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Posted: July 16, 2010 9:07 p.m.

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Hopefuls take questions at BOE forum

Nearly all of the candidates in the crowded race for the Newton County Board of Education spoke at a political forum sponsored by the Newton County Voter’s League Tuesday night, answering questions about subjects such as school uniforms, teacher retention and budgets.

In the first part of the two-hour forum, candidates for District 3 were permitted to give the audience a two-minute introduction before answering questions. Toney D. Collins was out of the country on military duty, but sent a representative to read a statement.

One of the questions asked was how they would retain teachers in the county. James Johnson Jr. said that he believed that it could be done by providing a safe environment for both teachers and their students. Kevin Ward said he thought making schools a "joyous and positive" place to work would go a long long way.

Pamela Byrd-Consuegra felt that letting teachers know the board was there for them would help.

“The teachers need to feel that they have board support and community support,” she said, adding that the board could put their money where their mouths are come budget time and save teacher jobs as a way to keep them in the county.

Christine Young-Brown stressed fair pay and evaluations.

“Teachers should be aptly compensated, fairly evaluated and supported by top-notch professional development,” she said. “I propose that they are evaluated fairly, not just by how their students test.”

Shakila Henderson-Baker said she would make sure the teachers knew they had her support by being visible in the schools as well as working to open the lines of communication between school board and teachers. She also said the board should provide resources and paid training for the teachers instead of requiring them to pay out of pocket.

When asked how they would handle the budget Brown-Young suggested freezing salaries and cutting from the top and Byrd-Consuegra said lobbying would be a priority for her as well as looking at alternative school calendars which could possibly help eliminate furlough days.

“You have to understand the budget comes from the governor’s office so you have to start there first and hold them accountable,” said Henderson-Baker. “I would not work backwards,” she continued. “What I mean by that is that our past board made decisions first which caused a crisis… We need to get suggestions first and then make decisions. You have to get suggestions from the people you represent.”

Wade added that the budget did not have a lot of wiggle room to make adjustments due to 87 percent being made up of salaries, but that he would look at the other 13 percent and see where cuts could be made and if outsourcing was available for certain things.

Johnson suggested bringing someone in who was an expert in the subject matter to look over the budget and to also meet with community leaders.

“What I would do in the future is make sure to do a line-by-line, item-by-item and see what needs to be done. Those are some tough decisions to be made,” he said. 

Candidates also answered questions about Clements Theme School and how they would go about creating students who could compete in a global market. All stressed the importance of parental involvement in all schools, not just theme schools, and Henderson-Baker added that if parents did not get involved when students were young, they would not have the opportunity to prepare them for a global market. 

“Not all of our students here in Newton County are college-bound and that’s OK,” said Byrd-Consuegra. “We have to make sure that every student who graduates from our system is either college-ready or work-ready… We have to make sure our school system caters to everyone on the spectrum.”

District 1 hopefuls Dale M. Thompson, Jeff Meadors and Ron Hart were joined by District 5 candidate Abigail Morgan-Coggin to answer questions (Sharon Sawyer was unable to attend due to traffic). The first question posed to them questioned what sort of innovative programs they suggested to increase student achievement and better prepare students for the world outside of high school.

Thompson said he would push to bring in business partners, community organizations and civic clubs. Morgan-Coggin said that she didn’t have the answer but that she did know the school system had some “phenomenal” teachers. 

“I want to look at what we’ve got in-house before we worry about buying more curriculums to bring in,” she said.

“I think one of the best things we can do is what we have begun and broken ground on last Tuesday and that is the career academy off Ram Drive,” said Meadors, referring to the Newton College and Career Academy scheduled to open in January 2012.

“We have 56.8 percent of Newton County School students in career, technical and agricultural education in grades nine through 12. As a college administrator, I would love to see them all in college, but folks, 41.1 percent of our graduating classes are not HOPE eligible, so the Newton College and Career Academy is going to be a fantastic way to streamline quality training for the workforce.”

Hart said he would suggest making sure what they were doing worked and that nothing worked better than fundamentals.

“No innovative program takes the place of a motivated teacher getting the attention of the kids in the classroom,” he said. 

 Candidates were also asked their opinion on school uniforms and all agreed that if the administrators at the school, along with parents were in favor of uniforms ,they would support that decision.

They were also asked about their opinions of the safety or lack thereof in the schools. 

Hart said that he thought the board should empower the schools to take care of their problems but that, all in all, he felt the schools were safe, as did all of the other candidates.

Morgan-Coggin said that she felt like a smaller class size would be the key to keeping schools safe, though she felt in her personal experience (at East Newton Elementary School) the schools were safe. Meadors also cited research showing that smaller class sizes were the key to safety and success for students.

“I know East Newton and I know one classroom at Indian Creek Middle School and from what I’ve seen they are safe," said Thompson. "We can’t police the classroom but what we can do is empower the administrators."

The primary election is July 20 and early voting is currently taking place. Along with Board of Education, there are positions available in the Newton County Board of Commissioners, as well as all state and federal seats.

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