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School board candidates debate issues

by Merrie Leininger, staff writer

The school board candidates clearly drew a line in the sand Tuesday night at the League of Women Voters candidates night – those who believe the school district is on the right path and those who want to make a change.

The incumbents, Dave Brady for Area 1, George Echan for Area 3, and John Raker for Area 4, in addition to a newcomer, Charles Pullen, for Area 7, told the audience at the CVIC Hall that not only is the district working like a well-oiled machine, it is still the “lighthouse district” it was touted as for so long.

Newcomers Veronica Hulsey, who is running against Brady, Bill Laughlin, who is running against Echan, Randy Green, who is running against Raker, and Keith Roman, who is running against Pullen, all said they would like to see some changes in the district – particularly in communications and competencies.

“There’s been a breakdown in communication between the teachers, the students and the board and nobody wants to find the common ground to repair that,” Hulsey said. “Time and time again, I hear from parents they are not able to talk to the board. People come to the board and (board members) say, ‘Oh, you don’t understand.’ Most people who come to the board meetings understand how a board functions and don’t want to be belittled.”

Laughlin said he decided to run because he always ran into a brick wall when he took a concern to the district.

“I believe there is a real serious gap in communications – I’ve been there. I think it can be handled. We’re adults and when adults have problems, adults admit they made a mistake and deal with them,” Laughlin said. “Everyone’s input is not necessarily what you want to act upon, however, there is a wall that is hard for people to get through.”

The incumbents all said they do care about teachers’ concerns and would continue to take those concerns into consideration.

“On an individual basis, I would continue to do exactly what I have been doing, visiting schools, talking to teachers and administrators and seeking ways to keep the lines open. Collectively, as a board, we have put in a lot of effort into these site meetings, and they are not just window dressings but substantive meetings and the issues will be heard,” Brady said.

He said the most important issue the district is facing is continuing to implement the competencies and to stick to the strategic plan.

Echan said he would continue to close his ears to pleas to slow down or stop the implementation of the competencies.

“I admit I don’t listen if what they are saying is we should abandon the competencies. I’m stubborn and irreconcilable and won’t listen. I don’t believe that is in the best interest of the kids,” Echan said.

He said the board would not be adverse to backing down on one or two small issues if they could not be cleared up before the class of 2002 graduates. However, he said eight years of work had been put into the strategic plan and a few misspelled words and typos on pilot tests shouldn’t stop the district from raising standards, especially when the state is doing the same thing.

Pullen said the board should reach out to the naysayers and try to convince the public of the necessity of the competencies.

“Why should we not ask more of our children? We should bring our education system into the 21st century as opposed to lowering standards. We’re the adults here – we’re supposed to help them see what they can achieve,” Pullen said. “For decades we have been asking for something better for our children. This has been been under development for eight years. Not all the problems have been ironed out, but we need to go forward.”

Roman said the whole plan was leading the district down the road to ruin.

“It is like a house of cards ready to collapse. It is a total disaster. We are not asking kids to rise to higher standards – we are asking them to go through a maze,” Roman said. “If they had to try to figure out who would graduate in the next few years right now, they wouldn’t have a clue.”

Roman said the rift between teachers and the administration was “as big as the whole outdoors. We’re not talking 25 union activists.”

Green said the teachers are frustrated with the compentencies because they are getting few answers to their questions.

“A lot of teachers are interested in raising learning. It is easy to sit here and talk about it, but last year when the tests were piloted in my class, out of 40 questions, nine were a blatant abuse of the multiple choice test format. Two questions misquoted the Declaration of Independence. Some had the answer in the question or all the answers were wrong,” Green said.

Raker defended the system.

“This is another area where Douglas County has stepped up and done a wonderful job. We need the courage to stay the course. (The strategic plan) is doing what we want it to do,” Raker said.

He denied there was a communications gap between teachers and the board and called it a “manufactured crisis – a self-fulfilling prophesy. If enough people say there is a problem, then pretty soon perception becomes reality. We do have some problems, but you bet we’re dealing with the problems.”

Again, some attention was diverted to discuss the possibility that Green, who is a government teacher at Douglas High School, could be deemed unable to legally sit on the board if elected. Raker said if Green is chosen by the electorate of the county and then unable to serve, he would not ask to be appointed while the seat is empty.

“I’m not conceding. I’m asking those (8,000 registered voters who didn’t vote in the primary) to make the best vote you can make. If I am not elected, then good luck to the next lightning rod that steps forward,” Raker said.

Jim Keegan, the only candidate for Area 5, was could not attend the forum because he was out of the country.