Kanawha school board candidates focus on poor public trust

Several candidates for the Kanawha County Board of Education are hoping — if elected — to change the board’s relationship with the community. They voiced concerns about a lack of public trust in the board and a decision-making process that needs more input from parents and the community.

Two longtime board members running for re-election, though, Pete Thaw and Becky Jordon, stand by Superintendent Ron Duerring’s leadership.

Candidates Vic Sprouse, who is a former Senate minority leader; Ryan White, Charleston attorney and Kanawha County Schools parent; Tracey White (no relation), a special-education mentor and KCS parent; and Calvin McKinney, a retired principal for KCS, all named communication issues as a top concern for the school system during a meeting with Gazette editors Wednesday.

Curtis Robinson, former school board and House of Delegates candidate who has had children go through the school system, did not weigh in, saying he has never dealt with these issues personally.

“There’s a massive disconnect between the board, the administration and the people,” Sprouse said. “If you go out and ask parents along the streets, I guarantee, you’re going to struggle to find one person to say yes [they’re pleased with Duerring].”

Sprouse said his top priority, if elected, would be transparency and putting an end to what he thinks is a totalitarian school board.

“The principals and teachers are scared to death to speak outside of what Dr. Duerring says,” Sprouse said. “You’re not going to see them speak out of line, because they are fearful of the wrath.”

McKinney, who served as Sissonville High School’s principal for nearly 30 years, said the board needs to work on reaching out to school staff members more, for their opinions on issues.

“I don’t think the public trusts the board of education. I don’t think they think [the board] listens to them,” he said. “I’d like to be that agent to say, ‘We’re going to listen to the public. We want to hear what you’re saying.’”

McKinney said his main focus, if elected in May’s primary vote for one of the three available school board seats, would be on that public trust, in addition to tackling school maintenance issues.

Tracey White, who is focusing on special-education and safety issues, said the chain of command is too strict and teachers need to be more valued, while Ryan White said “the top-down needs to be a little better.”

Jordon and Thaw defended Duerring and the board’s current bureaucratic process.

“We’re very pleased with him as a board. I don’t hear concerns about him. Most of the time, I hear he’s more accessible than a school principal,” said Jordon, a board member for 12 years, whose focus is on the expansion of vocational programs and student technology.

Candidates weighed in on national and local education issues — including the potential for a library levy, a teacher dress code and the state’s implementation of Common Core standards.

All candidates — including Thaw, a school board member for 16 years who has been actively against funding the county’s libraries with school budget money — said they would support KCS hosting a levy on behalf of the library.

After the school system won a court case last year that nixed its funding relationship with the Kanawha County Public Library, the library lost 40 percent of its operating budget. It cannot legally host a levy on its own to makeup for those funds. The board will vote later this month on whether it will host a levy on behalf of the library or not.

“I think the levy is a fair way to support the library, as long as the people are the ones who vote on it,” said Thaw, who said his main focus is providing equal opportunities for all students.

There is no support among school board candidates for a teacher dress code that was proposed by Jordon. The dress could would put a policy in place to regulate when teachers may wear jeans and would monitor dress lengths, among other things.

Jordon, who, over the years, has helped implement a dress code for students and put custodial staff members in matching uniforms, said she does not expect the dress code to pass but said principals should have a policy to point to when there are questions about a teacher’s clothing.

When asked about the state’s implementation of nationalized Common Core standards, which change the way students are taught basic skills, candidates were doubtful of the program’s success.

Sprouse said parents are fearful of the new strategies and the “horror stories” they’ve heard, and he said, even as a chemical engineer, he thinks the math problems he’s seen now taught in schools are “kooky.”

McKinney said he’s worried “that our kids are going to pay the price,” and Thaw said education officials should fight it every way they can.

Jordon said she’s wary Common Core will be like the county’s past experiences with federal programs — saying that the school board regretted signing up for Race to the Top, after realizing the rules tied to the federal funding program displaced several principals in the county.

“I felt like it was a great plan at first,” Jordon said, “and then we were like, ‘Why did we do this?’ ”

Ryan White said, if elected, he would meet monthly with teachers, principals and parents, and that parent involvement can make a huge difference in student achievement.

“It’s important for kids that don’t have parent involvement, for us to work with ways that parents can get more involved and demonstrate to parents that it is essential you get involved as early as possible,” he said. “Parents are doing an adequate job being involved early, but they start [tapering off] in middle school.”

Tracey White, a mother to three special-needs children, said special education in the school system needs a lot of attention. Special education means any child who doesn’t undergo that “cookie cutter” mold of class time every day, she said.

“Kids are kids. They’re not WVEIS [West Virginia Education Information System] numbers. They all have names,” she said.

Robinson said he will focus on facility upgrades and eliminating waste in the school budget.

Reach staff writer Mackenzie Mays at 304-348-4814 or at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com.

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