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School board candidates debate issues

Article Date: 
20 June, 2014 - 16:25

Candidates for the District 2 and District 4 Morgan County School Board positions met for a debate June 12. Voting for the primary election involving Roland Haslam, Ted Taylor and Bruce A. Galbraith for District 2 will take place Tuesday, June 24.
Alan Vesper withdrew from the District 4 race, making a primary election with Anna Phelps and incumbent Mark Farmer unnecessary. Phelps and Farmer will proceed to the general election in November. 
Haslam, Taylor, Phelps and Farmer were present for the debate sponsored by Morepac, a political action committee with the mission to “facilitate community awareness through public forums and provide accurate information on educational and economic issues.”
Farmer said the roles and responsibilities of a member of the board of education are three-fold including providing quality education that exceeds state requirements and prepares students for college, providing education consistent with the standards of the community, and handling the fiduciary responsibilities entrusted to the board.
Taylor said if elected, his responsibilities are to his constituents and representing them.  This would include making sure students receive the best education available, allowing the public to approach the board, and ensuring sufficient funds are in the budget to pay for expenses. 
Phelps said that there is more to ensuring a great education, including taking care of teachers, board members acting as facilitators, and board members attending all government council meetings.  “Academics are the first priority of a board member,” she said.
Candidates spoke of the financial priorities that would be theirs if elected.
“We need to find another method if we’re not getting the money we need,” said Taylor, who said more research into the budget would be needed before he could definitively identify those methods.  Since educating students is top priority, Taylor said cuts to travel for sporting events may need to be seriously considered.
“We all wish we had more money.  It is a struggle, it absolutely is,” Farmer said.  “We do the best with what we’ve got.  We need to take care of the facilities and our teachers, and not lose teachers to other states.”  Farmer said if sports or sports travel spending were cut, there could be fall out including the loss of teachers and parents enrolling their children in other schools.
“The money needs to go to teachers and curriculum.  The priorities should be academics, the children and the teachers,” Phelps said.  “With a strapped budget like we have, setting priorities is painful.  But as long as you have priorities in the right place, people should understand.”  While Phelps does not support eliminating the sports program or funding for sports travel, she does support cuts in the area of travel and said the community and parents should participate in more fundraising.
Phelps said encouraging a larger business tax base, as well as considering a year-round elementary school schedule and reducing the number of credits required for high school graduation may help the district’s bottom line financially.
Taylor agreed that businesses should be encouraged to locate in the county, but would also like to research more state funding for the district budget.
Farmer said year-round schooling may be difficult for the district as elementary schools are not equipped with air conditioners.  Farmer said Morgan is dead last on the list of state funding in Utah school districts while Utah is dead last in the nation considering education funding. 
“We are possibly the last in the nation,” Farmer said.  “I don’t know if there is a solution.”
“I am not going to sit and tell you I’ve got the answer,” Haslam said.  “There is a lot of red tape that’s got to be gone through.  It will take a while to figure it out.  There is not going to be a quick fix.”
Debate mediator Lars Birkeland read a question that was emailed in that asked candidates how they would handle the “hostile” relationship among teachers, administrators and parents.  The question stated that the resident believed that current candidates wanted to “clean house,” but that proved to be mostly unsubstantiated.
In his experience running a small business, “to keep everyone working and working together takes some time,” Taylor said.  “You create an environment where everyone wants to work together, and you don’t do it by threatening people and teachers.  We need to create an environment where we appreciate teachers and teachers are treated fairly.”
“We need to listen to our teachers and give them the tools they need to succeed,” Farmer said.  In his past experience seeing a business bounce back after a bankruptcy, it was helpful to “set goals and work together to achieve those goals,” he said.
“I am against cleaning house or reducing teacher salaries,” Phelps said.  “We need to have the board bearing the brunt of parental anger, not the teachers.  The board needs to do a better job of transferring information to parents, so they see it comes from higher up.”  She said restoring the 10 days of professional development to teachers would go a long way in boosting morale.
Haslam said “cleaning house” was on his poster, but he would like to see teachers getting the trust and support they need.  “The board are the ones in charge, not the administrators or teachers,” Haslam said.  “If things need to be fixed, it needs to start with us (the board).” 
