On April 17 at Mohawk Elementary School, the JJ Pearce HOA, along with three neighboring neighborhood associations, hosted a candidate forum for the Richardson ISD school board candidates. Six candidates for the two contested places took part: Joseph Armstrong, Ben Prado, Karen Clardy, Eric Eager (all for Place 3), and Lynn Davenport, Kristin Kuhne (Place 7).
Most of the questions plowed old ground from forums on March 21 and April 12 — personal resumes, Lake Highlands overcrowding, school choice vouchers, technology in schools, teacher retention. But there's always something new in these forums.
One question was a classic Bill Ames loaded question: long; more assertion than question; packed with assumed premises; eventually concluding with a question requiring one to grant the questionable premises in order to answer. In national politics, the standard example of a loaded question is "When did you stop beating your wife?" The Bill Ames formulation (I assume the question came from Bill Ames; I can't say for sure; if not, my bad) can be paraphrased, "RISD is sinking fast (the questionable premise), due to behavioral adjustment strategies (a questionable cause-and-effect relationship, sometimes swapped for project-based-learning or whatever Bill Ames is upset with on a given week), so what will you do to reverse the trend? (the loaded question). Most of the candidates' answers to this were slightly tangential, perhaps because they were unfamiliar with Bill Ames's modus operandi. Only Kuhne challenged the "whole bunch of assumptions" as she put it. She denied that RISD is sinking academically and defended educating the "whole child," pointing out that there has been a 50% decline in detention referrals in PBIS programs (positive behavioral interventions and support).
Another question asked candidates about the school board's approval of the RISD's District of Innovation (DOI) plan. Clardy said she was originally against DOI but came around to favor it. Eager, Armstrong, and Prado are in favor because of the flexibility and local control it gives RISD over curriculum and administration. Davenport called DOI, "District of Exemptions," and said she has serious concerns about multiple exemptions. This led to the first fireworks of the night. Davenport accused Kuhne of wanting to increase class sizes. Kuhne defended herself, denying the charge and claiming that Davenport missed the last RISD DOI committee meeting and sent an email to members saying she didn't support DOI. Davenport shook her head no and later said she missed the meeting because she had a conflict with a City of Dallas commission meeting.
One question asked candidates their opinions of how the current board handled the Lake Highlands overcrowding problem. Most candidates answered with some form of: we have to be more pro-active; it took too long; eventually the right decision was made. Clardy observed that "the longer it took, the more aggravated the community became." I think she touched on a widespread damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't aspect of local government. Personally, I think the RISD tried to be pro-active. A Lake Highlands reflector committee made up of about 48 parents, teachers, administrators, students, and community members held many long meetings discussing options. Bond information meetings were held at all four RISD high schools, explaining the placeholder for new construction in the bond. The RISD conducted a survey of homeowners. The problem was not that RISD didn't have two-way communication. The problem was that the community was (and still is) divided. In my opinion, no amount of talking, no amount of listening was ever going to bridge that divide. The reflector committee itself ended up with two recommendations that they chose not to narrow to one: a new K-6 school or new 5th-6th grade centers at both junior high campuses. The board decided on a new K-6 school, then later reversed that decision and went with a third option, adding classrooms to an existing school, an option that was widely panned originally out of concern it would create an elementary school with too many students. Maybe because the RISD spent so long talking and listening, maybe because the RISD allowed aggravation to build so much in the community, was this eventual decision generally recognized as the best (or least bad) outcome of the sometimes necessarily messy process of democracy. Democracy isn't always pretty. Sometimes it works in spite of itself.
The question about what can be done to improve teacher retention led to the second fireworks of the night. Kuhne said teacher retention is a board focus and has been for the last three years. A committee made up of teachers was formed that has led to the creation of a mentoring program for new teachers and the creation of better career pathways with financial incentives for teachers. Lynn Davenport responded by accusing Kuhne of impersonally treating teachers as "human capital" whereas she herself sees them as humans. I didn't get the impression from anything Kuhne said that she treats teachers impersonally, in fact just the opposite, and the term "human capital" is standard terminology in any large organization. Hasn't Davenport herself listed her role in "HR" as part of her business experience? HR stands for "Human Resources," typically used as a synonym for human capital. The thought that this was a cheap shot ran through my mind, but Kuhne didn't respond. The worst thing about the exchange is that the question about what can be done to improve teacher retention might have been lost in in the smoke. In the first forum, Davenport said she was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the district. More of that, please, and fewer negatives.