Dade County Candidate Debates: Board of Education

June 1, 2020

Serving on the Dade County Board of Education is not for the faint of heart. The hours are long, the pay is minimal, the capacity for public gratitude scant and for public blame unlimited. Thus it is no wonder that of the three board seats up for grabs this year only one, the at-large seat, is contested. What is unusual is that there are three candidates for that one seat and, moreover, that the two who showed up for candidate debates on May 14 both seemed so eminently qualified to serve. 


The third candidate, Patrick Hickey, is still listed on the Georgia Secretary of State's website as in the running, but he did not attend the event sponsored by local television station KWN and hosted by the Dade County Public Library that, in this campaign season stymied by the COVID-19 lockdown, represented virtually the only opportunity for local candidates to get their message out.


All three of the school board candidates, and in fact all candidates for local offices this year, are running as Republicans. The primary election is next Tuesday, June 9.


Candidate no.1 for the at-large seat was Dr. Jayne Griffin, who said in her introductory remarks. "Years of experience in education and a deep love for Dade County are what brought me here." Before her current education administration job--she is director of education at Chattanooga's Creative Discovery Museum--Dr. Griffin taught in Georgia public schools for 20 years at several different grade levels. With a son who teaches and coaches and three grandchildren in Georgia public schools, Dr. G said. "I really have seen the joys of public education up close and personal, and also the frustrations."


Candidate no. 2 is Brooke Wilson, a mother with children in the Dade school system. She said that with kids in the schools, "I've seen what we do great and I've seen where we struggle." Ms. Wilson said she's heard from teachers and bus drivers that the board needs to listen to them a little harder. "It comes down to communication," she said. Parents, also, need to be communicated with. "They need to feel that the school board is there for them," said Ms. Wilson. 


Asked their opinion on a four-day school week, both the candidates agreed that more research was necessary. "I would not be opposed," said Dr. Griffin. She pointed out how well the remote learning situation thrust upon the Dade system by the COVID-19 closure had worked. "In the past eight weeks, we have discovered capacities and potentials we did not even know that we had," she said. Kids would probably be just fine with one less day of in-person instruction, said Dr. Griffin. "However, when you look at the rhythm of life, a four-day school week for a five-day working parent may not work so well," she added.   


She would look at parents, too, said Ms. Wilson. "I know that there are some parents who have young children who are not able to be at home," she said, and the COVID-19 closure had created big problems for them. Also, kids with conditions such as ADHD do better with teachers trained to cope, she reminded. "Parents are not educators full-time," she said. "Teachers can do things we can't...I believe that we need to find something that works with both parties."


The two candidates also had similar thoughts on bullying in the schools. Despite the system's zero-tolerance policy on bullying, said Ms. Wilson: "I believe we have some students who are afraid to speak up. We need to find out why this is." If the school system can foster a loving environment where students are not afraid to tell, she said, "The bullying will take care of itself."


"Training is the key," said Dr. Griffin. Not just teachers but children need to be kept aware of the need to speak out. "Maybe they're not going to teachers because they feel  like it's their they did something to deserve it," said Dr. G. "You have to have something to back up that policy--you've got to have the training to do that."


Asked about a voucher-type school funding system, where tax money for education could follow a student to a private school, both candidates were skeptical. "I would not be running for school board if I did not believe in public education," said Dr. Griffin. Schools don't thrive when they are thought of as businesses, she said, and students are not products. Education is important to a community, she said, which has a responsibility to provide it. "The public needs to fund public education," she concluded. 


Brooke Wilson said there was nothing wrong with schools being run like businesses, but: "I do not agree with taking your school dollars and going wherever you want to go." Children with special needs should have the opportunity to go to schools designed for them if their parents wish, she said, and maybe there should be tax breaks for parents who home school. But she would not approve of allowing parents to take money from the Dade public system to take their kids elsewhere. "The parents already make a choice to not go with public schools by paying for private schools," she said.


On what to do about students whose lunches go unpaid for, both candidates agreed that the system should make sure the kids themselves aren't punished. "That should not be an additional tax burden," said Ms. Wilson. But, she added, there are kids who can't get lunch except at school. The schools ask parents to fill out forms for free and reduced-cost lunches. Are some parents not filling them out? In any case, the situation should handled without demeaning child, she said--maybe parents can be required to pay up before purchasing yearbooks?


"Under no circumstances should differentiation be made in children because of unpaid lunches," agreed Dr. Griffin. She also said she'd need to know about why lunch money remain unpaid, but one way or the other it was not the kids' fault.


A question about the Dade Board of Education's reputation for restrictive public access--board members are forbidden to respond or in fact react to input by the public at their meetings--failed to get much of a rise out of the candidates. "I think it goes back to the role of a board member," said Dr. Griffin. A member should be available to the public to listen, she said, but: "Accessibility is one thing, influence is a whole different ballgame."


