School board candidates get chance to speak

COVINGTON — Candidates for the three vacant seats on the Newton County Board of Education this year had their first chance as a group to address voters Monday night.

Nine of the 11 candidates for the District 1, 3 and 5 seats on the school board participated in Monday's forum sponsored by the nonpartisan Newton County Voters League. Present were District 3 candidates — Republican Kevin Wade and Democrats Christine Brown, Pamela Byrd Consuegra, Shakila Henderson-Baker and James Johnson Jr.; Toney D. Collins was absent due to a three-week military leave. Also present were District 1 candidates — Republicans Ron Hart, Jeff Meadors and Dale Thompson — and District 5 Republican candidate Abigail Morgan Coggin; District 5 Democratic candidate Sharon Sawyer did not attend.

"We hope you will become more informed and selective in your voting," said Shirley Reese of the NCVL. "Don't forget to vote."

After each candidate had two minutes to introduce themselves, they moved on to a question and answer portion of the forum, answering questions from a panel and the audience.

Q&A for District 3 candidates:

How would you retain high-quality teachers?

The candidates had several ideas that could help the Newton County School System retain high-quality teachers.

Consuegra, a former chemistry teacher at Alcovy High School, said teachers need to feel that they have board and community support, especially when the budget comes around.

"(The school board) needs to put their money where their mouth is and save teacher jobs," she said.

Johnson, director of admissions at DeKalb Technical College, said he would work to create a safe learning environment for teachers and students, stating that a school needs to be a place where students enjoy coming and where teachers enjoy teaching.

Along the same lines, Wade said, like at Delta Airlines, where he works as an accountant, schools need to be positive and joyous places to work.

"It's not all about salaries in some cases," he said.

Henderson-Baker said she wanted to be a more visible school board member, like former board member C.C. Bates, often being present in the schools and asking for input.

"You have to make yourself visible and viable," Baker said. "Open the lines of communication to the teachers."

Brown said teachers should be evaluated and offered professional development.

"I think teachers should be treated fairly and compensated fairly and evaluated fairly," she said, adding that evaluations shouldn't be based only on student performance.

How would you help students compete globally?

Several candidates mentioned throughout the night that students had to be prepared to compete locally and globally after high school and beyond, and the NCSS should prepare them for that.

Johnson said getting parents more involved would help.

"It starts (at home) for students," he said.

Wade agreed, suggesting that parents need to be more involved at home and in schools, continuing the parent-involvement theme that was at Clements this year in all of the schools.

"If it can happen in the theme school, it can happen not in a theme school," he said.

Consuegra said all types of students need to be served in NCSS.

"Not all students are college-bound, and that's OK," she said. "All students have that right, and we have the responsibility."

Henderson-Baker suggested putting more focus on early childhood education because if the schools don't invest in students early, they won't have an opportunity to invest later. She also said NCSS should ask more local businesses to get involved in the new College & Career Academy.

Brown said the board could introduce more businesses in schools, especially high schools, to prepare students for jobs in the future.

Q&A for District 1 and 5 candidates:

What would you suggest to connect the community and the school system?

Thompson, a financial analyst at Pratt Industries in Conyers, said he would continue and expand support with the Partners in Education program to get more community members and businesses involved.

Meadors, Georgia Perimeter College's Dual Enrollment coordinator, also suggested getting parents and business leaders more involved in the schools, as well as looking at programs in other school districts to decide what works and what doesn't work for Newton County.

"I think we have a good start" with programs like work-based learning and the Youth Apprenticeship programs, he said.

Coggin, program director at the Newton County Arts Association, said communication is the key to getting partners to help at the schools.

"We need to communicate better to these corporations and have them come into the schools," she said, adding that the school board this year has failed in communication. "We have to communicate better."

Hart suggested continuing existing programs and making sure each school is reaching out to businesses in their community, as well as churches and other community groups.

"Businesses are vital for success," he said.

What innovative programs would you provide to increase student achievement?

Meadors said one of the best programs is already in the works — the Newton College & Career Academy, which was secured with a $3 million state grant. He mentioned that 56.8 percent of NCSS high school students are in career and technical courses, so courses are needed for training in the work force.

Thompson said he would let the professionals deal with the educating, but agreed that business partners, community organizations and civic groups need to be more active in the schools.

Coggin, who also agreed that she did not have the answers as to what programs would work, suggested board members look at what programs are already in the schools before they spend any extra money to buy materials for new programs.

"Let's see what's in the schools and use that," she said.

Hart agreed that successful programs should be kept after evaluation, but schools can use the basics to educate students if they must — simply having motivated teachers getting the attention of the children.

"Nothing works better than the fundamentals," he said.