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story.lead_photo.caption Leah Baker, Jackie Pritchett and Tyler Steffens are vying for two spots on the Fulton 58 Board of Education. Photo by Olivia Garrett / Fulton Sun.

Fulton voters have a choice to make in April — who to choose for the two open slots on the Fulton 58 School District Board of Education.

Incumbents Jackie Pritchett and Leah Baker, and newcomer Tyler Steffens have put their names forward. All three candidates attended a candidate forum Wednesday night at Fulton High School.

Pritchett and Baker touted their experience — both have served on the board for the past three years — and Steffens focused on offering a fresh perspective.

"What motivates me to run for the Board of Education is to continue the work that we have been doing the past three years for my first term," Pritchett said. "I want to see the good things that we have already started to do to completion."

Pritchett spoke of equity, Baker talked of ensuring success for all students after graduation and Steffens discussed longterm sustainability for the district.

The candidates were asked questions submitted by staff to the Fulton Community Teachers Association.

All candidates agreed on the importance of balancing small class sizes with high teacher salaries.

Several questions focused on how the candidates defined the role of a board member and how they would react to concerns brought up by families or the community. All noted the importance of respecting the chain of command.

"They may not be aware of what the process is," Steffens said. "So, just kind of keeping an open ear, but working with them to help them understand the process."

Pritchett said the first thing she does when parents or patrons reach out to her is to make sure they understand her next call is always to the school district.

"I let them know that my job as a board member is not to solve those problems," Pritchett said — she listens and makes sure the feedback or concern makes it to the appropriate administrator.

"Unbeknownst to a lot of people, the role of a board member can be very limited, especially in this respect," Baker said. "We have one employee as a school board member and that's the superintendent, and we have to trust our superintendent, our administration to take care of day-to-day operations."

Baker spoke strongly in support of an alternative school program, recalling how an administrator once told her about a student who was working nights to support her family while also attending school.

"I think an alternative school would be an ideal situation for her or other students in those positions where they could come in, do the work they needed with the limited amount of time it requires because they don't necessarily need the same high school experience that other students need," Baker said. "It would be a way to reach those students and hopefully get them graduated."

Pritchett said that were it not for the pandemic, alternative programs would have been a larger board focus.

"If there was a way we can figure it out to fund it, I think that's great," Steffens said. "As far as the level, I would say the best bang for the buck probably would be high school level."

On the issue of virtual learning, candidates praised its usefulness during the pandemic but expressed a preference for in-person learning.

"I feel like virtual learning is isolating for the student," Pritchett said. "We all need those personal connections and when we don't have those, we suffer. Our teachers suffer and our students suffer. So when you can be in-person, you should be in-person."

Steffens agreed, noting that leaders have to keep an open mind to ensure that students and staff feel safe.

"My stance on if we ever do it again, I think we've proven that we can if necessary," Steffens said. "But like I said, I think we should be in-person if possible."

Pritchett said board members should be visible in the community and individuals should feel comfortable approaching them. Baker said that approachability is something the board and superintendent has emphasized.

"A lot of community members don't have the time to be able to come to board meetings, so they might not necessarily know what's going on," Steffens said. "So being willing to spend some time with community members or parents, or anybody to just kind of explain what's going on with the district."

Candidates were also asked to speak on pending legislation and school funding.

"As a board member, I can't support any legislation that would take funds away in any shape or form," Pritchett said.

Steffens said that it was important for board members to reach out to elected officials to make sure they understand the needs of public schools.

Baker noted her concerns about school choice and voucher systems, referencing data shared with the board several months ago by the Missouri School Board Association showing the academic achievement deficiencies of some for-profit virtual education platforms.

"It seems like every time that legislation comes up, the opposite side is that public schools are not doing a good enough job, you should have this choice," Baker said. "And I don't think that's the case in a lot of districts. I think it's very clear that most public schools are doing better than these school vouchers and charter schools are doing."

Steffens outlined goals of financial sustainability, programs and facilities. He acknowledged that budgets can be an ongoing challenge and said that the No. 1 priority should be on attracting and retaining good personnel.

"I want to see salaries and wages increase every year for our staff — all staff, across the board," Pritchett said. "We talk about that, we work hard at it. I want us to keep working to diversify our staff."

Baker said she has been excited about the district's move to bring in more social workers.

"That would be one of the other things I would like to accomplish over the next three years, is just increasing the number of social workers because I think it's had a very direct impact on our students," Baker said.

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