No matter the question, the graduation rate was the issue the Muscogee County School Board candidates mentioned most during Thursday night's forum.
All nine of the candidates among the board's three contested races spoke at the MidTown Inc. event with about 50 residents in the Muscogee County Public Education Center. Kia Chambers, Owen Ditchfield and Nate Sanderson are vying for the at-large seat, in which Cathy Williams isn't seeking re-election. District 2 incumbent John Wells is facing three opponents: Victor Morales, John "Bart" Steed and John F. Thomas. District 8 incumbent Beth Harris is running against Frank Myers.
Muscogee's graduation rate jumped from 67.5 percent in 2012 to 72.8 percent in 2013, while the state increased from 69.7 to 71.5.
"I'm proud of that," Wells said.
To improve the graduation even more, Wells said, he supports the superintendent David Lewis' implementation of a system-wide reading program and dividing the system into three regions, where central office administrators will be assigned to work closer with schools.
"He has set aside zones so that will be more effective and efficient in collaborating with teachers and principals," Wells said. "It will get more resources to the students to help them graduate, find them early to make sure they are boosted up."
Harris said the graduation rate is the school system's greatest challenge. She praised Lewis, whom the board hired in July from Polk County, Fla., for implementing the Reading Wonders program.
"If we follow the superintendent's plan that he has mapped out, I do believe that success will follow," Harris said. "I think that when you have a successful school, I know that principals talk and teachers get together, but it seems we could have a better communication plan to have these people that are succeeding and have these really great ideas to share them so that they too can have those implemented in their schools."
But comparing the district to the state isn't good enough for Myers.
"If we even the playing field in these schools that aren't named Columbus High and Britt David, the graduation rate is going to fix itself," Myers said. "If you're happy with the status quo, y'all need to help this lady get re-elected and help Mr. Wells get re-elected. We are just truly blessed to have David Lewis in our system. But you know what, folks? He is only going to be as good as the board that surrounds him."
Steed put the 72.8 percent graduation rate in perspective.
"I don't know if you quite get the impact of it, but if you take one out of every four students and you fail them, in four years we have an entire graduating class that doesn't pass," he said. "They're just left behind. We can't have this. We've got to bring it up. Of course, the equity is what's going to bring us up in there."
Morales called for more programs in other schools to achieve that equity.
"Columbus (High) is a great school," he said. "If you can pick all the best students and throw them in one school, and if they give you any problems you kick them out, yeah, you're going to have the greatest school. We can't do that with the other schools."
Thomas insisted bridging the educational gaps in the system can be addressed by examining the budget.
"I'm talking about reallocating the resources to where they will do the most good," he said. "When a teacher does not have the materials to instruct her students in the classroom, then that's where things start to break down."
Sanderson and Chambers also focused on the disparity among schools.
"One or two schools are achieving at state-record rates, like coming in No. 1 or No. 2 in the state," Sanderson said. "And then we have other schools that have great challenges. We need to find out what those schools are doing. We need to make sure that all the schools can achieve."
"It hurts my heart that we have schools in Muscogee County where 40 to 50 percent of the kids are not making it to graduation day," Chambers said. "If we look at the students with disabilities, it sometimes is 19 percent of those kids that make it to graduation. We have to do something about that. We have to provide a quality education for all of our kids. We need to be in the 80s and 90s when it comes to our graduation rate."
Ditchfield wants to raise the bar even higher.
"Why aren't we getting the highest graduation rate in the country? That should be our goal," he said. "It's superintendent Lewis' goal. Once we decide what the problem is, we can pursue strategies to solve it. There are federal and state grants that are available for specific problems that students are having. We should pursue those. There are community resources, such as Partners in Education, local foundations and others, that can help. We need to reach out to the entire community to ensure that every student gets a quality education."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.