School board candidates talk configuration, banned books and more

Oct. 31—Editor's note: The following is the third in a series of articles covering the forums hosted by the League of Women Voters of Jasper County. In the interest of space and to not conflict questions featured in the Newton News candidate Q&As, we featured responses to questions not asked before and most related to the school district.

Four candidates are vying for three seats on the Newton school board at a time when the district is engrossed in one of the biggest decisions it has ever faced; a decision that would most certainly impact the community and generations to come; a decision that is currently being challenged by Cardinal families.

The recent 4-3 vote to remodel Thomas Jefferson Elementary School into a PreK-1 building and remodel Emerson Hough Elementary School into a grades 2-4 building was weighing heavily on the minds of guests at the League of Women Voters candidate forum Oct. 26 in DMACC Newton Campus.

But it wasn't until the very end of the forum that all four individuals running for school board — Josh Cantu, Donna Cook, Kristi Meyer and Mark Thayer — finally had a chance to either explain their vote, or, for the newcomer candidate, explain how they would have voted if they were on the board.

Thayer, who was elected in 2019, was one of three board members who voted against the motion on Oct. 23, and, frankly, he was "embarrassed" about transpired that night. School board members have been discussing configuration for the past year or so; they even had a committee make a recommendation.

"The board, quite honestly, in July, was close to taking action on this decision," Thayer said. "That decision was to use Emerson Hough and Aurora Heights. And I think that was a decision a lot of us could have lived with. There are a lot of unknowns with the decision that happened this past (Monday) night."

However, Thayer said the school board made the correct choice to slow down and hold town halls to get more feedback from the community and teachers. The feedback the board received was to have two schools configured at PreK-4, instead of the split PreK-1 and grades 2-4. Thayer agreed with that choice.

"Unfortunately, I was not able to make that motion. If you were at the meeting that night, the motions read off very quickly. In fact, the motion that passed was defeated the first time, two votes to five," he said. "I'm embarrassed, honestly, about what happened Monday night. I don't think we're listening to our public."

Thayer feels bad for the parents who are going to have kids in three different buildings. Some of those parents in PreK-1 will not feel comfortable putting their kids on a bus either, Thayer said, or drop them off at Thomas Jefferson "where there's already parking issues," something that was noted by architects early on.

"I'm fearful," Thayer said.

Cantu voted in favor of the current configuration decision. Some of the previous motions Cantu also voted against, which he explained. He wanted the board to vote in favor of the least expensive option first, which would have Aurora Heights as a PreK-1 building and Emerson Hough as the 2-4 building.

In the conversations he had with the community, he learned several people understood the reason for the configuration but they also worried about their tax bills. So Cantu looked for the most cost-effective options that prioritized sales tax funds and not property taxes, a position he upheld at the board meeting.

"As long as we could pay for it with revenue bonds, I felt like that was a viable option," he said. "We have two different configurations: PreK-4 in two buildings or splitting them up. I'd love to tell you I know exactly how this is all going to work out or one is way better than the other ... But I do trust our administration."

Cantu also believes administrators will work with staff and figure out the best way to move forward.

"I think we'll do great things for our kids in a situation that we can afford to move forward," he said. "Keeping four buildings is not something we could consider. It's just not financially feasible."

Cook said the initial driver of the decision to make major changes to the district was that Newton could not afford to operate four buildings anymore, especially when considering declining enrollment and support from the state. The district needed to do something or else it would not have a district in the next few years.

The second priority, for Cook, was maintaining quality education; Newton needs to provide the best quality of education possible with the money that is already available. Cook said one of the committee's goals identified in the configuration planning meetings was to have consistent culture across all schools.

"So when I voted I felt like I was supporting taking into account all the expert recommendations and architectural firms and all those people, looking at honoring that committee to have a consistent culture and what was cost-effective for quality education," Cook said. "So I supported to have what we voted for."

Although it is $1 million more than if the board used Aurora Heights as the PreK-1 building, Cook stood by her decision. Even more so now that the board voted and made a decision. When the votes are cast and a decision is made, she said the board gets behind it, promotes it and supports it.

"So that's where we're headed," she said.

Meyer was part of that committee that met for countless hours and talked through all sorts of options. But when she heard the result of the school board's vote, she was "just floored." It was never an option the committee ever considered in all those hours and hours of meeting. Meyer pushed for constructing a new building.

"Let's put everybody in there and have this equitability across a whole district," she said. "All the first graders get to go on the same field trip. All the second graders get to have the same science center come in and visit. Because it is not equitable now...I think we need to provide an equitable experience for these kids."

The district also needs to be able to move staff and kids around to have decent class sizes, Meyer added. After listening to a lot of teachers, Meyer said she started to understand that one building might not be the best option. Splitting it up into two, identical PreK-4 buildings might work better and would still be able to address equity.

"I think that would have been where my vote would have led," Meyer said.

Newton school board candidates Josh Cantu, Donna Cook, Kristi Meyer and Mark Thayer take turns speaking at the League of Women Voters of Jasper County forum Oct. 26 at the auditorium of DMACC Newton Campus.

PARENTAL RIGHTS & KNOWING WHAT'S BEING TAUGHT

The candidates spent an hour answering a number of questions from the audience, ranging from relatively simple to complicatedly obtuse.

An example of the latter was when they were asked: "Please express your thoughts regarding parental rights regarding knowing what their children are learning in public schools and demanding that teachers teach the curriculum. And what is the role of the school board in the curriculum development process?"