Farmer said he appreciates the “groundswell of support” lately from parents willing to find ways to support education and that he is open to new ideas and continual improvement.
Phelps would like to see students encouraged and given incentives for taking core courses online, thus reducing class sizes.  She would also like to see the district hire a grant writer to pursue more funding.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you get, it is never enough,” Haslam said.  “You’ve got to do the best with what you’ve got.  You can’t satisfy everyone.”
“As a board, we have to look at every detail and spend the time to see what is going on and see what needs to be changed,” Taylor said.  “We need to improve programs for less money.”
Phelps said she supports researching year-round school, but does not believe a four-day school week would be in students’ best interest.  She said with or without a year-round schedule, district schools need air conditioning.
Haslam said he did not support year-round school, but would rather look at getting all district schools on the same quarter or trimester system.
Taylor said he is personally against year-round school, but he would rather get input from the community and teachers before making any kind of a change.
Farmer said all options should be equally weighed before the district changes to year-round or four-day school schedules.
The four candidates each weighed in on the state common core.
“With what I have seen and read online, it is not working,” Haslam said. 
Taylor and Phelps were both strong in their opposition to common core.
“Those decisions are best between parents and children, not the government,” Taylor said.  “We don’t need government dictating what should be done in schools.  We have quality teachers here that can develop standards.  Let’s take advantage of that teaching experience, and leave the federal government out.”
“I am against common core, data mining, high stake testing, and curriculum that is not age-appropriate,” said Phelps, who mourns the elimination of classic literature and history curriculum.  “I am so against every part of it.  I will fight like a pit bull until someone kicks me down.” The audience responded with applause.
Farmer said that he doesn’t have a problem with state standards. “I want to focus my energy on the difference I can make here (locally),” Farmer said.  “Utah can pull out (of common core), but until that happens, I will support the state.”
The candidates addressed the role of charter schools, home schooling and public schools.
“If there are some advantages, I am willing to listen and look into those,” Taylor said.
Farmer said parents know their children best, and should be allowed to decide what schooling option is in their best interest. 
“Charter schools do have a necessary role, but I am concerned with the number of charter schools in the state,” Farmer said.  “Public schools need to improve so we don’t lose the engaged parent.  We have a lot of work to do so that parents are not pulling students out.”
Phelps said parents should be educated about schooling options.  She supports charter schools, but doesn’t think there is enough demand for one in the Morgan County area.  “We need less regulation and more parent involvement.”
“There is a place for each one of them, but we are not ever going to keep everyone happy,” Haslam said. 
Phelps said she is against the district’s new policy limiting each public comment during board meetings to two minutes. “I would never cut someone off if they had a well researched and well informed opinion,” Phelps said.
Haslam said public comment is very important, but to avoid lengthy meetings limits may have to be put on comments.  “If you have a room chuck full of people, it will go on and on and we will be there until 1 in the morning,” he said.  “The school board works for the community, and you need to be able to come and voice your opinion, not be cut off.”  Halsam said the school board needs to “give trust back to the community.”
Farmer noted the lack of public comment in the last two school board meetings.  “We need to do better with making people feel welcome,” Farmer said.  “It is just sad that people feel they came and didn’t feel we listened to them.  We need to do better.”
“We as adults make it more difficult than it needs to be.  It comes down to common sense,” Haslam said in his closing comments. “This is not going to be easy, but it can be fixed.  We can work this out.  The biggest thing we’ve got to do is get the trust of the community back in our favor.  If we don’t do that, we are beating our heads against a wall.  We need to listen and pay attention.”
“I became involved because there might be a way I can help the community,” Taylor said.  “I want to help, if I can, the communication between parents, teachers and the community.”
Farmer said that the number of candidates interested in a school board position is “a good sign that people are interested.”  He said he got the growth task force started to try to help the school district handle the big issues.
Phelps would like to see an updated, interactive website that could gauge community sentiment on issues facing the school board as well as keep the board accountable to its constituents. 
“We have to have more input from teachers and parents.  There needs to be better communication between the board and the county council,” Phelps said in her closing comments.