Candidates for two seats on the Gainesville Board of Education responded to questions on key issues facing city schools.
What experience do you have in education and how will it serve you on the board? Do you have kids in the school system?
David Syfan: I’m not a professional educator, but with the board of education, my personal viewpoint is that it’s not contemplated that the board of education would be composed of professional educators, it’s more contemplated that the community would have input into how the school system is run by way of elected representatives that serve on the board of education. I got interested in serving on the board of education because my children go to the city schools and are still in the city schools; therefore I was interested in trying to help make the school system as good a school system as possible.
Kellie Weeks: I do not have experience in education. I am a small-business owner, and I believe that will give me a unique perspective on the school board. I do not believe that you need to be an educator to be on the school board because we hire educators to serve in that purpose. I have two children: a daughter in third grade at Centennial (Arts Academy) and a son in seventh grade at Gainesville Middle School.
Delores Diaz: I have 32 years of classroom experience. I taught English for 15 years and then got my masters in art education, added on English and then got my doctorate education in ’02. I’ve taught a wide range of subject matter at all grade levels. I’ve taught graduate and undergraduate education courses specializing in curriculum. I think it will be very helpful to the board to have an experienced educator on the board who really understands education.
Richard Lacey: My kids are grown, they’ve gone through the school system. Four have graduated from Gainesville High. My experience in education has been that 93 percent of my students pass the End of Course Test. ... I don’t have 35 years of teaching in public schools, but I do have a track record of very high student success rates. ... What we’ve had in the past is a board ... who has tried to micromanage the teaching of students. That’s the superintendent’s job and the assistant superintendent of curriculum and the principals’ job. ... I’m really a teacher supporter. The board of education, we’re not the bosses, we’re the resources. What the board of education needs right now is business resources. ... I teach the business class at Brenau (University) on how to switch software programs so that money doesn’t get misplaced. Had it been on my watch, I don’t think (the deficit) would have happened.
The system has a roughly $780,000 deficit but expects to eliminate it by July. What would you do to keep the system out of a deficit in a time when state cuts are typical?
Syfan: Right now, the board and the superintendent have put into place a deficit reduction plan that has reduced the deficit from $5.4 million to $780,000. And our budget for this fiscal year, assuming no drastic cuts in state funding other than what’s been discussed, and we’ve already planned for an additional three furlough days for six, and assuming no other drastic reductions in state funding, then at the end of this budget year, we should have eliminated the deficit and be back in the black with a small surplus. We’ve already put into place administrative procedures that should prevent us from going back into deficit. And of course, we’re already taken action to fix the data errors in the Munis accounting software system. (Finance director) Janet Allison has done an excellent job in getting our financial house in order, and Dr. (Merrianne) Dyer (Gainesville superintendent), too. Both of them have done what they needed to do to get our financial house in order. If somebody comes up with an additional measure that would help, we’ll do it, but right now, I’m confident we’ve built in several redundancies to keep (a deficit) from happening again.
Weeks: Right now we have schools of choice and there are no school districts. I would like to see us go into having districts of choice, because people pick their homes by their school district. Right now, having this open policy, fewer people are moving into the city, and that’s hurting the tax revenue. ... We have two overcrowded schools in the system. We have Centennial and Enota. And people like those schools, but nobody’s moving into the city to come to them. So I’d like to see where we had some school districts, that not only would help those schools because people would move in with the guarantee of going to those schools, but it would also help all schools because it would help revenue go up as people move into the city. I think it would make our city stronger. I also have an issue with the ($450) tuition program (for out of city students) now because we’ve got so many kids going. We’ve got 460 kids in the system and that does cost city taxpayers. It’s something that we need to look into, putting a cap on how many kids come in. As revenues go down, we can’t afford to keep letting more and more students come in and people are moving out of the city because they don’t want to pay the taxes.
Diaz: I would sustain the austerity measures we have taken recently. For example, just the energy savings alone have been enough to finance the salaries of five to seven teachers. ... We need to not take on any projects that could have disastrous measures if the situation gets worse. We need to look at the system now and find ways of cutting. For example right now, at Gainesville High School, there are a number of courses that have less than 10 students in them, and these are not special education courses. I think that’s a waste of money. I think we need to look at cutting costs wherever we can.
