RISD candidate forum at LHUMC

Thursday night’s candidate forum may not have delivered the fireworks some were expecting – attendees in the Lake Highlands United Methodist Church gym listened quietly with great interest and the candidates were measured in their answers and respectful of each other – but differences did emerge between the 4 hopefuls seeking the Place 3 seat and the two running for Place 7.

Dallas City Councilman Adam McGough, the moderator, presented questions to the candidates, followed by “lightning round” questions written by LHHS students on the Mayor’s Rising Star Council. I’ve given you my quickie impressions plus a couple of candidate answers here today (in the order the candidates were called on), and I’ll follow up with a more extensive post Monday morning.

Ben Prado, a 2011 graduate of Richardson High, touted his unique viewpoint as the candidate most recently in an RISD classroom and his ability to spark student engagement. He said RISD’s increasingly diverse student population needs a multicultural, multilingual board member – Ben speaks Spanish and German – and said he makes up for his inexperience with passion.

Eric Eager made much of his expertise as a businessman with experience in technology and financial management. His goal, he said, would be to prepare RISD students for high-paying, high-demand jobs in a global economy. He has twin 8th graders, so he has been an RISD parent for 9 years, and he stressed that whoever wins the election will have decades of effect on the decisions and the students of RISD.

Karen Clardy said her 25 years of experience working as an executive assistant to the principal at Lake Highlands High School gave her an insider’s view of RISD. She knows how money is spent and how it’s wasted, she said, and she knows who to call to get information or get things done. Her children have graduated but said she has more to offer.

Joseph Armstrong’s twins won’t enter kindergarten until the fall, but since his wife, Julie, teaches in RISD they attended the Lake Highlands Elementary Child Development Center for teachers’ kids. Armstrong, a former youth minister, focused on his experience running a contracting business – managing budgets and setting goals.

Question: How would you improve teacher retention?

“This is one of my big ones,” said Clardy, “because I sat at that desk when teachers brought in their resignation forms, leaving because there were better opportunities elsewhere.”

RISD should rework the pay scale she said, to enable experienced teachers to earn more, and improve benefits. “We are losing the veteran teachers who mentor our young teachers, and it is devastating.”

Here, Armstrong disagreed a bit.

“Finances are important, providing living wage is critical, but in the last 7 years talking to teachers with my wife, I’ve never heard money mentioned. When people move they don’t say, ‘you can’t imagine how easy it is.’ We must unburden teachers and do away with unnecessary meetings. We introduce new curriculum, then change it. This burden on teachers trickles down to students.”

“I run a business and we have to compete for talent,” said Eager. “Pay will get them in the door but it won’t keep them. We have to give them the proper resources to do job.”

Eager emphasized boosting career development with incentives to stay in the classroom. “Not everyone wants to go into administration,” he said.

“This is where I have a different perspective,” said Prado. “RISD uses tenure based compensation, and I believe pay should be performance based. I remember some teachers who were here for 25 years and, bless their hearts, for some it was time to go.”

Prado stressed a need for less micromanagement from the district and more room for teachers to be creative.

In Place 7, both candidates are RISD grads.

Lynn Davenport formerly worked in recruiting for a global services firm and now volunteers as a career coach helping job seekers. She is a fierce proponent for public education, opposing vouchers and the district’s District of Innovation designation and seeking managed use of technology in the classroom. She has two kids at LHHS and one at LHJH.

Incumbent Dr. Kristin Kuhne touted the accomplishments of her first term on the board including expanded dual credit offerings for students and career and technical education, sharing a story of a boy who left RISD with a job in a machine shop making $50,000/year. One of her children is a student at Pearce and one is a Pearce graduate.

Question: RISD’s state academic ranking declined from #110 in 2009 to #348 in 2016. What would you do to reverse this trend and restore academic excellence in RISD?

Dr. Kuhne politely took issue with the way the question was phrased.

“It’s not that simple. I just don’t think you can average test scores over 5 years and get an answer on how schools are performing. In my time on the board we have had 3 low-performing campuses that have turned it around in one year. The work I do with school districts all over the state, I’m responsible for analyzing data, shining a light on the areas of need and focusing on those areas in a way that ensures student success. That’s the skill set I was able to bring when we had performance issues in RISD and we were able turn it around in just one year.”

Davenport saw it differently.

“I have to be honest. Once we started becoming obsessed with data, data, data, that’s when we took a nosedive. I think we need to start listening to teachers when they leave and ask them why. I think they will tell you every year the curriculum changes – they never master anything, it constantly changes. We need to get back to basics. Academics will be my number one priority.”

I invite you to check back here Monday for my recap of answers on other topics such as how candidates would handle boundary changes, how to improve parental involvement and whether or not RISD should partner with the City of Dallas to improve student success.

The election will be held Saturday, May 6. Early voting begins April 24.