Categorized | Education & Safety, News

Talking Education: School Board candidates discuss issues at Forum in Baker Center

By Bill Short

Far right, Pastor Fred Bailey Sr., served as the moderator Oct. 15 in the Baker Community Center for the 2018 Millington School Board Candidate Forum between candidates Austin Brewer, Marlon Evans, Larry Jackson and CJ Haley.

Four of the six candidates for three contested positions on the Millington School Board in the Nov. 6 city elections responded to questions last week during a Forum at Baker Community Center.

Co-sponsored on Oct. 15 by The Millington Star and the Jones-Phillips Civic Club, the Forum was moderated by the Rev. Fred Bailey, club president and pastor of Jones Grove Baptist Church in Munford.

Position 2 board member C. J. Haley, seeking her third term, is being challenged by Marlon Evans.

Position 6 board member Larry Jackson, seeking his second term, is being challenged by Austin Brewer.

Because Position 5 board member Barbara Halliburton and her challenger Donald Holsinger were not present at the Forum, the questions were e-mailed to them the next day.

Although Holsinger did not respond by press time, Halliburton’s written answers are included in this story.

Bailey presented the following questions to the candidates:

1. What additions to the curriculum would you like to see implemented in the school system, and why?

Brewer and Haley said they would like to see more “dual enrollment,” Career and Technical Education and science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.

While noting that college is “not for everybody,” Brewer said students who prefer to learn a trade or skill and enter the workforce “right after graduation” should be given that opportunity.

Because Haley believes the school system needs to “set itself apart” from other districts, she wants it to offer a “separate diploma track” for CTE students.

Halliburton would like to see Millington Central High School develop a “robust” CTE program and add a STEM course to serve as a “continuation” of Millington Middle School’s “strong” STEM program.

Jackson said the school system has a “good opportunity” to work with Southwest Tennessee Community College on “dual” courses and The University of Memphis in the Flight Training School.

Evans acknowledged that he is not familiar with all the curriculum, because he is not a board member. But he wants to compare it to other schools in the state and nation to see what is and is not working and what options are available.

2. What should the school board do about the current physical condition of E. A. Harrold Elementary School and the near-capacity status of Millington Middle School?

Because E. A. Harrold is an “old school” that needs to be “upgraded,” Evans said some metal buildings might have to be installed until some additions can be constructed.

Although the board would “love” to build a brand-new school, Haley said it is “constantly” doing things to make E. A. Harrold “inviting and pleasant” for the students and teachers. She also said the board can do “multiple” things about the near-capacity status of the middle school, such as “shifting grades around.”

Because the Shelby County School System’s “long-range plan” is to close Lucy Elementary School, Jackson said it would be easier for Millington to acquire it than to build a new school.

“If that doesn’t work out,” he noted, “we’re going to have to at least consider building some classrooms at E. A. Harrold.”

To get more room at the middle school, Jackson and Evans both said the eighth grade could be moved into what was previously the Freshmen Academy at the high school.

Brewer said the $5.5 million allocated for construction of the new Performing Arts Center could have been used to repair E. A. Harrold and add classrooms to the middle school.

Although she would “love” to address both issues with new construction, Halliburton understands that is “not feasible” at this time. She favors an “innovative approach” centered on “phased expansion” that will meet the needs of current and prospective students, teachers and administrators.

3. In what ways can the new Performing Arts Center be used to enable the school system to receive a sufficient return on its investment?

Evans said the PAC will be “really nice” when it is completed.

“It will be used for education and entertainment,” he noted. “And that’s going to bring the community together with their families.”

Jackson said it is “probably not possible” for the school system to receive a “dollar-for-dollar” return on that investment.

“It’s not big enough to hold everything that we needed,” he acknowledged, “and we couldn’t afford to do it that big. But we’re going to use the building to the best of our ability.”

Brewer said the PAC did not need to be constructed when Millington already had an auditorium that may have only lacked “new seats and speakers.”

“Ultimately, this was throwing away taxpayer dollars,” he said. “The best thing to be done at this point is to move forward and avoid unnecessary spending.”

Although the board got a lot of complaints about the PAC, Haley said it was envisioned as a facility that the entire community can “embrace and be proud of.” She does not believe “profitability” should be a consideration for any project that involves children.

“The auditorium that we had was dilapidated and not a facility that the kids needed,” she noted. “And we were tired of our kids inheriting buildings that were not up to standards. So, we felt like this was a good thing to do.”

Halliburton views the PAC primarily as a means to support fine arts for Millington’s students. But she believes the board should develop a plan for its use that will bring a financial return without interfering with district needs.

4. In what ways can the possibility of acquiring Lucy Elementary School from Shelby County help the school system increase student enrollment?

Jackson said that, if the county school system “entertains the idea” of giving Lucy Elementary to Millington, it would have to be with the “understanding” that the students attending it are “entitled” to enroll in the city’s schools.

He also noted that Lucy students who do not live within the city limits would probably want Millington to educate them, instead of the county “busing them somewhere else.”

Evans said it would be good to allow those students to “come in,” because the system would receive the tax dollars that come with them.

Brewer acknowledged that acquiring Lucy Elementary would mean more space for students and increased enrollment. But he said the school has a “plethora of issues” that must be addressed before that can happen.

He said the board must determine “exactly” what the cost would be for repairs, additional equipment, staff and faculty.

Haley said the possibility of acquiring Lucy Elementary is “very close” to her heart, because her son was a fifth-grader there when she was first elected to the school board. But she wants the county to “take care of the problems” with that building before Millington would acquire it.

“It all hinges on a what-if, and we can’t wait for what-ifs,” she noted. “So, we have to deal with the situations we have now.”

Halliburton thinks the board should focus on creating a “solid foundation for retention and growth” with the schools already in the district. She believes it can increase enrollment by keeping the “high-performing” students who live in Millington, as well as attracting others to the district.

5. How has the school system performed above and below your expectations during its first four years, and what improvements should be made?

Contending that the system “has not been run well at all,” Brewer said the only areas that were “noticeably improved” were student security and an “extremely small” increase in overall test scores.

He said “schooling is essentially a business” that must provide opportunities for students, such as internships, externships and chances to graduate with certifications, while making them feel confident as they learn.

Brewer believes there is no reason why the system should not be able to make that happen for them.

Evans acknowledged that there have been a number of challenges and “bumps in the road” since the system was established. He also said there has been a “learning curve” for the board, teachers and residents.

“We need to get our test scores up a little bit,” he noted. “It’s going to take the board, administration, teachers and students to do that.”

Haley said test scores will always need improvement, and the system must focus on hiring and retaining the best teachers, especially those experienced in math, science and foreign languages.

“We have done a poor job of promoting ourselves,” she noted, “and we have to be better at that. If we don’t promote ourselves, no one else will.”

Jackson said he is “pleased” that the graduation rate has improved and the ACT scores have increased. But he is not happy with any of the schools receiving less than a 3, which is “just average,” in the five categories on which they are rated.

Halliburton commended all the individuals who worked diligently to “stand up” the school district, but she believes a “variety” of improvement opportunities exist.

Those include providing teachers with “more progressive” compensation and benefits, collaborating across the district to create “connected curriculum,” re-energizing athletic programs and prioritizing capital spending for the most pressing needs.

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