Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chair Tests For School Board Candidates

The band booster clubs of the Richardson ISD sponsored a forum for RISD school board candidates Tuesday evening in the Richardson High School band hall. Six candidates for three seats participated. I don't intend to endorse or oppose any candidate, but I do want to make some random comments about what was said at the forum. Just like the last forum, I won't be mentioning names.

After the jump, my impression of the forum.

First, why the band boosters and not the debate club parents? That's the question asked by Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News. Although he meant no disrespect, an explicit answer can be beneficial. It's because band, orchestra, choir and theater are popular programs in the RISD with large numbers of active, involved parents who care about the future of the district. Band boosters also care about debate and athletics and all the academic and extracurricular activities that make for balanced, well-rounded leaders of tomorrow. The answers given by all of the candidates for school board tells me that they "get it."

The highlight of the evening came in responses to a question about the recently proposed changes to the social studies standards by the Texas State Board of Education. Included in the SBOE's proposed changes is the rehabilitation of Senator Joe McCarthy, the man behind the excesses of the Communist witch hunts in America in the 1950s. Another change is the removal of Thomas Jefferson from a list of Enlightenment thinkers who influenced attitudes towards liberty and the rights of man. The money quote from the RISD candidates forum was "Thomas Jefferson is rolling over in his grave." Another candidate, less colorfully but just as forcefully, said, "I resent anyone who uses our children to forward a political agenda." Other candidates also lamented the politicization of education by the SBOE. One encouraged the community to stay engaged with what's happening in Austin and vote accordingly (without explicitly saying who to vote for ... or against). All in all, I'm confident our current school board has its priorities straight on this subject and the new school board will, too.

(As an aside, Wisconsin's Joe McCarthy hailed from my own hometown, is buried within walking distance of where I went to school, and I never once danced on his grave, although I admit that the thought did cross my mind. If I had lived in Virginia, it never would have occurred to me to dance on Thomas Jefferson's grave.)

One questioner asked if the First Amendment justifies the removal of all references to God from our public schools. The right answer is, of course, "No" and one candidate, to his credit, said so plainly. All of the candidates' answers suggested that they, too, understand that court opinions that have curtailed school-led prayer are not equivalent to removal of all references to God. Several pointed out the diversity of RISD and how all religions need to be respected. One praised the RISD's Religious Practices Committee and its proactive policy on diversity of religious practices, clothing, food, etc.

One question and the candidates' answers pretty much assumed that an RISD bond election will be held in 2011. Judging by those answers, expect the bond proposal to contain infrastructure items (e.g., fine arts facilities in need of "refresh", greening of buildings to reduce energy costs), information technology (e.g., computers and networking for students and staff), and items for career technology education (e.g., automotive, robotics, geographic information systems, horticulture, culinary arts, etc.)

As for challenges facing RISD, there are many. Attracting, developing and retaining quality teachers was mentioned by several candidates. Managing diversity was another, in all its forms - cultural, socioeconomic, academic ability and career goals. Increasing parent and community involvement was a third. Budgeting challenges was yet another. One candidate warned that schools are going to face the brunt of the state's upcoming budget shortfall ($5B-$15B by some estimates).

How to help under-achieving schools? Several candidates mentioned TAP™ (Teacher Advancement Program) and its impact on Audelia Creek Elementary. TAP™ is a national program designed to attract, develop and reward the best and brightest to the teaching profession. Since 2006, Audelia Creek's academic rating has moved from barely "Acceptable" to "Recognized" to "Exemplary" and teacher turnover has dropped to less than 10%. Unfortunately, the same candidates mentioned high cost as a barrier to applying the lessons-learned from TAP™ to the rest of the district's schools.

Shorter summer break? Year-round school? Don't bet on it. None of the candidates were in favor of it. Maybe in principle, but not in practice for various reasons.

Extracurricular activities? By all means. Given that the forum was sponsored by the band boosters, it's forgivable if the candidates lavished on the praise for band. One said some of his greatest life lessons came from his own experience in band. Another said that involvement in fine arts promotes academic achievement. All said that a broad involvement in extracurricular activities is vital to develop the whole child. But the band boosters already knew that. Still, they always like to hear it.

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