School board candidates voice opinions at NAACP forum
9 of 14 running for a seat on the board of ed attended event
The Charles County NAACP Branch hosted a board of education candidate forum on Sept. 20 at Regency Furniture Stadium’s Legends Club in Waldorf, where dozens of local community members got an opportunity to ask questions and interact with some of the candidates up close and personal.
Joseph Sampson, first vice president of the county’s NAACP branch, moderated about eight rounds of questions. Each candidate was allotted up to two minutes to voice their responses to concerns that local residents wrote down on index cards.
“It’s important that we allow the candidates
to voice what they stand for and the positions they have on certain issues,” said former branch vice president Dyotha Sweat. “But it’s more important for us, as the citizens who are going to vote for them, to be able to ask those questions. That is the reason we made this platform available for us to do so.”
The nine school board candidates who participated in last Thursday’s forum included Elizabeth Brown, Barbara Palko, Michael Lukas, Victoria Kelly, Latina Wilson, Virginia McGraw, Leslie Coker, Robert Pitts and David Hancock. Discussion topics included the biggest challenges facing the school system today; whether or not teachers should get paid more; improving the county’s hiring and retention rates; school safety as it relates to arming teachers and putting metal detectors in schools; preparing students for the workforce and why the candidates deserve a spot on the board of education.
In terms of the school system’s biggest challenge, Pitts believes it is the increase in population of students, a hefty percentage of which is composed of those with special needs and English for Speakers of Other Languages, commonly referred to as ESOL. Pitts said this ultimately impacts the school system’s funds and resources, which is not so easy to address.
Pitts also said that teaching is not a popular choice of profession among millennials. However, he said it is very important to find innovative ways that will encourage the best and brightest individuals to come back into the school system.
Coker said the school system’s actions need to reflect maximizing educational opportunities for students and their future success.
“As a past IEP [Individualized Education Program] facilitator, it’s very difficult sometimes for the schools to get all of the different resources that they need to make sure accommodations are in the classroom for special needs students,” Coker said. “With the increase of [student] population, we really do need to work on making sure that all of the schools have adequate space, adequate facilities and state-of-theart technology so that our students who are coming into the county and getting an education can benefit in the best way possible.”
McGraw said safety and discipline are two of the biggest challenges currently facing the school system. She sees a need to continue advocating for more well-rounded security and safety programs in schools throughout the county.
“Our discipline across the county, as well as across the nation, is at an all-time high that we need to address,” McGraw said. “It’s one of those things that needs to be a shared responsibility. Responsibility is not just on our schools, but it’s also on the parents and the children. Children have to understand that there are consequences to their behavior. We need to continue to work on ways to help address students in understanding what those consequences are and provide support for them. In the same respect, we need our teachers to have the support they need to understand why children act the way that they do.”
“One of the biggest issues we have is retention of teachers and that’s connected to discipline,” Palko said. “In the last two years, we have hired over 300 teachers. That many teachers is not very helpful in developing positive relationships with students, because we have new teachers in and out all the time. I have interviewed a number of teachers about the reason that they’re leaving and the biggest thing they say is discipline. The discipline issue is bigger than the schools; it spreads out to the community. It’s a community and school effort that has to take place.”
Wilson said two minutes is not nearly enough to address what the school system’s biggest challenge is. She spoke about the changing dynamics of families, particularly in the African-American community, as there are more single parents and even grandparents who are taking care of school kids.
“We have families in this community that are at the bus stop at [4:30 a.m.] and sometimes don’t get home until 6 and 8 o’clock at night. That one-on-one time with our children, the building of executive functioning skills, is very lacking so that leads to disciplinary problems,” Wilson said. “All of these challenges are then placed on the school system. When you throw in the teachers, we have to find a way to get them more support and prepare for these new demands from kids. We also got to respect our teachers. The classroom needs to be a sanctuary; it’s a place where a child should be able to come, learn and grow.”
“There are a lot of issues — discipline, safety and security, bullying,” Kelly said. “With that comes cultural competency. We’re trying to figure out where kids are coming from, what their family life is like and what their background is. A lot of those issues can
be addressed if we can stop and understand each other. Another part of that is our school system’s #ChooseKind campaign. We’re trying to be more in tune with the social-emotional component and also getting parents involved and community support.”
