Exam: Talking with Columbia's school board candidates

Mar 26, 2012

This week on the show, you’ll hear from a couple of the candidates running for the school board in Columbia.

In next Tuesday’s election, voters will pick two of the four candidates, who will each serve three year terms. There’s only one incumbent who is running for re-election – that’s Christine King. We’ll hear from her and school board candidate Melvin Blase on this show next week.

But this week, we start with Paul Cushing. He’s a first-time candidate who works as a programmer for Miller’s professional imaging in Columbia. Cushing says he initially ran for school board because of his opposition to taxes, but he says there are other reasons, too. He spoke with KBIA’s Nick Gass:

Cushing: "Columbia’s my home. It’s a great place to live. I’ve made a home here. It’s been good to me, and I figured it would be a good way to give back to the community in some way. I think the school board is a thankless position. I’m sure that I’ll never please everyone. But, I don’t mind that. I’ll do the best I can. I’ll listen to everybody and try and do what they’re telling me—if I think it’s right. So, really, the bonds and levies were the motivator, but now that I’ve gotten involved with it, it’s fantastic. The people are nice to deal with. It’s been very pleasant. I’m learning a lot about how things work, not only in schools, but the interaction between Columbia Public Schools and the city and the county. It’s fascinating. It’s very interesting."

Gass: "So there are a lot of issues that are important with this particular school board election. What are your thoughts on the bond issue and tax levy? I’ve read that that was one of the main reasons you jumped in and wanted to be a candidate.  So could you maybe tell me a little bit more about your take?"

Cushing: "Sure. I was against it, initially. I don’t like taxes. So I was hoping when I ran I would understand that we didn’t need ‘em. But what I’ve seen so far, after visiting four or five schools with administrators, principals and parents is that we’re overcrowded and we have to build more buildings. The bond issue will take care of that, at least the one elementary school and some other issues that they need to take care of. But the levies are going to allow us to add a line item to the budget for technology, which I approve of and also will give teachers raises. And I think that’s a good thing. They’ve been without that for a couple of years, so…"

Gass: "The achievement gap is one of the most important, most talked-about things in Columbia right now. Very widely discussed. What do you think should be done about it?"

Cushing: "Well, I’ve said this several times in my answers to questions at the forums. But the achievement gap has always been something that we dealt with.  We used to be able to, or used to have the opportunities for people who did not go to college in manufacturing, but we don’t have that as much anymore. So what I’d love to see is more vocational training in our high schools. I’d like to see us really actively pushing kids who are at-risk or are not planning to go to college for any number of reasons, to choose a life skill that they can use, that they can take with them."

Gass: "And I’ve read from your background that that’s something that you experienced first-hand?"

Cushing: "Correct. Well, after high school, I worked for a few years and then realized that I needed something more and then went back to vocational school. It was inexpensive, the training was fantastic and I’ve benefited from it constantly since."

Rex Cone is also running for the school board. He talked with KBIA’s Daina Schnese to talk about budgets, the new high school in Columbia, and the challenges he might face if elected to the board:

Schnese: "I read you’re a freelance media producer. So what types of skills do you take from that to translate into you know becoming a school board candidate?"

Cone: "I think what I’ve developed over the years, the 14 years now I’ve been a freelancer, is really able to zero in on what some of the primary problems are. And I hope as a board member I can be a little… I hope I can kind of look past some of the chatter and just say, “Okay what’s the real problem here?”

Schnese: "With school funding obviously that’s still a big issue and federal funds really you know aren’t exactly growing. So what do you think the district can do to adjust with that problem?"

Cone: "You know as long as we can retain that good level of education, and we really can, I mean we have some terrific teachers and we have a high standard. But you know it’s like everyone says every year, you know, “You’re going to look for the fat,” and there’s really not much more fat. So some of it is just looking what we can do without and I can’t honestly tell you what can we do without, I don’t know that."

Schnese:  "Administrators have discussed the achievement gap in Columbia, do you see that as, is that a big issue in Columbia?"

Cone: "It is an issue in Columbia, and it is everywhere. Everywhere, everyone looks at the statistics. You know the advantage in Columbia is that we do lead the state in having a narrowed achievement gap. The purpose of the school board now is to give the teachers and the administrators permission to say, “Okay, what worked and what didn’t work?” We see incremental improvements because you know just like anything you know you can study all night for a test and maybe do okay on it the next day, but you may not retain that knowledge. And you know we have to, we’re teaching kids over for their lifetime of learning. So, nothing we do is going to suddenly make them score dramatic."

Schnese:  "So what do you think some of the potential opportunities are with Battle high school, with the new battle high school coming to the district?"

Cone: "Oh it’s, it’s just terrific. You know, the first, primarily it will relieve the crowding that are at Hickman, Rockbridge. But a lot of it is helping freshmen realize when they are in high school, that that freshman year counts. You know, the way we currently have it allocated, they’re freshman, they’re kind of the big dogs on campus in their junior high but you know put them in that environment with the sophomore, juniors, seniors, and they’re low and they’re suddenly realizing, oh, this is serious, these people really do actually read a book and study and do all these serious things."

Schnese: "What are the major challenges you see the district facing in the coming years or in the future?"

Cone: "Well primarily the budget, you know that’s the major challenge. The role of the school board will be to decide, how much risk are we willing to take with our budget? How much negotiating? You know, it’s going to be hard to negotiate some things. My primary goal as I’ve said, is you know two fold, why I don’t have a particular issue that I’m pushing and want to you know pound my fist on but I want to eliminate the trailers and of course that will happen with the passing of the tax levy or the bond issue. But you know when it’s so cold or when it’s raining out, every time that door opens, it disrupts learning. Every time some kids says, “I’ve gotta go to the bathroom,” you’ve got to coordinate because the buildings on lockdown so that you only have one entrance because of our security measures, so while they want to get in the building you have to coordinate to go open the door or just hold it or do…. And to a 10-year-old, that’s distracting."

Tune in to Exam next week to hear from the other two candidates for Columbia school board –Christine King and Melvin Blase. Also, check our website later this week for videos of the full-length interviews with all the candidates.