COVINGTON -- Candidates in the District 4 Board of Education race revealed a fundamental difference of opinion on issues affecting Newton County School System at a forum Tuesday night hosted by the Newton County Democratic Party at Washington Street Community Center.
Incumbent Almond Turner and opponent Franklin Perry were confronted by a member of the audience about the school system's graduation rate of 64 percent and asked how they would address this.
Turner said parental involvement is key to students' success. Parents now have multiple opportunities, including viewing information kept online by the schools, to keep track of their child's academic performance and discipline record, he said.
"Don't show up just for basketball games and football games. Show up to all the other things that make your student successful academically," Turner said.
While Perry said he believes parental involvement is important, the school system can't control whether parents are involved in their child's education. He said he'd like to survey parents to see if there is a perception that the school system is failing and if children are getting what they need.
"You've got to clean your house first before people are going to have confidence ... Parents are saying, 'I'm not satisfied with the services my children are getting.' We have to address that ... If we don't clean up our act, parents that can afford to go to another school are going to go there," he said.
Perry also said that, "We need to restore credibility in the school system. We have an employee suing a board member," referencing a lawsuit by Alcovy Principal LaQuanda Carpenter against school board member Jeff Meadors. Perry said those conflicts should be handled internally versus letting them get into court. He said the school board also needs to be more transparent.
"We've got to communicate with the citizens. We can't say, 'I can't talk about it.' These are the citizens' children and nothing should be held in any kind of secret meeting unless you're dealing with personnel of the school system, unless it's real estate. Everything else should be open because these are the children of the citizens of Newton County," he said. Certain personnel matters, land acquisition and discussion of threatening or pending litigation are legal reasons to hold closed sessions.
The citizen who posed the initial question responded that she wants to know how the school system will help children whose parents aren't involved to succeed. She said she wants certified teachers teaching her children, not substitutes and paraprofessionals.
"It's difficult to deal with a child when it's imprinted in their mind they're never wrong because their parent goes to the school and curses the teacher in front of the student," Turner said. "The public school system cannot pick children who are crisp and ready to learn. We have to take them all." He added that, "A lot of subs and para pros are very passionate people," and are needed to maintain order so the teacher can teach.
District 2 incumbent Eddie Johnson, who does not have opposition in the primary, weighed in on the issue. "We can talk cleaning our house, we can talk philosophy versus education, taking a business approach, but if you don't have mom and dad in there, it's a lost cause," he said.
He said it's not fair to expect the school board to find the kids that don't have involved parents and help them.
"Our responsibilities go so far. I can't be that mom and daddy. That's not my job," he said.
Johnson said the school system is making strides despite public criticism.
"Does anybody believe Baxter would have said yes if we were doing bad things in the school system?" he said, referring to the pharmaceutical company's decision to locate in Stanton Springs. "They criticize us, but we are getting results. Not like we want, but we are on the right track."
Turner and Perry were also asked their opinions on a proposed Christian learning center. Earlier this year, representatives from a Christian learning center asked the school board to partner with them to offer off-campus, elective courses to students. The center would not be paid for through taxpayer dollars but by private funding.
Turner said he sees pluses and minuses, and a key question is what type of doctrine would be taught, as not all parents might approve. He said he is seeking input from parents and clergy.
"In order to be successful it needs to be supported by the entire community," he said, adding that he doesn't yet have enough data to decide whether he will support the proposal.
Perry said he sees benefit in the discipline and moral teachings that children could learn, noting that in his student days, morality was taught right alongside academics. A former superintendent, Perry said he believes the real question is whether the proposal fits in with the goals and objectives of the school district. The superintendent is responsible for setting that course, he said, so the superintendent should be consulted about how that fits in with the system's objectives. Perry said he would want to make sure the learning center is "beneficial to students in an objective way" and that parents are in agreement with the proposal.
Asked about standards for evaluating teachers, Turner said evaluation is very important and is needed more often.
"Regardless of what profession you're in, you need feedback in order to find out where you are and where you need to be," he said. Turner said evaluations at the beginning and end of the school year are not sufficient and should be performed throughout the year in order to get constant feedback and to get better results.
Perry, however, said that while evaluations are necessary, "We need to treat teachers as professionals and we don't do that. We've got to tell a person what we want and give them the chance to get there. They don't need to always be out of school doing professional training. By the time they get a degree they ought to know something."
Turner and Perry will face off in the July 31 General Primary. Eddie Johnson will face Republican Ricky Corley in the November General Election.