• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

School board candidates share views at forum

All five candidates vying for seats on the Woodford County Board of Education shared their views on a variety of issues including how the current conditions of the high school impact a student’s ability to learn and student safety.

Candidates for District 2 – Allison Pacey Richardson and incumbent Karen Brock – and District 5 – Dani Bradley, Anissa Penn Davis and Robert Williams – participated in the Sept. 26 forum sponsored by the Woodford County Chamber of Commerce. Students in Woodford County High School’s community activism class contributed questions and served as moderators for the forum at Woodford County Middle School.

The school board candidates acknowledged the conditions of the high school facility do impact a student’s ability to learn, but they differed on solutions. Brock and Bradley shared concerns related to a lack of collaborative learning spaces and having sufficient room for performing arts programs at the high school.

“One of the biggest things is we don’t have room to add a vocational school,” said Bradley “We need to be preparing kids for not just college futures, but for every kind of future. And we don’t have the room to do that now.”

Bradley supported a facilities tax that was defeated in a special election. The proposed 5.5 cent property tax hike would have provided sufficient revenue to allow the district to build a new high school and renovate space in the existing facility for vocational programs, supporters said.

Without adequate space for vocational studies, Bradley said the district will need to get creative by offering cooperative learning experiences for students.

Davis suggested using school-within-a-school opportunities to address vocational needs. “…We do need more space,” she said. “We just need to get creative, and budget within our limits to get it done.”

Williams, who served on the district’s facility planning committee, said the existing high school has environmental systems that are out of date. “The HVAC system has been a constant headache… The roof integrity has been an issue with constant roof leaks and roof repairs over the years,” he said.

The configuration of the existing high school also makes installing medal detectors and adding safety checkpoints “very difficult,” Williams added.

With the board’s recent decision to restrict $600,000 to the district’s building fund, which will increase its bonding (borrowing) capacity to pay for facility needs, Richardson said, “… It doesn’t look like we’re going to have to wait that long (for a new high school). I think we can make it work for another couple of years with some of the ideas that they’ve come up with.”

Richardson was an outspoken opponent of the proposed facilities tax to pay for a new high school and other facility needs, and also served on a recall committee that collected enough signatures to put the issue on a ballot for voters to decide.

In the aftermath of the contentious school tax issue that deeply divided people, the candidates were asked how they would bring the community back together.

Brock said people on both sides need to talk about “what we can do to make our schools better.” Bradley agreed. “We need to embrace civility in our society a whole lot more than we do and that is an opportunity to improve our relations here in Woodford County as well,” she said.

Davis said it’s time to move on from the name calling and heal the divide caused by the vote. “I watched adults revert to teenagers very quickly and it was very disconcerting,” she explained.

Williams said the rhetoric got too harsh and too loud, “and I personally want to do whatever I can to get past that.” Richardson said most in the community have moved on.

“Was our community divided? Yes. And it was a bad thing, but it was also a good thing because our community got involved. They got involved in our school system,” she said.

When asked about the kind of relationship a school board should have with its community, parents and families, Williams said he’d like to see more collaboration between schools and with local industry. He and other school board candidates said they would support a positive relationship with families in the community, and encourage parents to get involved in their children’s schools.

“Our board needs to have an open relationship with our community,” said Richardson. “We need to be more transparent… Let people know when there’s a board meeting and what’s going on… It’s not hard in today’s society to reach out to your community and let them know what’s going on… unless you don’t want them to know.”

Brock agreed that it’s important for the board to have open communication with all of the stakeholders in its schools.

“During our… vote for the tax,” Brock said, “it became very apparent that things weren’t as transparent as they needed to be.” She said efforts are ongoing by the board to improve public accessibility of information, such as meeting minutes and agendas, on the district’s website and by other means.

In response to a question about the biggest threat to student safety, Davis said, “The biggest threat is the unknown, honestly. There are so many different ways that kids can be harmed these days.” School safety goes beyond making a building safer, and she said building positive relationships with students “is really one of the best defenses that we have.”

Williams described a shooter as an immediate threat and drug abuse as a long-term threat to school safety. In addition to having more cameras in the schools to protect students in numerous ways, he said he advocates having metal detectors in the high school and drug testing for all students.

Richardson said she thinks about the threat of a school shooter every morning when her son goes into the high school, and that’s why she also voiced her support for having metal detectors in the building. “I also think we need to identify kids who have problems in school fitting in,” she added.

Brock described the drug epidemic in Woodford County and Kentucky as the biggest threat to school safety. That’s why she’s thrilled that the district now has a drug testing policy for middle and high school students, she said.

