CHESTERTOWN — In an election where questions of school safety and lack of diversity in the Kent County Public Schools teaching staff have repeatedly been raised, the topics came to a head Monday during a League of Women Voters of Kent County forum for candidates for the Board of Education.

The league posed questions familiar to the candidates of this election season. Each candidate was allowed two minutes to answer. The three questions were followed by questions from the audience.

Margie Elsberg served as the moderator for the forum, which was held at the Chestertown branch of Kent County Public Library.

“What do you consider the most important policy issue currently facing the Kent County Board of Education and what are your recommendations for addressing it?” read the first question.

Both Nivek Johnson, who is making his third bid for school board, and Wendy Costa, who has served on the board for four years, said the board’s biggest policy issue lies in creating policies for coping with or preventing declining enrollment.

Costa said the board “needs to look in the mirror” and “stop blaming the commissioners, housing and lack of internet” in regards to declining enrollment.

She said if the school district was rated higher, there would be less enrollment loss. She said the board needs to “hash things out” to find out why people are leaving the schools.

A point Costa has asserted in previous forums, she said children need to be encouraged to read at home and during school breaks. She said parents need to understand that if their child is not reading, he or she is “in trouble.”

Both Trish McGee, who has served on the board for four years and currently is board president, and Francoise Sullivan, who is making her first bid for the board, said they understood the question differently and applied it to specific policy issues facing KCPS.

McGee, who also is associate editor of the Kent County News, cited school safety as an issue the board needs to be proactive about. She said bullying and harassment are additional issues that need to be addressed. McGee referenced a policy issue the board is currently grappling with — changing the graduation gowns at Kent County High School to one color as to not force a student to identify their gender.

McGee said she would like to see the board be “open minded” about these issues.

Sullivan said she agrees with McGee and she would like to “look more closely on how bullying is related to trauma.” She said the schools need to find out how certain students cope with trauma, whether it is shutting down or lashing out, and train teachers on how best to respond.

Sullivan also said the board needs to address parent involvement and find more ways for parents to participate.

“Due to declining enrollment in county public schools and the consequent decline in funding, what programs are you willing to cut to reduce the budget?” read the second question.

None of the candidates listed any programs they would be willing to cut to reduce future budgets.

Costa said she is “very supportive” of KCPS Superintendent Karen Couch’s efforts to keep programing in place while dealing with budget cuts.

Costa said the board “needs to keep eyes on” the school system’s central mission, which is to produce high school graduates that are “ready for the world.”

She said cuts should come up from the schools and not be handed down from the school board.

McGee said she is not in favor or supportive of cutting any programs.

“I think when we consolidated our middle school about five or six, seven years ago and then when we consolidated our elementary schools, I think one of the promises we made to our community was we were doing this so that we wouldn’t have to cut programs and I think that’s a promise we need to keep or we need to certainly exhaust all opportunities,” McGee said.

McGee said if a student starts a program one year and it is cut the next, it’s not fair to the student to not see it through.

She said though the school system has limited funding, the board has to find a way to fund things, whether that be through creative ways or raise funds on its own.

“I’m not in support of cutting anything. It’s public education. I think that everybody should get the best that we can give them,” McGee said. “We need to find ways to make our schools stand out and you can’t make them stand out if you keep taking away from them.”

Sullivan again agreed with McGee. Sullivan broke down how cutting programs like the career and technology program at the high school or athletics would initially save money, but would result in a loss of students.

“Who would want to send their child to a school that doesn’t have an athletic program?” Sullivan said. “I believe the loss of any of these programs would hurt our students by greatly limiting their opportunities and exposure to programs and concepts that they may not otherwise have. I believe that offering our students less would lead to a more substantial decline in enrollment as parents would seek out enrichment opportunities for their children elsewhere.”

She also encouraged voters to vote yes on Question One, which is a constitutional amendment “requiring commercial gaming revenues that are for public education to supplement spending for education in public schools.”

Johnson said he also is not for cutting anything. He said to avoid budget cuts the board needs to be proactive and create fundraisers for the school system.

“Precisely, what would you vote for as a board member to improve the security of the county schools?” was the third question prepared by the league.

McGee said there are already policies in place that are working to ensure the schools are safe. She said the schools need to make sure they are following those polices.

