MOUNT VERNON — Improving test scores, school finances, serving students with special needs and community service as a graduation requirement were among the topics raised during Thursday’s Mount Vernon School Board candidate forum sponsored by the Knox County Democratic Women.
In opening comments, candidates Paula Barone, Steve Hughes, Robert Kirk and Ian Watson expressed their reasons for wanting to serve on the board and reviewed their qualifications and background. Candidate Stephen Thompson was unable to attend the forum due to previously scheduled family obligations, so David Stuller spoke on his behalf. Stuller made opening comments only, and did not take part in the question session.
Peggy Dunn served as moderator for the question- and-answer session as the candidates, in random order, gave their responses to questions they had received in advance.
All four participants said the most challenging issue facing the school district in the next four years is financing. Hughes said the board and administration must continue to look at ways to reduce spending, save money and attempt to find alternate sources of funding. Barone added that since the revenue stream for schools is in a constant state of flux, it is important that board members maintain open lines of communication with the public so the community clearly understands the need to either cut spending or raise revenues. Kirk said it is important to understand where school funds come from and listed the percentage of funds from federal, state and local sources. Watson talked about unfunded state mandates, stretching limited resources and said making smaller changes now, such as to staffing levels, could lead to significant savings in the long run. The real question is, he said, can we do these things without affecting the quality of education for the students?
The second question dealt with school finances. Dunn asked, “It was recently reported in the Mount Vernon News that the city is expecting lower than average property tax receipts contributing to reduced income and possible reduced services this coming fiscal year. How do you foresee the economic slowdown impacting Mount Vernon schools and if the schools are negatively impacted, how might you propose to address these issues at the board level? Are there funding options other than property taxes and levies?”
Watson said the district’s three emergency levies and a permanent improvement levy are for a specific dollar amount, so the economic slowdown should not have a significant negative impact on the district. Regarding funding options, he said to his knowledge a voter approved income tax is the only other avenue that would bring in a significant amount of money.
Kirk said dealing with school finance is a tough uphill battle. “We need to look inward,” he said, “to make sure we are being efficient.” He said the two main ways to fund schools are property taxes and levies, and commented that it might be helpful to get government officials to look at foreclosures and see if there is a way to mitigate the impact on the schools.
Hughes said the board has to look at other sources of possible funding. He proposed convincing legislators to grant a tax deduction to people who donate to schools, and did not dismiss the possibility that funds from casinos could help finance schools. Although he does not want to see a new tax issue, he said, “Quite honestly, we might have to do that.”
Barone said the choices are to spend less or go to the public and ask for more money, while continuing to economize as much as possible. She feels transparency and honesty is a very important piece of the process. Although a school income tax is one alternative funding stream, Barone said she prefers traditional funding methods.
Asked about a community service component as a graduation requirement, Kirk, Hughes and Barone supported the idea. Watson said he believes public service is a value that should come from the family and the home and feels it is wrong to force someone to do “good” to graduate.
Preparing students for a global workplace was another topic. “In our highly competitive global economy,” Dunn said, “students will need skills for jobs that have not yet been imagined. What is the responsibility of the school board in addressing this new emerging reality? What programs and policies would you like to see introduced to better prepare students for the rapidly changing economic reality?”
Hughes and Barone both said adding foreign languages — beyond Latin, French and Spanish — to the curriculum would help students be better prepared for a global reality. Kirk would introduce and expand broadband and technology access and promote online learning. Watson said it is necessary to make sure students have opportunities in a variety of fields, including great literature, art and music. He also said schools need to foster students’ critical thinking abilities so they have the flexibility to adapt to new situations and job requirements.
All four candidates support the use of qualified community volunteers in the classroom and for extracurricular activities; answers were similar with regard to special needs students and all seemed knowledgeable regarding the bidding and contract process for goods and services involving the district.
Kirk said he would increase the use of computer systems to meet state and federal mandates and raise test scores, and use test scores to drive instruction. Hughes would also review the tests and delve more into why a student is not reaching proficient levels. Watson believes the key to improving student scores is the ability for students to adapt their reading comprehension skills to other subjects such as math. Barone advocates an expansion of preschool services and a vertical alignment of curriculum (across grade levels) as well as a horizontal alignment between grade levels.
The final question was “What are the three most effective actions you might suggest to improve the Mount Vernon City Schools?”
Watson: Continue to make incremental savings now so future changes won’t need to be draconian; continue to include the staff in determining the changes being made; and continue to look for better curriculum and better ways to do things and standardize the delivery of education more at the elementary level.
Barone: Examine spending patterns and identify areas of waste; examine hiring practices and have high standards to ensure a quality staff; and institute a citizen financial audit committee to delve into the books.
Hughes: Improve communication with staff; develop more trust and respect with staff; and look at ways to do more with the money we have and try to increase revenues without overburdening taxpayers and property owners.
Kirk: Increase transparency; ask for help from students, teachers and staff, and perhaps institute community advisory teams; look at ways to save on utility bills and have an outside team come in and review the books.