Candidates for the Fulton School Board gathered at the high school Wednesday afternoon to answer questions and concerns from the Fulton Certified Teachers' Association.
Incumbents Scott King and Clint Smith and opponents Kathy Brandon, Kevin Habjan, David Hunter and Linda Davis fielded queries ranging from candidates' concerns and how they would handle making certain decisions to opinions on the MAP test and how it should be used in evaluating teachers' effectiveness.
Smith, the current school board president, started off answering that district enrollment is his biggest concern for Fulton Public Schools' future.
"Growth in the county has slowed down. To watch that number decline year after year is concerning," Smith said.
Davis cited pressure on teachers to get students to perform well on Missouri Assessment Program tests as her primary issue.
"I understand accountability, what I don't understand is, with so many variables on a student the teacher doesn't control, why there is so much pressure on teachers," Davis said. "I don't have a great answer, but I think we need to address it."
According to Hunter, communication is his biggest concern, noting he would like to see the district use its vaunted computer system to help keep parents more informed on what is going on in the district and in the classroom.
King, who is finishing his first three-year term on the board, said he was most interested in finances, noting "we've got to get creative in being able to retain teachers, but still be able to operate and provide a quality education for our students."
Habjan echoed that concern, saying he thinks the board needs to be concerned with "how do we maintain where we are with the same or less money?
Brandon said she wants to make sure teachers have more flexibility in the classroom.
Asked how they plan to become informed on district issues, the candidates shared similar answers, including contacting the central office to learn more about district policies, speaking with district administrators and teachers. Hunter pointed out that he has attended many board meetings and also receives input from other parents, while Habjan said he made it a point to schedule meetings with the principals to tour their buildings and find out what their biggest concerns are.
Also addressed by the candidates was the question of what a school board's role is in education.
"Checks and balances," Smith responded. "We're not here to run the school - that's your job - and to serve the public."
Davis agreed, adding that the board also has the task of figuring out "how to raise student achievement and how to use available resources to meet that goal."
Hunter said he views the school board as a board of directors, which "has the responsibility to drill down into issues if there's problems."
According to Brandon, the role of the school board is to serve as an intermediary between the school district and the community.
"I would like to see us in consultation with the two colleges in town," she said as an example. "We need to ask them how our graduates are doing and what they expect to see from our graduates. I'd like to see us have budget information on the Web site, board packets on the Web site and have parental and community input on text books."
King and Habjan agreed with the other candidates that the job of the board is to oversee operations of the district, make sure things are moving forward on the right track and to serve as a sounding board for concerns from district patrons.
Asked why they decided to run for the school board, the candidates all shared similar reasons ranging from the desire to serve the community or give back to the district.
Hunter said he was running to add a different perspective to the board.
"I'm really for a diversity of opinions," he said. "In all of the meetings I've attended over the past three years, I think all but four of the votes have come out 7-0."
Brandon said she was running because she believes in public education and wants to "make sure my kids, when they grow up, don't have any doubts they got the best education they could."
The candidates also all agreed that it is important for board members to get out into district buildings in order to get a better idea of what is going on.
"If you're not in the buildings for one reason or another, there's a big disconnect," King said.
"You gain a lot by being in the buildings; you gain a lot of those little nuances," Habjan agreed.
Asked about the chain of command, all six candidates again were in concordance as to what it was - student to teacher then to administration, then on to the superintendent and finally the school board - and that maintaining that chain is important.
"If you have a student going (directly) to the superintendent, you're going to have major problems," Davis said. "We have very dedicated teachers and administrative staff, so it rarely should go beyond there."
Hunter agreed, adding that he believes one could add the computer system - and the amount of information available there - as the first layer.
"If we have the schedules, dates fees are due, the course syllabus, so that a lot of parents won't be misinformed, I think that could lead to fewer phone calls," Hunter said.
Several questions also revisited Davis' concern regarding MAP tests and how they are used to evaluate teacher performance, the first of which asked whether it was teachers, parents or students who are responsible for students' scores. The general consensus among the candidates was that it should be some combination of all three, and that teacher salaries or compensation should not hinge solely upon student MAP scores.
"To hold teachers responsible for whatever random collection of abilities they are given in a classroom is ridiculous," Hunter said.
"A MAP scores is simply one tiny indicator of how successful a teacher is in reaching their students," Habjan agreed.
Addressing the question of perceptions and what role they play in decision-making, Davis said "it all comes back to gathering facts and not going off of what a small minority that sometimes is the loudest has to say."
Hunter referred again to following the chain of command, also noting it is important for patrons - especially those with concerns - to attend board meetings to get a better idea of what is going on.
"The public has to come to board meetings, they have to see what these people are dealing with," Hunter said. "If people were better educated, I think perceptions would be better."
"Transparency is paramount," Brandon agreed.
Like Davis, King said "it all comes down to asking questions and don't be satisfied until you've got the real answers."
He also said that if patrons have concerns, they should contact all of the board members, not just one or two.
"I'm going to hold more credence if they've called all seven of us," King said.
One audience member said that conversations with staff members have revealed that the school board's recent decision not to renew Teri Arms' contract as high school principal next year has resulted in low morale and paranoia in that building.
"How are you going to fix that so teachers can do their jobs?" he asked.
"One of the things was, there was a forum held and all reports are that it was one-sided (in support of Arms), but the voted did not agree. When that happens, there is going to be a schism and people are going to get upset," Hunter said. "If it had been handled a little differently, if it had gotten more broad input, it might have been different."
He also said he did not know what other information the board was privy to in executive session that may have also impacted the decision.
Davis agreed that she felt unable to comment much on the situation as she was not aware of all the factors involved.
"We can't go back and change now, but the perception was not listening, so I think we need to go forward and learn from it," she said.
Smith said the incident was one of the most difficult he had ever been a part of, noting "I would like to think the public would know we were privy to more information."
Habjan echoed Davis' point that it is time to try to move the district forward rather than looking back on a controversial decision.
"At this point, we have to support the people in these roles right now, and in the future, and try to help facilitate that transition," Habjan said.
"Decisions are made every day. We have to say, "How can I move forward and continue to make this district a better place?'" King agreed. "You just don't know (how to fix morale) but the first step is going to be people have to trust in themselves and take a deep breath and say "I've still got to go into that classroom.'"
Brandon added that whomever replaces Arms is going to "have to lead, and bring them back together and fix what was broken."
(Editor's note: See Friday's edition of The Fulton Sun for profiles of the Fulton School Board candidates.)