extra expense for parents, and even though administrators say it's important when we had those snow days, early release was the first thing to go, so I really doubt it's as important as they say," he said.
After two controversial decisions over the past two years, Hunter said the board needs to work to regain trust from its constituents.
"The board solicited public opinion during a special meeting on the alternative school, and almost every speaker - including parents and a few students - was in favor of keeping it, and then they turned around and voted to close it anyway," Hunter said. "I think the public trust was eroded, and it was just a disaster all around."
Although he wasn't present at a special public meeting regarding Arms, Hunter said the situation was handled in a similar fashion.
"From what I understand, it was overwhelmingly positive comments ... and then the board turns around and voted the other way again," he said. "I find it odd the board chose to eliminate the alternative school and then use graduation rate as a reason to fire her."
An assistant Scout Master and recently-named distinguished fellow with the American Psychiatric Association, Hunter said he takes the school board seriously, noting he already has invested 70 hours over the past several years attending meetings and keeping up with district issues.
"I've been very committed to this," Hunter said. "I've followed this, gone to community meetings; I've stayed active in the schools."
Davis, a professor of management systems at William Woods University, said she decided to run for the school board because she wanted to give back to the community.
"All five of my kids have been in the school district, my husband (the late Roger Davis, former principal at Fulton High School) was an administrator," Davis said. "Fulton Schools have just been very good to my family and I thought it was time to give back."
Davis said she would like to see teachers get raises - although she conceded that was unlikely given the current economic situation - and for less emphasis to be placed on Missouri Assessment Program test results.
"I would like to see some of the pressure directly related to MAP scores taken off," Davis said. "I think MAP stress has made it much harder to teach. ... They put a tremendous amount of stress on teachers to make students perform when there are so many uncontrolled variables that affect that."
She also said the district needs to figure out how to do the most with its shrinking resources.
"We're in tough economic times, but I hope we can balance what needs to be done in the district with the balances we have left," Davis said.
A member of the Callaway Leadership Council and Fulton's Planning and Zoning Board, Davis said she has tried to always be active in the community and would like the opportunity to help with the schools.
"I believe in the Fulton School District," Davis said. "I know we have a lot of challenges ahead of us, but I believe we have the potential to be great."