McGee said she is in support of safety vestibules, or added security at the entrance to all the schools. The vestibules would require anyone wishing to enter the school to be buzzed into a secure area at the entrance. The person would then need to show identification and give reason for their visit before being allowed into the school or allowed to exit outside.

McGee said, however, Kent County is getting the least amount of funding from the state for increase security in its schools. She said the funding will pay for one security vestibule. She also cited technology Couch is working on acquiring Raptor Technology, which would help teachers know exactly who is in their class and where students are in case of an emergency.

“I don’t know that there’s anything I wouldn’t support,” McGee said of security measures. “There’s nothing more important than the safety of your kids.”

Sullivan said the security vestibules are a good start, but the schools will need someone to monitor them. She said there should be school resource officers at all of the schools.

Sullivan also said extra stressors in children’s lives are a reason to prioritize school safety.

“The reality is that our students are dealing with stress and factors that most of us did not have to deal with at such an age and providing an environment that not only protects their physical wellbeing but also provides for their mental wellbeing should be our goal,” Sullivan said.

Johnson said he agreed with what all the other candidates said. He said he was saddened to know KCPS received such a small amount of money from the state for school security. He said he would vote in favor of anything that improves school safety saying that even elementary schools can be a “big target.”

Costa said she also would vote in favor of anything that would support school safety. She also said threats to safety may not always come from an outside person but from the students themselves.

She said Kent County is a community with a lot of guns. She said because of this, she is in favor of a restorative justice program and would vote in favor of training teachers to identify troubled children as early as possible.

She said there also should be a gun safety workshop for parents.

When the candidates were asked by an audience member if they were in favor of arming teachers as means of school safety, all four said they were not.

When the questions were handed over to the audience, the topic of diversity — or lack thereof — in KCPS and public perception of the schools, became the main focuses of concern.

Airlee Johnson, a member of the Social Action Committee, asked what all the candidates would do to increase the good publicity of the school system.

Nivek Johnson called the board “the eyes of the school system.” He praised past efforts such as ads and signs in support of the schools. He also praised the school’s revamping of its website. But he said more can be done including devoting some of the school system’s internal resources and using the students’ tech skills.

Costa praised Couch’s work a spokesperson of the school system. She said, however, public relations only goes so far and that she would rather spend the money on programing that keep students in the school system or attracts new students.

McGee said when funding wasn’t an issue, the school district used to have someone who handled public relations. McGee said that she thinks the current board and Couch do show their support of the schools although it may not be as demonstrative as some of the outside groups.

McGee said that “she’s not sure it’s our job” to be overtly praising the schools. She said the public needs to hear the good things about the school system from the ground level and that KCPS could do a better job in public relations.

Sullivan agreed that KCPS does not have the personnel to run an active campaign in support of the schools. She said Kent County has “less than half the staff of the next smallest school district in Maryland” making it difficult to generate good promotional material for the schools. However, Sullivan said the school system could do better.

The Rev. Robert Brown Jr. of Bethel AME Church in Chestertown asked what the board could be doing to attract the best qualified minority teachers. Cheryl Saunders, a retired teacher from KCPS, also said it is “not fair” to the African American students to not have a teacher that looks like them.

“Some kids are going to learn regardless of the color, and some need to see themselves. Some African American kids — especially the boys — they need to see themselves,” Saunders said.

Saunders said she’d spoken with an African American woman who had been recruited to work in the school district, but the woman said she was not hired because she was “too qualified.” Saunders said this gives the perception that African American teachers are not wanted in the school district.

Costa said the school district is “trying very hard to hire minority teachers,” but she said the district needs to offer the highest salaries it can in order to do so.

She said the district also needs to provide good working conditions and a climate that is “inviting to new ideas.”

Costa said though there is a nation-wide teaching shortage, it is an artificial one because teachers should not have to be certified in order to teach.

“I think the real solution is to change the laws so that you get qualified teachers the way private schools do,” Costa said. “We should get rid of elementary education degrees. They’re stupid degrees. Most people don’t really learn much about anything in them. So, that’s the ultimate solution to this problem. There are plenty of people who would like to teach but they don’t want to go through that Mickey Mouse stuff and that is the way to get more minority teachers.”

One of the audience members suggested calling on retired minority teachers in the county to help in the recruitment process.

Sullivan praised the idea, saying it would be an excellent way to show that teachers can “live and grow in Kent County.”

