By Bill Short
The six candidates for three contested positions on the Millington School Board in the Nov. 8 city elections recently responded to questions during a Forum at the Harvell Civic Center.
Co-sponsored on Oct. 4 by The Millington Star and the Millington Exchange Club, the Forum was moderated by Star Editor Thomas Sellers Jr.
Position 1 board member Gregory L. Ritter, seeking his second term, is being challenged by Roger Christopher.
Mark Coulter and Rosie Crawford are competing for the open Position 3 seat currently occupied by Chuck Hurt Jr., who chose not to seek re-election.
Position 5 board member Louise Kennon, seeking her second term, is being challenged by Ronnie Mackin.
Chris Denson is unopposed for the open Position 7 seat currently occupied by Donald Holsinger, who is running for alderman.
Sellers presented the following questions to the candidates:
1. What additions to the curriculum would you like to see implemented in the Millington municipal school system, and why?
All the candidates think the system should have a vocational education program.
Ritter said he would like to see a separate vocational diploma track for technical students. While noting that Tennessee’s graduation requirements are basically designed for college-bound students, he said many in Millington, Shelby County and across America do not want to pursue that route.
“We need to give them paths where they can be successful immediately after high school,” he said. “They may want to go straight to work, as opposed to going to school and figuring out that they don’t like college. So, I want to see us increase those types of programs.”
Because he has seen students attend college unsuccessfully for a year, Christopher said the system should give them something to “fall back” on.
“Make sure they get the courses they need,” he noted. “But if we give them something to fall back on, they will be able to be functioning citizens in the community.”
Because the Shelby County School System has offered vocational classes for many years, Coulter said he would like Millington students to have the same opportunity.
“Offering these classes is awesome,” he noted, “because not everybody’s going to go to college.”
While the MCHS curriculum has included more vocational courses this year, Crawford said it also needs “college prep and advanced honorary” courses. She noted that the advanced students can take courses in high school for which they can earn college credit.
“But we do need the vocational emphasis,” she acknowledged. “And I know the school board and the superintendent are working on that now.”
Because not everyone “fits” at a college or university, Kennon said Millington residents will be the “gainers” if the school system offers its students an “alternative to the academic.”
She challenged all the elementary schoolteachers to give their students the “basics” in reading, writing and math computations.
“If they have this as the basics,” she noted, “they can succeed either at the college level or in the vocational. If we do this, I think we will bring industry to our community that we so sorely need.”
Mackin believes the school system needs to consider the “strengths” of its students and “cater” its curriculum accordingly. He said the system needs to make sure every student who “comes through our buildings” has what he or she needs to graduate, whether it is the college, vocational or fine arts track.
But he noted that they must also be taught the “know-how” and the “common sense” for business and managing their priorities.
“That’s where a lot of our kids fail now,” he said, “because they don’t prioritize their lives. They want to do other things, and they think they can get it just right now.”
2. What is your opinion of the “low- or no-homework” policy that more school districts are adopting to allow students to explore different extracurricular activities during after-school hours?
Declaring that the teachers know what they are doing, Ritter said that if he was setting policy, he would let them figure it out. Because they know what they are supposed to teach, and what the “end goal” is for the students, he said the teachers should be able to figure out how much homework will enable them to become proficient in a class.
Christopher said students should not be allowed to “put their homework down” to participate in extracurricular activities. He noted that the class work and what they learn from it will be what “gets them through life.”
Coulter said he is a “firm believer” in giving students homework, because no one is better equipped to help them than their classroom teachers. He noted that, many times, they do not get the recognition they deserve.
“So, every day that you go to the school and drop your kids off,” he said, “tell the teachers they do a great job.”
Crawford said that, if homework “reinforces and elaborates” on school work, she “definitely” thinks it should be kept.
“It needs to be not hours long,” she noted. “But the teachers should modify it so that it does back up what they’ve just taught.”
Recalling her years in the classroom and as an administrator and college professor, Kennon said there are “many areas in academia” that require “practice time.”
“My suggestion is a little bit of homework,” she noted, “not two pages or to read Shakespeare overnight. But if you teach math or English, I think you can figure out how to give four problems for homework.”
Mackin said that, many times, students have “so much more to deal with” than taking home hours of homework, because parents are putting them in a lot of after-school activities.
“It’s so much that, sometimes, we forget about them being children,” he noted. “We lose out on the social skills and all the things that we really want our kids to learn.”
Mackin also said he thinks teachers should have the “autonomy and freedom” to build homework into the class instruction time.
3. Do you think the school system should seek donations from Millington residents in its efforts to raise funds for its Five-Year Capital Improvements Plan? Why or why not?
Because the school system has to make capital improvements, Ritter said the money must come from somewhere – either a tax levied by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen or donations solicited from residents.
“So, if it works better for us to ask, maybe we should have a capital campaign,” he noted. “Maybe that would inspire people to support the school system.”
Christopher said the system should use all the funding it receives from the city and the state, while staying within its budget.
