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Squaring off: Forum focuses on latest school issues

From left to right, Kerrie Aistrop, Keith Ervin, Jason Day, David Hammon, Trevor Knight, Donald Feathers, Chad Fleenor and Mitch Meredith were all present at the WCEA school board forum.

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

It’s not time to elect school board members for the upcoming August election, but candidates running for a spot on the board of education are already discussing local education issues in Washington County.

On Tuesday, May 22, the Washington County Educator’s Association held a school board candidate forum at the McKinney Center in Jonesborough. Those running for a seat on the Washington County Board of Education were present to answer questions which were decided by WCEA’s political action committee. The candidates were familiar with the questions, which were emailed to them prior to the event.

“We don’t know some (candidates) and we don’t know what they have to offer until they have an opportunity to speak, “ WCEA president Regina France told the Herald & Tribune. “And we want to give every one a fair chance to share what their ideas are on the concerns. You might be surprised. It’s a fair way to get to know the candidates.”

The panel of candidates included those running for District 1 — Kerrie Aistrop, current board member Keith Ervin and Jason Day — and those running for District 3 — current board member David Hammond, Trevor Knight, Donald Feathers, Chad Fleenor and Mitch Meredith. Current board member Annette Buchanan, who will run in District 1, was unable to attend the event but sent a statement which was read at the beginning of the forum.

The members of the panel were allowed to answer each question, which revolved around education issues. While some questions focused on state-wide issues like testing and school funding, others focused on local issues within the Washington County School District, like the role of the director of schools.

When asked what responsibilities and priorities each candidate would put to the director of schools, Feathers and Day both said they felt the director alone shouldn’t have the power to terminate school employees. Meanwhile, Hammond cited accountability and respect as aspects associated with the position and also said it wasn’t realistic to support a director while disagreeing with the decisions he or she makes. Ervin said he felt the way in which the director carries out his or her responsibilities was an integral part of the position.

“If you’ve got five board members that vote one way and four board members that vote the other way,” Ervin said, “it better be carried out to what the five board members says.

“If it’s not, she —or the person in the position — is not being held accountable. The school board sets policy, the director of schools carries it out. That’s how it’s supposed to be done. Sometimes it don’t get done that way, sometimes it does.”

Aistrop said she felt building a healthy, supportive culture for school employees was the top responsibility of the director of schools, while Knight, Day and Fleenor all said they felt supporting the director was vital as a member of the BOE.

“I was looking through Washington Counties policies and one thing that stuck with me is she is literally called on paper the chief executive officer of our school system,” Knight said.

“And to me, that means we have to let her do her job.”

The panel also discussed the Jonesborough K-8 School project, which has been an issue riddled with 5-4 votes from the BOE in regards to the school’s design plan, with two of those design decisions being voted down by the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee twice within the last eight months.

While many discussed the need to act quickly to get a plan started for the Jonesborough project, multiple candidates said they felt it was time to simplify the decision-making process in regards to the school.

“It’s this simple; in nine months, where have we gotten? Have we gotten anywhere? No,” Aistrop said. “Everybody has the list of everything the Jonesborough parents want and everyone has a list of everything school board members want. It’s time we have a meeting with Tony Street (the project’s architect) with a pen and paper and say, ‘They want a new gym? Okay. They need the asbestos removed? Okay. We need new pipes?’ It’s real simple stuff. Tony, make $20.7 million work with these tiny little demands so our kids can have safe drinking water and no asbestos. It’s that simple.”

The panel didn’t just touch on building schools; as it has across the county, the school security discussion was also spurred at the event in light of recent school shootings.

The discussion predominantly involved what many panel members considered a lack in the number of school resource officers. Multiple candidates said they’ve heard that certain schools are sharing SROs, which, they felt, could lead to a severe lack in school safety.

“The thing I don’t like either; the SRO will be out directing traffic — then who’s in the schools?,” Fleenor said.

“The SRO is gone. We’ve got to do a better job of getting that fixed. We need two officers minimum.”

Day and Feathers both said they recently visited two Washington County Schools where Feathers said he saw a lack in SROs and Day said he felt there was a need to up campus security and focus on adding security to the top of a list of priorities.

“I got out of the truck and walked around and looked at things,” Day said. “No one, in over 35-plus minutes, ever addressed that. That was a red flag to me. Overall, we need campus safety. Anyone can drive up to our schools.

“We have our wants and our needs, but I feel this is something that needs to be prioritized in my opinion.”

The general election will be held on Thursday, Aug. 2. Early voting will begin on Friday, July 13 and will end on Saturday, July 28.

For more information, go to www.wcecoffice.com/.