After spending a few seconds trying to write down the question, Cook said parents are always welcome in school and have the right to know what is being taught in schools. Information is readily available to parents on the website, and teachers are frequently sending stuff home. It's not a secret, Cook said.

"And it never has been," she said. "We hear horror stories on the news or we hear things that are coming out of other communities that are reportedly being taught. I have a sibling in another state and we argue about this all the time ... And I want to say, 'When's the last time you were in a classroom?'"

Cook said it is perfectly OK for parents to know what is going on in the schools. At one point, the Newton school district used to hold curriculum review nights "when it was all books instead of the internet," and at these events parents could come and talk about the curriculum and ask questions.

"Oftentimes some of those curriculum have a parent involvement piece as well," she said. "The curriculum development is a policy-driven board, and we have policies that talk about how curriculum is developed. It's research based. The curriculum is brought to the board. It's very expensive."

Every several years curriculum is updated. When it's up for review, Cook said the committee of staff work on it and try to determine what is best and more comprehensive and lends itself well to teaching and learning. Eventually, it comes to the board where it is either approved or not approved.

Meyer recalled her experience participating in a group that looked over and developed the district's communication plan. It was there she and other group members talked about all the different ways to communicate and get parents to understand what is going on and how to get that information across the right way.

"One of the things I brought up was I didn't know what was going on the middle school," she said. "The kid goes. They get good grades. They come home. Is that OK? Is that not OK? I'd like to know what they're doing. That is one thing I saw a huge improvement on last year was teachers were telling me."

She also wants to know what is going on in her children's classrooms, which is why she goes to conferences even if her high schooler doesn't like it.

"I think the more teachers can share what's going on, I think, helps parents and then I'm able to have conversations with my kid about what they're learning," she said. "And it's amazing some of the things my kids have learned that I had no clue what they were learning."

Meyer also praised the policies that are in place that allow parents to know what is being taught in classrooms, saying they are adequate.

"It's just making sure parents know how to get to that information," Meyer said.

Thayer said one of the school board's goals is to have guaranteed curriculum, and to him that means when Cardinals graduate they are prepared to either enlist in the military, enroll in college or secondary school or be employed. For the most part, he said Newton does a great job at that.

"Newton is really fortunate," he said. "We don't have some of these issues that we've all heard about in the national news that can be horror stories. Quite honestly, we don't have those issues here. I am glad that we have great parental involvement and parents that attend parent-teacher conferences."

Thayer said the state legislature has also addressed some of the concerns that he claimed were going on in other school districts.

"I have great confidence in our school district, and I think our teachers and people developing our curriculum are doing an outstanding job," Thayer said.

Cantu echoed a lot of the comments made by the previous candidates, particularly that many of the national headlines do not apply or are relevant to Newton. One area of improvement he noted was the consistency of communication with parents about the curriculum so that there isn't questions.

"When do you don't know, you start to fill in the blanks. And that's what I think we started to move down the road of here's what we're teaching in the classrooms, being more proactive to share that before it becomes a question of, 'What's being taught to my child?' We can do a better job at that. We are doing a better job at that," Cantu said.

As a parent in the district, Cantu is receiving emails on a weekly basis telling him what the school is covering.

"We're doing the things we need to," Cantu said. "Can we do better? Absolutely. We will do better."

BOOK BANNING

Candidates were asked if they support book banning. And if they do, they were to also cite a book that deserves to be banned and explain their reasoning.

Meyer said the policies already in place in the Newton school district — like the book review process — are followed and make sure the materials students have access to are OK. She said that review process is adequate and from what she could tell the policies are being implemented.

"I think as long as that review is in place, those policies are in place that is good enough that we don't need to have legislation on top of that to ban books."

Thayer said kids should have age-appropriate educational materials, and he also thinks parents should have involvement or at least the knowledge of what kids are exposed to. Again, Thayer stressed these book ban issues that have made headlines throughout the United States were not something Newton experienced.

"But there are some very bad actors out there, either in the nation or parts of our state, that were exposing kids to, in my beliefs, age-inappropriate reads," Thayer said. "So I believe that the legislature addressed this. It wasn't an issue here locally to my understanding, but it was an issue that needed to be addressed.

"So, if you're asking me if I'm in support of that? Yes."

Cantu doubted he would vote for a book ban, and he doubted the extreme cases were not applicable to Newton. The district has a process, as mentioned, to review books that parents can utilize. Creating a list of banned books, he said, is a unique way of getting kids to read books.

"It's not intuitive, to me, to create that," Cantu said. "I certainly agree that age-appropriate materials have to be part of the discussion."

Cook flat out said she would not vote to ban books, and she agreed that making a banned book list is a "great way to get people to read books."

Kids need the freedom to seek and express ideas and learn about people, families and cultures that are different from them, Cook said, as well historical events that show how different people used to live or who occupied our lands before us. There is so much rich literature out there.

"And I feel like our school district has done a very nice job of making sure those books that are available to our students are age appropriate and are appropriate for reading," Cook said. "If a parent — we're very transparent — parents have the opportunity to see what we read, see what's going to be on a syllabus."

If a parent objects to a book, there is a policy in place. There always has been.

"They can object to that book. They can ask for an alternate book for their student to read. If they really object to it being in the curriculum, there's a process for that, too," she said. "They can have that reviewed by the reconsideration committee. It seems like unnecessary legislation to me."