Lukas said having community and parental input is key to addressing a majority of the school system’s challenges. It’s very hard to implement policies that will work for approximately 26,000 kids; therefore, flexibility is essential to creating an overall safer and better school community, according to Lukas.
“I agree with everything that has been said here,” Brown said. “But I think these problems can be fixed with school funding. School funding will increase teachers’ salaries so that we can recruit the best teachers that are available. With more school funding, we can help find and implement more programs to help those kids with discipline problems in our schools, support restorative practices, etc. With school funding, we can have programs that meet the needs of special needs kids. I think school funding is the biggest issue here.”
According to Sampson, the average starting salary for teachers in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia areas is between $47,000 and $50,000. Fortunately, he said Charles County is on par with the current pay standard for educators.
Kelly, who was a finance major in college, said the school system needs to stay on par with what surrounding school jurisdictions are doing as a lot of times it is an economic decision for prospective employees.
In addition to offering more professional development opportunities, Kelly said more support is needed for teachers so that the retention rate can improve.
“It’s all about supply and demand,” she said. “When you’re offered two different options for a job, a lot of people will most likely choose the one that pays the most because they have bills to pay and things like that. We need to stay on par with what the surrounding communities are doing.”
Wilson said she is absolutely certain that teachers deserve to be paid more.
“Less than 5 percent of college students major in education. They want to raise families and have a decent quality of life,” said Wilson. “I’m a strong believer that we not only need to pay teachers more, but on par with other professions. We’re not even competing with some of the other professions so how can we make teaching attractive? We have enough issues as it is with the respect of teaching compared to 50 years ago. Think about it — our teachers are building the future.”
As a former principal, McGraw said one of the first things that prospective teachers would ask her is what type of support they would receive during their first year.
McGraw agreed that larger salaries, more professional development and support systems need to be in place in order to attract new talent to the school system.
“Many of them come from out of state and they need a caring environment in which they can learn,” McGraw said. “One of the recommendations from the Kirwan Commission [on Innovation and Excellence in Education] says that over the next five years, they would like to increase teacher salaries by 32 percent. That would be huge for our teaching population here.”
In order to get teachers to stay in the county, Pitts said support from the community is needed on an economic, social and professional level.
“Our teachers definitely need to have an increase in pay but this is a national problem. It’s something that we all need to come together not just as a school system, but as a community,” Coker said. “One of the things that the board of education is responsible for is to seek the necessary finances so that our school system will be able to run and also improve the budget. We, as members, need to find ways to get more resources into our school system. We need to partner with different organizations so that we can provide teachers with incentives and bonuses and different things, outside of just increasing their pay.”
Palko, a former teacher, also agreed that educators deserve better pay. Because there are so many teachers who can’t afford housing in the area and also have student loan debt, Palko said community support is vital for retention efforts.
“We import about 60 percent of our teachers. They’re here without family and need the community to embrace them,” she said. “They need that community support that says, ‘I care about you.’”
“At one time, years ago, teaching was like a calling and people went into teaching for the love of it,” Brown added. “But you have these young people now who are looking for money. They’re looking for a way to support their families so that’s not going to fly anymore. They want money and they will leave this county and go to the next one that pays more money. In mentoring our teachers; we have to be able to provide them a mentor that they can connect with. I find that a lot of teachers need that personal and social connection. But they shouldn’t have to bunk up with another teacher in order to stay here in Charles County. We have to find a way to help them.”
Hancock expressed that all of the candidates understand the responsibilities at hand and are more than qualified to represent the board of education. As a local small business owner, Hancock said he has experienced firsthand the different aspects of the educational system and knows what it takes to “balance the books,” as well as increase morale among employees.
“I know what it’s like for what the teachers go though,” said Hancock, a father of three whose wife is a teacher in the school system. “I see a lot of finger pointing that goes on around here and that’s got to stop. We all want the same goal and that’s to provide the best educational system for our kids. If you live in the county, then you’ve got skin in this game. We have to start working as a team and that’s my goal; using common sense and teamwork to create a great product.”
Board of education member Virginia McGraw, fourth from right, holds the microphone as she speaks during a NAACP candidate forum on Sept. 20 at Regency Furniture Stadium’s Legends Club in Waldorf.