Brooke Wilson said she didn't feel the guidelines were restrictive. "I do feel we could do a better job at inviting parents to open school board meetings," she said. "I'm a parent myself. I understand about wanting to have a voice."


COVID-19 has brought remote learning to Dade, asked another question. How can it now be improved?


The teachers did great, said Ms. Wilson. What she had not seen was a standardized system for getting grades registered on time. "Of course we have opportunities for growth," she said. 


Dr. Griffin said that what the remote learning situation had pointed up was the importance of wi-fi capability: "How consistent and equitable is the technology?" she asked. Now was an opportunity to find out what's missing and establish a framework for accountability. "This is a great time for us to increase that capacity," said Dr. G--who knew when some other emergency might force a second closure?


Both candidates declined to get specific about how to handle what one question described as an expected 14 percent budget cut with what it asserted was 18 percent of budget in reserves. What, concluded the question at length, would the candidates do to save money without compromising education?


Dr. Griffin said she needed to know more but, obviously: "You've got to make some cuts somewhere." She'd have to look at where the money is going, she said, before she cut it. "The right question is, would this impact the quality of instruction?" said Dr. G.


"I would need to see the budget," said Ms. Wilson, and also to confer with parents and board members. "Could we make miniscule cuts across the board?" she said. "That seems like a logical thought to me." But clearly more information would be helpful, she added.


And both the candidates responded cautiously to a question that provided a brief history of Dade's so-called 65/5 school tax exemption, then invited them to opine. The school board had voted unanimously to ask for a public referendum on reforming the exemption [which allows homeowners 65 and older of whatever income complete exemption from the school tax on homes of whatever value, plus five acres of attached land], the candidates were informed, but both the current and former state representative had refused to do so. 


Brooke Wilson said she believed a study needed to be done: Are these people who have lived here all their lives and are living on fixed incomes? she asked. Dr. Griffin agreed: "It's a very complex issue that needs to be unpacked and looked at." But Dr. G said she liked the idea of capping the exemption [at $150,000 house value] as  the school board had requested last year. "I think there are solutions for it," she said of the current impasse.


Perhaps the biggest divergence in opinion between the two candidates came on a question about whether the school superintendent, currently appointed by the school board, should instead be elected by the voters. "I think I like the way it works now," said Dr. Griffin. "It takes a little bit of the political piece out of it."


Brooke Wilson said she loves Dr. Harris, the current super, but: "I believe in democracy," she said. "I believe that competition is a good thing." Any office as "grand" as school superintendent should be filled by the will of the voters, she said. 


But this was, as far as The Planet knows, an academic question only, there being, again as far as The Planet knows, no current push in Dade to make such a change. 


And in any case the candidates went back to singing harmony on another question that asked them about the role of elective programs such as band and sports.


"They're extremely important," said Ms. Wilson. "Every piece of that enriches our students." 


"Our children have to have them to grow and thrive," said Dr. Griffin. "It's the one thing that's not tested." Not that there's anything wrong with testing, she said, but kids need the freedom to explore areas beyond--the arts as well as sports and music. "That's what becomes life," she said. 


In closing, Dr. Griffin encouraged voters to use their vote wisely "And I do believe a vote for me is a wise vote," she said. She had education experience in everything from teaching to setting budgets when there wasn't enough money, said Dr. G. "Those hard decisions have to be made," she said. "I have a track record of making those hard decisions...and I am ready to do the hard work." 


Ms. Wilson said as she'd watched her kids go through the schools she'd seen not just what the system did right and wrong but "parents who feel unheard."


"We need to have a a sense of community with each other," said Ms. Wilson. School board members can't spill confidential board business to the public but they can keep their ears open and accept suggestions. Finding middle ground was what she was good at, said Ms. Wilson. "I'm commited to our students," she said. "I have energy, I have compassion and I have motivation."


Again, Election Day is June 9. Early voting is Monday-Thursday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., and Friday (the last day for early voting) 8 a.m.-2 p.m.


This year, with the COVID-19 lockdown, the Georgia Secretary of State's office issued every Georgian a request for an early ballot. Those voters who applied for and received absentee ballots are encouraged to use them--they can be dropped in the new drive-up ballot box in front of the Dade Administrative Building any time before 7 p.m. on the 9th--or mailed in. But if you mail your ballot, warns the Georgia SOS, leave sufficient mailing time to get it there by the 9th or it won't be counted.


If you received an absentee ballot but prefer to vote in person, that's fine, too, but polling officials remind you to bring the ballot with you to the polls and surrender it there.

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