Seven candidates for three open seats on the USD No. 480 Board of Education take questions from teachers Thursday evening at a candidate forum sponsored by the Liberal National Education Association. L&T photo/Rachel Coleman
By RACHEL coleman
• Leader & Times
Local teachers headed back to school Thursday night for assessments quite different than the multiple-choice tests they often administer.
Evaluate the seven candidates vying for four open seats on the USD No. 480 Board of Education.
The 7 p.m. candidate forum was sponsored by the Liberal National Educators Association, and the biggest topics of the evening were communication and appreciation, said LNEA president Grant Mathews.
“Teachers want to communicate better with the board, and the school board candidates seem to share that desire for better rapport,” Mathews noted.
Both sides appeared to make a start in that effort. Spontaneous applause broke out several times during the session, particularly when candidates touched on fair pay for work days, continuing education and equal treatment of administration and staff.
One prolonged discussion revolved around contract negotiations. As school year 2010-11 began, USD 480’s board and instructors wrangled over a three-day increase in the school year. Though a 3 percent raise was announced, the increase did not offset the additional hours teachers were expected to work.
“I know my boss wouldn’t expect me to work three days and not pay me,” sitting board member and candidate Tammy Sutherland-Abbott said.
“If we expect you to work more days, we need to pay you,” candidate Steve Helm said.
“We’re getting a bargain for what we pay teachers,” candidate Tony Whisenant said. “When it comes to cuts, what about the mailings USD 480 sends out? They’re spending all this money on postage and paper. Maybe we should start looking at making cuts in the administration.”
Candidate Crystal Clemens added, “I’m shocked at the number of hours teachers put in that are extra, basically, unpaid.”
“If you’re asked to work extra days, it’s unreasonable not to be paid,” candidate Delvin Kinser said. It’s no wonder the negotiating process bogged down, he said. In the future, “If we can approach issues honestly and as adults — be up front with each other — that will eliminate the need to bring an attorney into the process.”
Fellow candidate Chris Jewell agreed that cooperation and goodwill are key, though he said having a trained facilitator often smooths the process.
Teacher Leann Hebbert brought up the subject of increased pay for long-term educators.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and I often feel I’m getting left out,” she said. “We talk about base salary, and I understand we want to attract people. But if they’re cutting jobs everywhere, guess what? They’re going to come. What I’d like to see is the board to start putting some money in the middle for those of us who’ve been here, who are here, who will be here, who are going to stay here.”
Clemens agreed that teacher retention is important, as did Helm, who said, “Common sense tells us that it’s cheaper to retain than to retrain.”
Discussion about another type of training earned applause when candidates addressed continuing education for teachers. Many educators are granted professional leave to attend seminars and specialized workshops, Mathews said, “but they have to pay out of their own pocket to attend.”
“We should be footing the bill,” said Jewell.
“I think it’s wrong,” Helm said, “that taxpayers are paying for the superintendent to earn his doctorate degree, paying for him to take days off — in effect, we have a part time superintendent — but yet we don’t offer the same or similar assistance to our teachers. That’s wrong.”
Cheers broke out at his remark.
“If we expect our superintendent to have a doctorate degree,” Helm continued, “He should have had it when we hired him. His job is running the district, not going to school. We need to keep him home and use that money for the teachers, for the classroom.”
As the forum wrapped up, Mathews said he was pleased with the participation on both sides of the microphone.
“It was a really good forum,” he said.
Hebbert said the evening left her feeling hopeful.
What teachers want is pretty basic, she said: “Treat us respectfully and make sure there’s good communication.”
Candidates will have to wait until election day to find out if they earned a passing grade.