Q&A with Muscogee County School Board District 2 candidates

April 21, 2014 

The Ledger-Enquirer's weeklong series of Q&A articles continues with candidates for the District 2 seat of the Muscogee County School Board.

John Wells, who has been on the board 28 years, is seeking re-election.

He faces three challengers in John Thomas, Victor Morales and John Steed.

1. Should the school district divide into three regions -- east, west and central -- as proposed by the superintendent?

John Wells: Superintendent David Lewis has proposed the school district be administered through three districts, thereby decentralizing decision making while providing greater coordination of resources through the most efficient and effective method. His proposal should make better use of personnel with a greater focus on student improvement.

John Thomas: Superintendent Lewis feels that his zone plan for administration will be more efficient, more economical, more equitable, and above all, more responsive for every school in the system. I support any changes in the administrative system that can provide services for the schools in these ways as long as administration is not becoming more top-heavy at the expense of the classroom experience for teachers and students. I will never support furloughs and layoffs for teachers while simultaneously expending more of the school district budget on Central Administration personnel. If a new organizational chain of command gets the job done better at no additional cost to the district, then yes, I do support his plan.

Victor Morales: Yes. The north-south divide is too obvious in the disparity between the two regions. Dividing the district into 3 regions would provide all schools in each district with resources that are currently not available to them. BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure), for example, chose for us to build new schools in areas where they were obviously not needed and these schools are now under student capacity. All children in Columbus, regardless of their district, should have the opportunity to attend a decent school.

John Steed: East, west, north, south, central, call it what you want, when it's all said and done the only labels that matter are successful or failing. Renaming and reorganizing school zones do not mean anything to parents and students who are concerned about students' achievement. We have more than more than 32,000 students that attend 58 schools, yet we are one district united around a common goal of educating our students.

I am cautious to anything that further factionalizes an already divided system.

2. Should every school have the exact same resources?

Wells: Every school should have the exact same resources. However, there are federal and state funding sources that are targeted to certain groups of children. Title One for instance, is a program targeted toward economically disadvantaged students and by law can only be used to benefit that group of students. Therefore unless the law specifically states otherwise, the resources should be the same.

Thomas: This question brings to mind an old cliché, "If every problem were a nail, all you would need is a hammer." There is no justification to allocate the "exact same" resources to every school; it wouldn't be equitable. Each school has its own set of needs and problems, and in order to address those needs and problems, priorities must be set and resources must be allocated accordingly. A school building that is 40 years old is likely going to have more maintenance issues than a building that is 2 years old. Underperforming schools may have different academic challenges and may require greater resources. A holistic approach to resource allocation based on student needs should raise the question: "Should every student have the exact same opportunity to get a quality education in Muscogee County Schools?" and the answer to that of course, is absolutely "Yes!"

Morales: No. I believe that once we have the regional chiefs in place they will need to determine what resources are necessary for their districts in order to make all of their schools successful. The board will need to review all of the requests and then determine which ones would benefit the most students. We need to supply each school with the tools they will need to succeed.

Steed: No. Every school should have the resources it needs to effectively educate its students. In some cases that might be the same as other schools, and in some cases it will not. One of the planks in my platform is to bring equity to our schools, not to be confused with equality. Having the same or equal resources is not the answer. We need to work to ensure that we meet our students where they are and that means that resources should be distributed based on the needs of the students and not a pre-set equality algorithm that works for a small group at the expense of other students. One size fits all is not the answer.

3. Was the school board right to vote against then-superintendent Susan Andrews' appointments in May 2012?

Wells: It is incumbent upon a superintendent to provide timely answers to board members' questions concerning proposals being made at a board meeting. Clear answers eliminate uncertainty and confusion about the proposal. When all questions are answered satisfactorily to the individual board member, they will vote yes or no. Each board member has only one vote and should vote according to their knowledge and understanding of the proposal.

Thomas: In recent public meetings, Superintendent Lewis noted the challenges the execution of his vision for the future would face. He cited trust issues and problems with the board as barriers the district faces in being perceived in a positive way in the community. The incident this question references helped foster the ongoing lack of trust in the school board, but it is important to remember that it was an act done deliberately and spitefully. The sitting members of the board who were behind that vote, including my opponent John Wells, should be ashamed of putting a personal agenda above the best interests of the schools. Citizens of Muscogee County deserve to feel that the education of the county's children will not take a back seat to petty politics, personal vendettas, and spiteful retaliation among adults who should be responsible enough not to abuse the power of their office.

Morales: The school board has the right to vote against the superintendent's appointments, but I disagree with the manner in which it was done. The board knew that they were going to vote against the appointments ahead of time and were also aware that the appointees would invite family and friends to attend the function. I believe they should have had the decency to either delay the vote and discuss it further with the superintendent or informed the appointees prior to the board meeting that they had not been chosen for the nomination. The board should not have treated the leaders of our schools with such disrespect.

Steed: The board was not right in the way it handled Superintendent Andrews' appointments. The voting appeared to be deliberate and malicious. It was just another example of how a John Wells-led board will always put petty personal politics before students and teachers.

4. If elected, will you support another SPLOST?

Wells: The school district has options to increase revenue for the operation of the district. One is to raise property taxes. We haven't had a property tax increase in 17 years.

I will not support an increase in property taxes on homeowners in Muscogee County.

