Last Thursday’s August 12 School Board Candidate forum was held at the Wellington Community Center, and candidates for District Two, Three and Six were in attendance. Candidates for District Two included Jean Dowling and Chuck Shaw; Candidates for District Three included incumbent Bill Graham, as well as candidates Karen Brill, Steve Ledewitz, Tom Whatley and John Adams, and Candidates for District Six included Dean Grossman, Marcia Andrews and Ron Young. The moderators for the event were TV newscaster Jim Sackett and James Dubois of Callery Judge Groves, and they asked a number of questions of the candidates, ranging from school grades, the school budget, the FCAT and other issues. At the beginning of the ceremony, James Dubois gave Palms West Chamber of Commerce Anitra Harmon flowers for the hard work she did on behalf of the Palms West Chamber of Commerce.
After some opening comments from Sackett, the candidates for School Board District Two introduced themselves. Jean Dowling went first and explained why she was running for Seat Two on the School Board. Dowling said she had very strong ideas about fixing the School Board and about how to fix it.
“I think the Board needs more direction,” said Dowling. “I also hate with a passion the FCAT. I intend to do something about it. I think with the proper organization of teachers and parents throughout the state, we can affect change.”
Chuck Shaw spoke of his past experience with forty-one years as a “veteran educator in Palm Beach County,” and also about his experience in the public sector in a variety of different positions. My reason for running for the School Board is tied to the issue of leadership, to accountability, and to public service, and to give every opportunity to the people who live in this community to get the best possible school system we can possibly have.”
For the District Three spoke next and introduced themselves to the members of the chamber and those attending the event. Incumbent School Board Member Bill Graham spoke first and explained the reasons why he felt he should be re-elected to that position.
“We have adopted a budget with no layoffs,” said Graham. “Employees are continuing their health insurance at no cost and art, music and other valuable programs are maintained. This is not what could be or should be, but what is actually happened. This is sharp contrast to many other Districts around the state.”
School Board District Three Candidate Karen Brill said it had been a tumultuous year with the debates over Jeffery Hernandez and Senate Bill Six, and she felt that the current School Board was too complacent and needed to get more involved in students’ lives. She also was troubled, she said, by the fact that the school teachers were returning to school without a contract.
“We may be an A rated school district,” said Brill, “but in 2009 only 69 percent of our Hispanic students and 60 percent of our black students, and 47 percent of our ESE students graduated with a high school diploma. We need a board member who has been a proven change agent locally, and at the state level. We need someone who is going to step up and is change the course we are on and involve your community.”
Another candidate for School District Three Tom Whatley concurred with Brill about the upheaval and debacle that had taken place with Hernandez, and said he was in the “trenches” fighting for the parents, teachers and students all year long on many issues.
“I was the only candidate who was in there more times than of them put together,” said Whatley, “to fight for parents and teachers and not only during the debacle that occurred last year but also this year. We’ve had a superintendent of schools with a vote of no confidence not only from 10,000 teachers but also from a thousand parents. I will bring new leadership into the new decade.”
School Board candidate Steve Ledewitz said he could “hit the ground running,” and knew what it took to get the job done, as he had served in a similar capacity in the State of Connecticut for sixteen years. He felt what was needed to serve the teachers, students and parents of Palm Beach County was “critical thinking,” and he felt that was lacking at the current time.
“Critical thinking is what has made this country great,” said Ledewitz. “Different students have different testing styles. We have to take advantage of that. We also need cooperation between the stakeholders in education, including parents, teachers and others. We can’t sit back and have a dictatorial education program. Everyone needs to buy into the program, and then the program works.”
John Adams, also of District Three, pointed to his background of growing up in Palm Beach County, and going to Palm Beach County School, as well as having his children enrolled in Palm Beach County schools. His sister also was a school teacher also was a school teacher in Palm Beach County, he said, and he could only imagine what it would be like if she were teaching today without a contract. He also cited the fact that his business was into building and construction of schools, so he knew what to look for in building and remodeling new schools.
“I own a small business,” said Adams. “I am in the construction business. We have a billion dollar capital budget that is made for construction, maintenance and remodeling of schools. I know how to look at these. There is not one School Board Member running who has that kind of experience.”
In District Six, candidate Ron Young was the first to speak. He spoke about his business profession as a barber by trade, and how he listened to people every day, and he wanted to do something to help people, especially parents, when they voiced their frustrations in dealing with the School District, and the impacts these difficult times had on their lives.
