In a public forum conducted by the local branch of the NAACP, seven Muscogee County School Board candidates spent more than 100 minutes Thursday night making opening and closing statements and answering questions submitted from the 50 people in the Columbus Public Library.
But it was the first question that elicited the most distinctive response to help voters decide whom to support: What do you plan to change to make the school district better for the students, the teachers and the parents?
Here are highlights of the candidates' answers in the order that they spoke. All candidates attended the forum except Beth Harris and Owen Ditchfield. Norene Marvets spoke on behalf of Harris.
District 2 incumbent John Wells
Wells said the board's approval of Superintendent David Lewis' recommended reading program will help students learn to read at an earlier age.
Wells noted the district's high school graduation rate is above the state average (72.8 percent compared to 71.5 in 2013).
"But I'm not satisfied," Wells said. "That's the reason why we've got programs instituted in our school district now to undergird students who look like they might not make it. I hate to see a student not graduate, because they won't have a future."
District 2 challenger John "Bart" Steed
"There's a stigma attached to some of our schools in the school system that says
you can't get a good education unless you go to a certain school," Steed said. "The first thing that we're going to have to try to accomplish is to get equity among our schools."
Steed contended that equity isn't giving everyone an apple; it's giving everyone the fruit they need.
"Every student needs their piece of information, their resource, their educational understanding in order to achieve the higher goal," Steed said. "We've got to work on our student achievement. To do that, the equity is going to get us there."
District 2 challenger Victor Morales
"I'm on a lot of committees in Columbus, and one of the things that I hear from a lot of the businesses is that our students aren't employable," Morales said. " But we've created a program that has hired over 27 high school students right into Pratt & Whitney. These are the same programs we can bring to other schools.
"So by getting businesses involved and creating a path that they want and a path that the schools can incorporate, we'll be able to give our students the opportunity to be employable as soon as they get out of high school."
Morales envisions such programs as incentive for students to graduate.
"If we can dangle an apple in front of them and say, 'Hey, at the end of high school, here's an opportunity for you,' hopefully they'll stay in high school, go after that apple, and when they graduate, they can go right into Columbus and be employed by us," Morales said.
District 2 challenger John F. Thomas
Thomas pledged to be a "good steward of the taxpayer-funded budget."
"I don't feel like people are engaged and paying attention to where the nickels and dimes are going," Thomas said. "In times of great revenues, you can overlook a lot of financial leaks in the system. But in the crunch time like we have now, this financial crisis we have now, all the things rear their ugly heads, and they'll come back to bite us."
He vowed to "never support personnel actions as the way to address a budget shortfall," Thomas said. "I don't want to see teachers furloughed, and I don't want to see us lose teachers. I don't want teacher layoffs. To me, that is cutting at the very heart of the system."
He also called for "some green initiatives to save money. Let's look at some innovative ways to bring in more revenue. I'm telling you they're there. I've done the research, and that's what I want to bring to the school board."
District 8 challenger Frank Myers
Myers said he agrees with Thomas' earlier proposal for a "top-to-bottom" audit of the school district.
"We don't know where the money is going," Myers said. "There are people on the school board that don't' know where the money is going."
One audience member interjected, "You know where it's not going."
"Absolutely," Myers continued. "We've got to get it back to the classroom. That's the point exactly."
Myers repeated his call for the board to end "no-bid contracts."
As far as the district's new reading program, Myers insisted the superintendent recommended it because "he was telling us our kids can't read. That is significant."
"Muscogee County has the third-highest tax millage rate for schools (in Georgia) behind Rockdale and DeKalb counties, and we're in the lowest third at best in overall performance," Myers said. "We're not getting a good bang for our buck."
Norene Marvets, speaking on behalf of District 8 incumbent Beth Harris
"It's easy to sit and spew negativity," Marvets said. "It is easy to complain. On any one vote, you can make half of the people happy and half of them upset. It is a very hard job that the whole school board has."
Marvets said Harris is "very proud" of the board approving the superintendent's initiative to develop three regions in the district -- west, central and east -- to combat the north-south divide between the advantaged and disadvantaged populations and bring central office administrators closer to the schools.
"It will help to utilize the employees in a better way," Marvets said.
At-large candidate Kia Chambers
"The first thing I'd like to be an advocate for is to cut or eliminate waste and put more money back into the classrooms," Chambers said.
She also asserted the district needs better communication and collaboration.
"We are all taxpayers, and it is important that we communicate as a school district to the citizens so that they know where we stand and know what's going on," Chambers said. "Whether it's a school that's about to close or budget cuts, communication is going to be key."
Chambers wants the district to "use all of our community partners to assure that we educate tomorrow's leaders today."
More partnerships with local businesses would "save the school district money and save the taxpayers money," Chambers said.
At-large candidate Nate Sanderson
"Start a monthly or a quarterly conversation with the community," Sanderson said. "Every time I hear from the school board, they're talking about a 1-percent sales tax. Once they get the 1-percent sales tax, then you don't hear from them anymore.
"What I would like to do is get feedback, find out from the parents, the teachers, the janitors, the cooks, all of those people, what are your needs? What do you need to make your job easier? Take that, develop a strategic plan, present it, and have the superintendent implement some of the things the people want. This is the people's school system, and we should give it back to the people."
Marvets said after the forum that Harris didn't attend because she had a previous commitment. Harris wasn't reached for comment.
At-large candidate Owen Ditchfield said by phone after the forum that he already had mailed 300 invitations to his campaign fundraiser reception when he was invited to the forum for the same night.
"I lined up someone to speak on my behalf," Ditchfield said, "but just two hours before the event, she got so sick from allergies."