Another option is the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). If needs arise that necessitate additional funding for building, remodeling or additions to schools, then the SPLOST is available. The needs assessment and funding requirement is calculated. A dollar amount is determined and must be approved by the voters. A SPLOST only lasts five years. The good part is shoppers from outside our county help us pay for our school improvements. I would support a SPLOST if necessary.

Thomas: When elected, I want to focus my efforts on ensuring that expenditures are being made as effectively as possible. Budget concerns played a significant factor in my decision to seek the office. I believe there are efficiencies to be found in the allocation of financial resources. I have specific ideas on how to save money and address the budget shortfalls and funding cuts we face, and I don't believe the answer is to simply throw money at the problem. The community does not trust the board now, and the board has a lot of ground to make up with the community -- money, power, and personnel issues have all contributed to that in the past. I want to get the board back on track with trust, integrity, and respect in the community. I will not support another SPLOST until I have proven to be a worthy steward of the taxpayer-funded budget.

Morales: Yes. I believe we need to continue bettering our schools for our children's future. SPLOST has built new schools, upgraded schools and educational facilities, added classrooms and funded additional technology, all of which are necessary for our children to become competitive in our society. There is still a lot more work to be done.

Some children have to take classes in portable buildings and attend schools that are below standards. As technology continues to advance, we need make sure our schools advance as well. SPLOST would help provide the technology and schools needed for our children's educational future.

Steed: We have voted for three different SPLOSTs and we still have major student achievement issues. We have taxed our citizens enough. My immediate response is one of hesitation. But I will stop short of an absolute no because I don't know what the future holds. But what I can say, without a doubt, is before I take a public position on a SPLOST I will survey my constituents, because I am going as their representative, not their dictator.

5. Should the school district open up the bidding process for law firms?

Wells: I always support the open bidding process for all contractual work for the Board of Education.

According to state law, the superintendent is authorized to propose and recommend the hiring of a law firm to represent the MCSD. The selection of a law firm to represent the District with all the varied state, federal and local laws specific to school and education law is a complex decision.

I believe all interested firms should be afforded the opportunity to bid on this work.

I do however support local companies.

Thomas: Yes, the school district should open up the bidding process for law firms, but I do not think the issue stops there. All services should be up for bid. It's only common sense: We have to run the school district within the parameters of a budget, and in principle it's no different than running your household on a budget. If you want to get the most impact from the money you lay out, it simply makes sense to weigh your options and shop for the best value at the best price.

Morales: Yes, but only after the current contract ends. Just as it is unfair not to have a bidding process for legal services, it would be just as unfair to open a bid while you already have an agreement in place. We need to present the law firms with all of the legal services we require and then choose the firm that can provide them at the lowest cost.

Steed: Yes, the school district must have an openly competitive and fair bidding process that will ensure the integrity of the process and the quality of the service and products being purchased. We must put an end to this good-ole-boy system of corruption and back-room deals.

DISTRICT 2 CANDIDATE BIOS

Name: John Wells

Age: 74

Education: BS Degree from CSU

Occupation: Businessman, builder, property owner, management

Experience: Business, community service, elected twice to City Council, currently serving on Board of Education

Family: Widower, two children, five grand children all public schools,

Facebook: www.facebook.com/john.wells.752

Name: John F. Thomas

Age: 59

Education: BA, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1977; MA, University of Iowa, 1989; BA, Columbus State University, 2011

Occupation: Revenue agent, Internal Revenue Service

Experience: Over 20 years as a manager in corporate business operations

Family: Wife, Marjorie, a Columbus native

Facebook/website: www.facebook.com/JohnFThomasforSchools; www.JohnThomasforSchoolBoard.com

Name: Victor Morales

Age: 55

Education: Bachelor's Degree: Business Management; Master's Degrees (3): Management, Human Resource Management, and Education Technology

Occupation: Training and Development Coordinator for Pratt & Whitney

Experience: Advisory Board member for Muscogee County CTAE; Member of Chamber of Commerce Manufacturers' Board; SkillsUSA Georgia Board of Directors; Transportation Education Foundation of Georgia (TEFGA) Board Member; Advisory Board Member for Columbus Technical College Economic Development Committee; Advisory Board Member for Columbus Technical College, South Georgia Technical College, Middle Georgia Technical College and Aviation Institute of Maintenance; Partner in Education Liaison between Aaron Cohn Middle School, Chamber of Commerce and Pratt & Whitney; Liaison Between Work-based Learning Program for Muscogee County, Harris County, Columbus Technical College, and Pratt & Whitney (State Award Winners 2013)

Family: Wife, Jasmine; 7 children (All graduated from Muscogee County Public Schools), 4 grandchildren

Facebook/email: www.facebook.com/vmdist2; victormorales4mcsd2

Name: John "Bart" Steed

Age: 55

Education: K-12 in Muscogee County Schools, Graduate of Kendrick High School, Attended Columbus College (Columbus State University)

Occupation: Owner and CEO of Kar-Tunes -- Audio Services and Equipment Business

Experience: Business owner for more than 30 years, with a wealth of experience in solving complex business and budgeting problems, managing resources, and understanding how to do more with less. An expert in customer service, an area in which he says our current board is failing miserably.

Family: Wife of 31 years, Cindy. Daughter, Stephanie; son, Patrick, both graduates of the Muscogee County School District.

Facebook/website: www.facebook.com/pages/John-Bart-Steed-for-School-Board-District-2/611815322199088; johnbartsteed.com

ELECTION Q&As:

Q&A with the mayoral candidates

Q&A with Muscogee County School Board at-large seat candidates

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