“I’m a barber by trade,” said Young. “I listen to people all day long. I care about the people I know, and they are parents, students and teachers. I listen to their frustration. They talk about how not having money for school books, and the technology that was needed. Last year was a record year for frustration, anxiety, anger and absolute digust at the way things were being done. Because parents and teachers unified and spoke with one voice, things are changing for the better. Now is the time for a fresh start and a new look for the School Board.”
School Board District Three Candidate Marcia Andrews also spoke of her experience working in the Palm Beach County School District for the last thirty-five years, as an English teacher, an assistant principal and a principal, and also in the School District office.
“You can trust me over the years to make a difference for your children,” said Andrews. “I can tell you from retiring after thirty-five years with the Palm Beach County School District. The last two years I was actively involved in all the issues, related to education, including Senate Bill Six, the curriculum and working hand in hand to make sure the District is represented in the best possible way. I am a leader, and I can get the job done.”
Dean Grossman, another candidate for District Six, also spoke about his background and experience, and how he felt it would help him in serving the parents, teachers and students in a position on the School Board. Grossman said he was a native of Palm Beach County who attended the University of South Florida and returned to teach in the Palm Beach County School district that educated him.
“I have been a businessman for over sixteen years,” said Grossman. “I have a vested interest in this system for the next sixteen years because I have a five year old, a four year old and a twenty-three month old. I look at them and say if I can’t make a difference in education than who can. I am standing up and making a difference for what I believe for my children, and all the other children in Palm Beach County. I want to make sure our schools are the best possible schools, and the children receive the best education possible.”
After the opening comments, Sackett asked the candidates a series of questions. The first question was what each candidate felt was their primary goals as a member of the Palm Beach County School District, and what they would do to achieve those goals. Dowling spoke about getting rid of the FCAT as one of her main goals, and also about how she wanted to individualize education as one size did not fit all. Shaw spoke about a balanced budget, holding the administrative staff of the School District accountable and also taking a serious look at the School District policies and review and update them if they were out of date. Graham spoke about the budget, moving away from the FCAT, and also about replicating the Pine Jog elementary school. Brill spoke about training and attracting the best teachers possible, the graduation rate and mentors, and the budget. Whatley spoke about the need to close the communication gap between the Superintendent, the School Board and the public, and about the decision by the School District to buy a television station while it was crying poverty. Ledewitz spoke about parental involvement, reducing administrative overhead and starting high school one hour later. Adams spoke about restoring the trust that had been broken in the past, restoring morale and having safe schools for youngsters and parents. Young spoke about the School Board itself having more of a role, and the Superintendent taking direction from them. Andrews spoke about better working relationships with the federal and state legislators and in particular cited a meeting with Congressmen Klein and Deutch she, and other prospective candidates, had attended at the School District office, and she also spoke about the budget, unfunded mandates, and teachers being forced to teach to the test. Grossman spoke about teachers being properly compensated, having access to enough tools and resources and teaching kids how to be more successful by teaching them life skills.
The next question was about how the candidates would craft better policies and programs to improve college preparedness and college enrollment. The candidates, for the most part, supported dual enrollment and pre apprenticeship programs, as well as teaching youngsters life skills. Another question was about whether the candidates felt about the declines in student population, and how the budget should address those declines. Brill and Whatley said that the population in West Boynton Beach was not declining but on the rise. Ledewitz noted that the decline in student population was across the County so there might be some increases in some communities. He also spoke of the need to vote against the amendment to use “average class size” as opposed to the existing law in place. Adams concurred that the student population was increasing, but there still were homes in foreclosure and home mortgages under water. Young agreed that the population was increasing, and more students needed to go to schools near their homes. Andrews spoke about the need to renovate older schools and also the need to stick with the class size amendment the way it was. Grossman said that the schools needed to have the resources they needed and that students should be properly educated, whether they came from South County or from Belle Glade. Dowling agreed with Young that students should go to the school closest to them and also that the older schools needed to be renovated or replaced. Shaw said that the capital budget needed to be reviewed and also said that an examination of the boundaries was in order. Graham noted that there was a possibility that there was an increase in student population but that most of the increase was due to an influx of students from Haiti after the earthquake.
As for the question about academic improvement in Palm Beach County, all the candidates supported parental involvement and said that parents being involved in their children’s education was key to their future but some said that the high unemployment rate made it very hard for some parents to be involved, especially if they were single parents. All concurred that the current system of high-rated schools being rewarded for their performance was unfair to the underperforming and lower-ranked schools that had talented and smart children.
At the end of the evening, both Dubois and Sackett thanked the candidates and attendees for coming to the forum and asked that everyone vote on August 24.
For more information about the Palms West Chamber of Commerce, contact them at (561) 790-6200 or check out their website at www.palmswest.com