Lacey: We’re going to have to get selective on what our core mission is and make darn sure that when we do spend money, it contributes directly to the bottom line, and our bottom line is student achievement. We have to cut to the bone anything that doesn’t contribute to our students doing well. We’re just going to have to watch our pennies until the economy gets better, because those pennies turn into dollars. Our teachers are going to have to teach harder ... and we may have to increase class sizes, which is not a popular idea. ... We’ve got a lot of infrastructure problems as well, so our problems aren’t over once we’ve paid off that $780,000, so that’s why we need someone with a business background.
In what area would you most like to improve Gainesville schools in your time on the board and how would you do it?
Syfan: We are working on initiatives to create what we call a nontraditional high school program and basically try to design the courses at the high school to maximize both our graduation rate for all our kids and or prepare those kids for college and technical schools. We’re trying to do that in several ways by increasing course offerings in advanced placement courses. We’re also trying to expand our career ready programs and we are establishing partnerships with collegiate institutions.
Weeks: I know we need to work on graduation rates and our testing. But the biggest thing I’d like to work on is implementing a bullying program in the schools. I do believe that if we start younger and get kids to realize everyone is different and start to engage with one another on how to get along, I think that would help in the long run with how kids are treating each other through middle school and high school and maybe we wouldn’t have some kids leaving. They wouldn’t feel like they’re not cared about or that no one’s there to encourage them to stay.
Diaz: I know that my focus is on the students and we need to keep in my mind that’s our mission: student learning. So that is my emphasis. I want to see more students achieve at higher levels than they are now. I would like to see more classes implemented in the classroom that would promote more higher order thinking skills. I would like to see more humanities brought into the classroom, like empathy and tolerance and understanding other people. We need more of that today.
Lacey: Teacher turnover, and the ripple effect from teacher turnover. Those who have exceptionally bright students seem to do especially well in Gainesville City Schools. ... Then we have the more at-risk student population, and then when new teachers come in, they’re assigned to that group, at least that’s how it was when I was working here. Then the tenured teachers get the best of the bright students but the guys in the middle get left out, and that’s the problem with the 40 percent turnover rate, and that’s been directly from the board of education’s micromanagement. ... I would give teachers the leeway to be in charge of their classes, not the administration, not the board of education, the teachers.
What would you do to help the system’s most challenged learners — English language learners, special needs students and economically disadvantaged students — to achieve academically?
Syfan: One thing that we have done and that I think we need to continue to do is to recognize that everybody learns at different rates of speed and understanding. I think we need to continue that policy because sometimes like the (English language) learners, it’s not that they can’t do the course work, it’s that they have the language barrier and they just need some extra time to overcome that language barrier. Again, that’s sort of the concept behind the nontraditional high school that we’re looking at to maximize for everyone who goes through the system where we can provide educational opportunities so hopefully all of our kids can be successful.
Weeks: Trying to get more parents involved, more people in the community involved, and coming in to help with the kids, just being in the classroom and encourage them to do their best. My kids are not in special ed, but they both have Tourette’s syndrome and I’m on the state board of the Tourette’s Syndrome Association of Georgia. I do know what it’s like to deal with kids that have issues and special needs. Those are also the kids who tend to get picked on a lot. ... I think those kids just need more support. They need people there that they know they can trust who care about them.
Diaz: One way to do that is that we have to engage them in their own learning, and we have to do this by starting where they are. We have to relate their learning to something they already know. ... I think one way we can do that with special needs students is through collaborations and through other entities in the community. ... We need help wherever we can get it. It’s not just something teachers do and they don’t get anymore after they leave the class. I think most strongly that we need parents to be involved. ... Everybody has a role to play. With these students who need extra help, we all have to assume more of that burden, especially parents. ... If we don’t do that at the elementary school level, it’s compounded. We need to start very young with students who have specific needs and help them as young as we can to help them establish good habits.
Lacey: You don’t tell a disadvantaged student that they’re disadvantaged. You tell them that they’re just as smart, and they can achieve just as much as those exceptional kids that come from different backgrounds. You tell them that they can have the life that they want to have and you are there to work with them toward their goals. They have goals. They all have dreams. ... We’ve got to step up to the plate and be in this with students. The roofs can’t fix themselves, but students are resilient.