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School board candidates spar over experience

From left: Candidates Dwight Crews, Patricia Weeks and Clayton Griffis.Two school boards members up for re-election defended their oversight of the district and its budget, while their challengers chided them for poor performing schools during the candidate forum July 28 at the BCHS auditorium.

The current composition of the school board — three long-time members and two newcomers elected in 2010 — could shift to one in which the majority of members are relatively inexperienced in K-12 education, depending on the results of the August 14 primary election.

Dissenting votes are a rare occurrence on the school board these days, but should an incumbent, Dwight Crews or Patricia Weeks, fail to retain their post, the panel will have three members installed within the last two years.

The conflict between the status quo and a new, albeit vague, direction was apparent during the nearly hour-long segment of the forum allotted for school board candidates.

They answered questions on the school district’s budget, standardized testing and student performance, among other topics.

Mr. Crews’ opponent Clayton Griffis, a corrections officer who has family members who are teachers and students, advocated looking to higher-rated districts for ways to improve locally.

When asked why voters should elect him over his opponent, he said, “I’m a little younger; a little more energetic.”

“It will be brand new to me,” added the challenger. “And when something’s brand new, you try harder. It doesn’t matter if it’s a relationship or whatever, if it’s new, you try harder.”

Mr. Crews, who also works in corrections, responded that he remains energetic, despite his age.

“I’ve got a herd of cows at the house and this morning at about 7:30 I was running some of them back into the cow pasture, so I am energetic,” he said before pointing to his 28 years on the board as evidence that he’s more qualified than his opponent for the office.

Fellow incumbent Mrs. Weeks also touted her experience. She’s a former public school teacher, led a church-affiliated preschool and spent more than a decade on the school board. She contrasted her resume with that of her opponent, Andy Johnston, who boasted about his business credentials.

“The school board is about the business side of schools; the budgeting, making the policy and procedures and approving personnel costs … That is my area of expertise and what I excel at,” said Mr. Johnston, who owns Badcock furniture stores in Macclenny and Palatka and mentors youths through coaching and other programs.

“But those policies directly affect what happens in the classroom with your children,” said Mrs. Weeks. “You need to understand what those policies will do. I’ve been an educator. I’ve done the work and the hours of overtime every teacher has to do.”

The school district used about $1 million in reserves to fill a operating deficit in the 2011-12 fiscal year and district finance chief Marcelle Richardson said she expects more will be needed in 2012-13.

The candidates were asked how they favored making up the short fall. Press’ Publisher Jim McGauley, who moderated the forum, laid out three options: continue using reserves, raising taxes and if so by how much, or cutting spending and if so what spending.

None of the candidates expressed support for additional taxation and Mrs. Week’s argued that there was no deficit because the board’s been proactive to ensure a healthy fund balance.

“If there’s one thing this school board and this district has done is operate within our means,” she said.

Mrs. Weeks also cited the elimination of a number of “district and ancillary” positions since 1997, positions she says would’ve cost the district some $730,000 this year had they remained.

Her opponent, Mr. Johnston, credited Mrs. Richardson for the school system’s financial stability.

“We’re really strong there,” he said. “Being a strong Republican, of course, I’m going to say no on raising taxes. I already pay over $10,000 in taxes in Baker County … On cuts, my thought would be first to look at non-instructional positions. What are they? How important are they? How many are required for accreditation? We never want to cut in the classroom.”

The specific cuts Mr. Johnston talked about, however, were pay cuts for substitute teachers and teacher  aides.

Clayton Griffis, who is facing Mr. Crews in the primary, used the opportunity to criticize the district’s membership in the Northeast Florida Educational Consortium, which counts 13 school districts, many of them rural, as members.

He said the consortium, which is governed by the superintendents of member districts, has too much influence over local policy. He also faulted the district for not providing textbooks for students to use at home.

“I think there’s a lot of things we can do,” he said. “After looking from top to bottom, we’ll find the answers. But the answer is to make sure the kids have what they need before I have my salary, before anybody else has their salary, or before the money goes anywhere else.”

Mr. Crews said he supports making up the operational deficit through cuts that don’t impact students, though he was not specific and admitted the task would be difficult.

In addition, he said the district should seek more funds from the state legislature, which has a constitutional duty to adequately fund public education in Florida.

“We need new revenue sources at the state level, not the local level,” he said. “We need to go to Tallahassee and talk with our state legislators … They control the dollars that come to the county. We control how it’s spent.”

Like Mrs. Weeks, Mr. Crews also praised the district’s foresight in building up reserves for lean times, saying it’s “enabled us to continue to operate without cutting services or laying off any employees.”

The veteran school board member also addressed his opponents statements on the regional consortium, which included that the organization “makes district policies and hiring decisions.”

Mr. Crews clarified that the district pays the consortium for buying supplies and recommending policies for school board approval, but the consortium does not have a role in district hiring.

“We make the final decision,” he said. “They do not send us a policy and say you’ve got to do this. We look at our policy and we have public hearings, and nobody, nobody shows up for them.”

In addressing a question about what the candidates would do to improve the school district’s “C” grade from the state, Mr. Johnston slammed the current board for its lack of a plan to do so.

“I don’t think we know why we have a C district,” he said. “I don’t think we have the leadership and planning to get better. I’ve been going to school board meetings for a couple of years and every single one for the last five or six months … My concern, and one of the reasons I decided to run, was I don’t see a cognitive plan there. All I see is, ‘We tried really hard this year and we’re going to have to try harder.’ That’s not a plan.”

The incumbents, however, focused on school grade improvements in recent years, namely the high school’s increase from a C-grade to a B-grade last year and Keller Intermediate’s jump from a “D” to a “C” this year.

Both Mr. Griffis and Mr. Johnston noted the district’s 2011 ranking — 51st out of 67 districts — during the forum. The 2012 ranking has not yet been released by the state.

“That is just not acceptable,” said Mr. Griffis.

While the school board hopeful does not favor tax increases, he said, “We need to change whatever it takes to make sure our kids have every advantage in Baker County.”

“I believe if we can swing around to the way other school systems are doing good, and that’s not the way we do it in Baker County, we can bring it back,” said Mr. Griffis.

Mr. Crews and Mrs. Weeks, on the other hand, said it’s unfair to compare a small rural district like Baker County’s with more affluent districts like St. Johns County, which is consistently ranked one of the top districts in the state.

“Our kids didn’t start where they started and our kids are not going to be where they are in the middle school,” said Mr. Crews.

“We are being mislead,” said Mrs. Weeks, adding that Baker County, compared to 10 rural North Florida counties, is ranked third behind Gilchrist and Union counties.

“To say our district performs at a C-level, I disagree with that,” she said.

Mr. Crews also noted that the district already sends principals and teachers to better-performing districts to learn new strategies, something Mr. Griffis called for repeatedly during the forum.

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