HUMBOLDT — Seven of the eight at-large candidates for Humboldt school board appeared before a crowd of about 50 Thursday night. The forum’s lone absentee was incumbent Sandra Whitaker.
The event — which allowed the audience two-plus hours to ask Joyce Allen, Donald Hauser, Craig Mintz, Scott Murrow, Clayton Schoendaller, Briana Wilkerson and Joe Works a set of varied questions in advance of the April 7 election — was hosted by the Humboldt National Education Association.
While most of the responses Thursday evening began with each candidate joining his or her answer to the previous speaker’s, there were a handful of cordial disagreements along the way. For instance, late in the session, a longtime USD 258 teacher implored the prospective board members, if elected, to actually visit her classroom, to observe the progress her students make, to do a better job of communicating with district teachers and staff. “Are you willing to go and see how classrooms are running? Don’t you want to know [what’s going on in our schools]?”
This touched on a recurrent topic of the evening, which was the perceived tension that exists between the board, the administration and the teachers (the specifics of which were never spelled out on the night). And while all seven candidates agreed that “communication is important,” when pressed to wring a clearer meaning out of that airy phrase, their answers revealed divergent views.
So, to the teacher’s question: Should an individual board member make visits to the classrooms in his or her district?
For Joyce Allen, it’s a no-brainer: They should. In her previous role on the board at USD 506 in Altamont, Allen “made an effort to attend all of the district’s schools at least once a month.
“I attended classes — I would just pick one; they didn’t know I was coming…. It should be about us all working as a team. We just want to see how good a job you’re doing. We’re not trying to tear things apart. We’re all in it together.”
For Don Hauser, the solution was equally clear: They should not. Hauser recalls a meeting with a KASB official during his previous tenure on the Humboldt school board. “She said you do not walk into the classroom. A board only has — for lack of a better term — ‘power’ from 7 o’clock Monday night until you adjourn…. She said you do not walk into a classroom unannounced — that is not something that KASB recommends you do. After that board meeting is over, the board members are no more important than anybody else in the community.”
HNEA’S vice president, Tim Osborn, posed a question early in the forum which, like many of the questions to come, asked the candidates to respond to some piece of dramatic activity coming down from Topeka.
In light of a recent legislative proposal to restrict collective bargaining, Osborn asked the panelists to air their views on the value of teacher negotiations.
Hauser spoke in favor of teachers’ bargaining rights but suggested, drawing from his previous years’ experience in the role, that the often-fraught process of negotiations could be smoothed by the counsel of an outside mediator. He also suggested that the process might benefit from a stricter limit on the number of issues teachers could negotiate annually — a restriction, in fact, that was listed as a key ingredient of the recently rejected House Bill 2326, to which Osborn’s question alluded.
Craig Mintz, recalling his time as a union president at Monarch Cement was more succinct in his support for full negotiations, insisting that the process “helps both sides.”
Both Schoendaller and Wilkerson, in general agreement with the previous speakers, were eager to correct the public perception that teacher negotiations dwell on money alone. “A lot of people when they hear about collective bargaining,” said Wilkerson, “they think of the money. But what comes along with collective bargaining is policy, too.”
“At the heart of collective bargaining is the concept of fairness,” said Works, owner of B & W Trailer Hitches and an incumbent board member of 12 years. “I’m in favor of hearing whatever input the teachers have for how to improve our schools. [But] there are some things that fall within the board’s role and there are other things that fall within the administrator’s role. We need to remain in those roles. I don’t think the teachers need to be involved in every decision that is made in the district.”
ANOTHER hotly debated topic followed. The questioner asked the panel to offer their opinion on the Legislature’s recent decision to “do away with tenure, [which essentially did away] with due process.”
“I was in favor of the bill passing,” said Hauser. “With that said, an administrator is going to have to prove to me that the employee [has been given] every opportunity to improve….” If, after sufficient efforts to correct the employee’s performance, the teacher still “turns their back on that guidance,” then they need to be removed. “As a taxpayer, I’d be pretty upset if I knew a teacher wasn’t doing the best job they could do in the classroom and was just showing up for a paycheck.”
“I have to agree,” said a straight-talking Mintz. “I do not like tenure. I think it makes people lazy. I’m totally against it.”
Wilkerson arrived at the subject from an opposite angle, and argued that due process in education has received a “bad rap.” “All you hear about in the media is tenure and keeping the bad teachers….. But what due process does is allow our teachers to advocate for our students.
“If our teachers have classrooms that are too big, they can go talk to administrators or the board without fear of retaliation or being terminated. When we got rid of that, our teachers were no longer protected,” Wilkerson said.