“If we still need money,” he said, “we can come to the community and let it have a choice of whether it wants to give. I believe most of our residents and businesses will give for a project that’s absolutely needed.”
While noting that he has traveled to many school districts in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, Coulter said donations are the reason that some schools and sports programs have “made a difference.”
“As long as we want to donate it, and we set it up in the right fund,” he noted, “I’m good with that.”
Although she would not mind if the schools solicited funds from individuals, Crawford said there are various “creative” ways to do that in Millington.
“We have an awesome Central Office that gets grants from the state and the federal government,” she noted. “The city aldermen and the school board are working together now much better than they were at the beginning.”
Recalling her years as a teacher in Millington, Kennon said she saw students attempting to sell things. But it was discontinued for awhile, because the superintendent decided it “wasn’t quite safe.”
Although the city board has funded the school system’s budget as requested, Kennon acknowledged that a “tremendous” capital outlay is needed.
Because many Millington residents do not have school-age children, Mackin said the system must be “careful” about whom it is “targeting” for donations.
Although he is “excited” about the growth of the local economy, Mackin said the system must also attract “numerical seats” in the schools, which draw funding.
“That’s how you really generate your own tax dollars,” he noted. “And then, personalize our approach to our residents for donations that makes it meaningful, and not just hands out asking for money for a certain or a general cause.”
4. Specifically, how are you best qualified to make decisions about current education policies and budgets that will have a “positive” impact on teacher instruction and student learning?
Ritter said he has both “tremendous” passion and focus. He noted that, when the school board discusses an issue, his focus is always on the students, teachers and the administration.
“Students are the ones we’re up here to serve,” he said. “The teachers are the ones doing the serving, and the administration is supporting the teachers who are doing those jobs.”
While Ritter acknowledged that, many times, there is “some dissension” among the school board members, he noted that it is OK to disagree.
“That’s why we have seven board members,” he said. “But we each have one vote, and we cast our vote for what we think is best for students, teachers and the administration.”
Declaring that he is a “team player,” Christopher said the school board needs members who will evaluate the policies already in place and attempt to “push forward” the best ones.
“I believe that we should strive to bring forth the best for Millington,” he said. “We should strive to hire our best people from the superintendent on down.”
Noting that he has his own business, Coulter said what makes him best qualified is being around “a bunch of people” who know more than he does.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world,” he acknowledged. “But one thing I do is hire folks who can handle that.”
If the school board members put their minds together and work together, Coulter said he thinks they can accomplish anything.
Crawford said that, while serving on the Transition Committee when the school system was established, she proof-read policies, stamped MCHS textbooks, stuffed envelopes to out-of-district applicants and delivered Pre-K notices to parents.
“I am a retired teacher, and I have the time to put in that we need,” she noted. “But I feel like I’m very highly qualified to keep up with things.”
Kennon said she has a background as a teacher all the way from kindergarten through the advanced degrees in college.
“I taught at all levels, and I have been an administrator,” she noted. “I taught the preparatory courses, so I know what it costs to get through school.”
Mackin believes he is best qualified, because he deals with policies and budgets on a daily basis as a principal in the Shelby County School System.
“This is part of my job,” he said. “Every single day, I have to make decisions based on enrollment, curriculum, employees, students, what’s best for the community and what our program is really trying to achieve.”
5. Do you think the school system has performed above or below your expectations during its first two years, and why?
Although he thinks the system has done “some great things,” Ritter said there is more work to be done. One of the things that “bothers” him is that all students must take the ACT when they are juniors, regardless of whether they plan to go to college.
“Pushing college has been great for a certain level of growth in the United States,” he acknowledged. “But we’ve got to realize that we’ve always been a melting pot in America. We’ve got a lot of different paths to success in life, and we need to open that up for our students.”
Christopher said he has done some research, talked to several people about the school board and “watched it from a distance.”
“If you asked me if I’m pleased, I would say yes,” he noted. “If you asked if I’m satisfied, I would say no. I would say we have a long way to go.”
While he thinks the school board has done a “fantastic job,” Coulter said a lot of changes are coming to Millington. It is getting new growth and new buildings, and the city is seeking more “rooftops.”
“I’m not a negative person,” he noted. “I’m not going to sit up here and beat anybody up. But what I do think is we can get to the next level.”
Crawford recalled that, when People for the Advancement of Millington Schools began and was soliciting votes, no one envisioned how “far along” the school system would be at this point.
“A new school system had not been started in 30 years in Tennessee,” she noted. “I am so proud that we have our own school system and are not tied up with the merger that was downtown.”
Calling teachers the “key people,” Kennon said they must be “dedicated and driven” to do what it is expected of a school system.
“I feel very strongly that we are doing a good job,” she noted. “And I think we have a long way to go until we become what we want to be.”
Mackin said the work involved in starting a school system is “incredibly difficult on any level,” regardless of who is in charge of that. He acknowledged that, up to this point, Millington has done a “great job” with it.
“But I think we can take it to a different level and attract more families and businesses,” he noted. “As long as we dive deep, and we always make sure that we’re addressing our most critical needs, I think we’re going to be in good shape.”