“I agree that school violence is the biggest threat,” said Bradley, “but I think we need to look at what role social media plays in that.” She said the anonymity that comes from being behind a keyboard “makes people say things that they wouldn’t say in person. And I think as parents we really need to be mindful of our kids’ online presence and stop those problems (related to bullying) before they start.”

A question about whether they support metal detectors in the schools and arming teachers gave all the candidates a chance to directly address two hot-button issues that have made national headlines.

Davis, an eighth-grade teacher in another district, said she supports having medal detectors in schools, but not arming teachers. Williams agreed. With their many other responsibilities, he said arming teachers would overburden them and “they do not have the reaction time to actually engage the shooter with a firearm.” The only exception he would consider would involve arming a person with the law enforcement training, he added.

With the correct training and a willingness to accept that responsibility, Richardson said she does not oppose arming a teacher. “I want my children to be safe,” she said.

While the other candidates supported metal detectors, Brock said she does not – citing a recommendation from the Kentucky Center for School Safety and the danger of having students waiting to get into a school building.

“Should we arm teachers? No,” said Brock.

“Teachers have a relationship with these kids that’s pretty similar to being a parent,” she explained. “They’re going to have a hard time to turn to the kid that they love, that they know that’s struggling and shoot them.”

With 33 access doors where someone could get a gun into the high school, Bradley said, “I don’t think you can say no to metal detectors forever.” She does not support arming teachers, but said she’s pleased the district now has a school resource officer in every school building and would like to see more.

The candidates were later asked if they support continuing the district’s drug testing policy for middle and high school students involved in competitive extracurricular activities and who drive to school. Most support the policy as a way to deal with curbing drug use in the schools.

“We have to confront this head on and let these kids know that we can’t accept this. Drugs are killing our kids. They’re killing adults in this community,” said Brock, who voted in favor of the policy.

Richardson said she can see the pros and cons of the policy, “but I can’t come to a really concrete decision on how I feel about random drug testing right now. I do think we need to do something…”

At first, Bradley said she was unsure of the policy. But she said the safeguards built into the policy (such as notifying parents of a positive result) made her feel much better “so I think it’s a good thing that we have one now.”

Davis said she also had reservations about the policy, but became more comfortable with it after learning more about the safeguards and the rationale behind enacting the policy.

Williams likewise said he does not have an issue with the policy, noting students will have to pass a drug test if they want a good job as adults. He suggested having parents sign a waiver to allow testing for more students in the future.

A question about a shortage of engineering teachers at the high school prompted Davis to remind those at the forum, there are “teacher shortages everywhere.” Both she and Bradley said it’s important to make teaching positions more attractive to professional engineers, a feeling also shared by Richardson.

Bradley suggested casting “a wider net.” She said the schools need to reach out to engineering professionals and ask if they’d be willing to “pass along their knowledge… to our students.”

Williams said having professional engineers like him going into classrooms to mentor students is an option if a teacher with those professional credentials is not available.

While Brock acknowledged an awareness of the shortage, she pointed out that as a board member she cannot do anything related to personnel matters. The best solution may be to get someone emergency-certified to teach engineering courses so the high school can continue the program, she added.

A question about whether teachers and staff should have a dress code prompted a “yes, I do” from both Richardson and Bradley, and a pause from Brock before she explained the importance of reminding teachers – especially younger educators – “about what professional dress is, but I do not feel like we should get to the point where we have a dress code for teachers.”

Davis agreed. “If you are in a professional position,” she said, “than you need to follow that without the constant reminders. If you need the constant reminders, then that’s when the administrator should step it. But in my opinion that (having a dress code) is punishing all for a couple of bad apples.”

Williams said “business casual” should be the expectation in schools. “So I think it would possibly get our students used to working in a business environment where a supervisor would look like that… It may (also) foster some additional respect,” he added.

The forum began with each candidate explaining why they are motivated to run for the Woodford County Board of Education.

A lifelong resident of Woodford County, Richardson said she was asked to run for a school board seat by several people in her district and that she’s passionate about making a change.

Brock said she ran for school board four years ago because she wanted to be an advocate for teachers. Twenty years as a classroom teacher, including nine at WCHS, gives her an understanding of their needs and she wants to continue being “a voice for them,” she said.

Bradley, a mother of three, said she’s been involved in many facets of Woodford County schools for 12 years including a stint on Southside Elementary School’s site-based council.

Davis, who began her 15th year teaching in another district, has several advanced education degrees and in recent years has taught future teachers in the curriculum and instruction department at Eastern Kentucky University. She wants to use her educational experience as a school board member to serve the community where she lives.

Williams said he has always enjoyed interacting with the community’s youth as a parent, church member, volunteer and coach. He said he’s running for school board to help ensure every student “receives the best education possible.”

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