Johnson also was in support of the idea and he said if elected he would hold Couch and Ed Silver, supervisor of human resources for KCPS, accountable.

Costa said “it’s a number one priority” to hire diverse teachers.

“I think one thing that could put a little bite in it is if the school board would come out and say, ‘We’re making recruitment of African Americans and minorities a priority.’ And I don’t know that we’ve done that,” McGee said as a first step in increasing recruitment.

She said the community also can play a role in recruitment.

McGee said the board is working to improve teachers salaries, but that money alone is not enough to attract new teachers. She said the school system has to find other ways of getting new teachers.

Sullivan agreed, saying salaries are a big part of attracting new teachers, but lack of affordable housing in the county is a big factor too.

Sullivan also brought up KCPS’ status as a Title I school meaning because of the level of poverty of its students, the school system gets extra money. Sullivan suggested providing new teachers with a break in their student loan payment in exchange for living and working in the county.

Johnson said he agreed with the other candidates statements. Additionally, he suggested working to convert Kent County’s students into teachers by providing incentives for students.

He also said the lack of opportunity for professional growth in the county can be a deterrent for prospective teachers and a factor in why he is teaching in Montgomery County as opposed to Kent County.

He said it is possible to have a lot of diversity in the teaching staff because in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an influx of African American teachers working here.

In response to Saunders question of the current lack of diversity in teaching staff, Johnson said being African American himself, he understands the benefits of being taught by a teacher that looks like you.

He said it helps him relate with students at his job in Montgomery County Public Schools. He said he will do “everything in his power” to ensure there is a diverse staff.

McGee said “the obvious answer is yes” in regard to seeking more diversity for the teaching staff. However, she said people of color are not applying for the job in Kent County. She said that does not mean the school district can’t go out and do a better job of recruiting those teachers.

She said people who grow up in poverty usually do not want to be a teacher though because it is a typically low-paying job. Additionally, she said the school district should recruit at historically black schools.

Sullivan said recruiting teachers is a challenge in a rural area and doubly so because minority teachers may not feel comfortable coming to a rural area.

Sullivan said every year the National Music Festival organizers find people willing to house musicians for two weeks. She said the school district should do something similar and hold a recruitment weekend where people can come and see the schools and what the county is like.

When asked if the candidates would be willing to hire someone to do recruiting in other states, specifically South Carolina, Johnson said he would want to work with local community organizations and business to send people to other states.

Costa said recruitment does not have to come from southern states.

“I don’t know what the magic of the South is, I’d rather go to states with better school systems like New Jersey,” Costa said. “I think we should recruit wherever we can.”

She said the school district should be recruiting from school systems with higher rating. She cited Massachusetts as an example.

She said recruiting teachers from other states can be an issue because those states may not have the same certification requirements as Maryland.

Costa also accounted for Johnson’s statement that there were more African American — female — teachers in the 1950s and 1960s because “they weren’t able to do other things.”

“We are competing against people who want to be doctors and engineers and you know, all sorts of other professions,” Costa said of the challenges in recruitment.

Jodi Bortz, a founding member of Support Our Schools, asked what the candidates would do if the schools were fully funded? In her question, she referenced revenue from casino gaming, which has been redirected to other parts of the state’s budget away from benefiting public schools.

Bortz said KCPS is underfunded by $4.5 million.

Question One on this year’s ballot amends Maryland’s Constitution so gaming revenues go to public education.

All the candidates gave a laundry list of things they would do with the money.

Costa said she would hire social workers for all the schools as well as helping teachers for all the principals.

McGee said she would raise teachers salaries and “pay them what they are worth.” She said she too would hire social workers, bring back the late bus, buy more buses so students do not have to endure long bus rides, increase programming and create before and after school programs.

Sullivan said she would create more programming for students who are English-as-a-second-language learners. She said she would universalize the school’s starting time to 8 a.m. so teenagers can get more sleep.

Johnson said he would offer more professional growth for teachers, implement a late bus and offer more mentors and consulting teachers for new teachers.

“I do think we’re moving in the right direction,” McGee said. “Just the way everybody rattled off those things, that was the easiest question to answer was that last question, ‘What would you do with more money.’ So that shows you money is so important.”

In closing, all the candidates thanked the league for the forum and thanked the audience for considering them as candidates.

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