Finances, funding sources, transparency and communication were among the hot topics Monday night during The Joplin Globe’s Candidate Connection forum for the seven candidates seeking election to the Joplin Board of Education.
The candidates shared their visions and concerns, and answered questions during the forum, which was put on at Missouri Southern State University. The forum was broadcast on KGCS-TV. Panelists were Andra Bryan Stefanoni, Globe enterprise editor; Eli Yokley, the Globe’s Jefferson City correspondent; and Lisa Olliges, reporter and anchorwoman with KOAM-TV.
The desire for fiscal responsibility was a theme that emerged on a question from Olliges, who asked the candidates whether they would support another bond issue if the district experiences growth. Voters most recently approved bond issues in 2012 and 2007.
The candidates unanimously said a bond issue would not be their first choice for funding, with several offering alternative funding methods such as grants or deliberate saving on the part of the board.
Several took their answers further, suggesting that the district should look within itself for cost-saving measures, if necessary.
“I think we’ve asked from the taxpayers enough,” said Jeff Koch, business development manager for Umicore Optical Materials USA, which has an operation at Quapaw, Okla. “I think we need to look at our budgets; I think we need to prioritize.”
Yokley asked the candidates about the state’s funding formula for elementary and secondary education, which Gov. Jay Nixon has pledged to fully fund by the time he leaves office.
The formula is currently hundreds of millions of dollars short, but several of the candidates said they didn’t know enough about the subject to be able to speak to how the issue would affect Joplin.
Shawn McGrew, director of service excellence for Freeman Health System, said a majority of the district’s funding comes not from the state, but from the local tax base. But a significant formula funding shortfall would still leave a mark on Joplin, he said.
“There will be an impact to what we have, so we’ll have to determine what are the things we have to reduce to really make an impact,” he said.
Randy Steele, a fabricator at EaglePicher Technologies in Joplin and member of the school board since 2008, said the district has been working for years to ensure that its budget falls within constraints set by state funding shortfalls.
“This is not anything new to us,” he said. “You have to prepare for the worst, and you prepare you’re not going to get it.”
Another topic was that of transparency and communication. The candidates were asked by Stefanoni, who was offering queries submitted by Globe readers, whether they thought board transparency was an issue and what they would do to maintain open lines of communication between the district and the public.
Jeff Flowers, who currently serves as board president, said he thinks there are communication issues within the district, but he questioned whether transparency was also an issue.
“I’m not necessarily convinced there’s a transparency issue,” he said “I think we’re pretty open and honest with everything we do. I think maybe we don’t communicate that well.”
Debbie Fort, who is retired from the Joplin district, said she thinks the district is neither transparent nor communicative. She pointed to a board policy that restricts members of the public to three minutes of comment about agenda items during board meetings.
“How can we change that?” she said, suggesting open forums to seek public participation. “How can we make us more open and receptive to what the public has to tell us?”
David Guilford, who is also retired from the district, pointed to the commenting policy as well and said it has a negative effect on openness.
“To me, that’s closing the door completely on the taxpayer,” he said. “I think it’s wrong, and I think it’s very detrimental to our district and our students.”
The media panel also asked the candidates how they would evaluate and measure teacher performance and whether the General Assembly should prevent the implementation of the Common Core State Standards across the state, as some legislators have proposed.
Candidates were across-the-board supportive of teachers and their mission to educate students; their ideas for evaluation included using student assessment results, parent and student feedback, and peer reviews.
They also were generally supportive of Common Core, with several noting that having academic standards for students is not new to Missouri. But some of the candidates said it would be important to ensure that control of the curriculum remains in teachers’ hands, and others said the implementation of Common Core would require involvement from everybody in the district.
“I believe the concept of Common Core is a great idea,” said Lynda Banwart, a nurse practitioner for Orthopaedic Specialists of the Four States. “How to implement that for us is something that’s going to take a round table; it’s going to take a lot of input.”
THE JOPLIN GLOBE’S next Candidate Connection forum will feature candidates for the Joplin City Council. It is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, March 31.