Summit school board candidates share views on academics, equity, finances and transparency at election forum
Community members gathered in the Summit High School auditorium and on Zoom to hear from all nine Summit School District Board of Education candidates on one stage, sharing their thoughts on academics, equity, district spending and transparency.
Candidates for the one two-year term are incumbent Kate Hudnut and 4 For the Kids slate member Danielle Surette. Candidates for the three four-year terms are Toby Babich, Chris Guarino, incumbents Johanna Kugler and Lisa Webster, and 4 for The Kids slate members Kim Langley, Manuela Michaels and Pat Moser.
Candidates weren’t blind to the fact that the district’s test scores have fallen below average.
Guarino said it’s undeniable that board members and parents care about student performance but that it’s equally important to step back and look at the whole child. He said he doesn’t have a perfect answer as to why scores are dropping, but that working with and not against teachers can allow students to thrive. Kugler shared this sentiment, as well.
The 4 For the Kids candidates touted their top priority as improving academic performance, and Langley said she thinks the district has fallen below standards due to a lot of distractions.
“With math and reading literacy continuing to decline, we must focus on teaching academic skills, not belief systems,” Langley said. “In other words, we intend to get back to the basics. We would encourage a learning environment in which students are taught how to think, not what to think.”
Hudnut countered that students are so much more than test scores, and that the district offers dozens of programs that take kids further than the basics, including career and technical education, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes as well as dual language and dual enrollment programs.
“We are so much more at Summit School District than reading, writing and arithmetic,” Hudnut said. “We have amazing programs here. We have a community that has been generous.”
Given the divisiveness surrounding the community conversation about the school district’s equity policy, it’s clear not everyone has the same definition of what equity means.
Kugler said walking into a classroom and handing every child the exact same book is equality. She said giving each child a book appropriate for their own individual needs is equity.
“That is equity: looking at the individual child, giving them the tools, the resources and the opportunities to reach their fullest potential,” Kugler said.
Michaels said she thinks using the word equity is confusing because so many people have different definitions and that her stance on the policy depends on the definition being used. Moser shared similar sentiments.
“I am for equity if it’s providing all students with the tools they need to succeed in the classroom academically and social/emotionally,” Michaels said. “I am not for equity if it’s said like the Summit School District definition: that all white students are racists and oppressors while the others are oppressed and discriminated against.”
Babich said he thinks the heart of the equity policy is a commitment to the student community, something he believes everyone would support. But he said the policy also includes ideas and themes that are considered divisive, creating distracting debates among the community.
In June, the board adopted a budget that includes about $67.6 million in revenue for the upcoming year and more than $70 million in expenses across all funds. While about 90% of that budget goes to salary and benefits, how the rest should be spent is up for debate.
Webster noted that the state’s formula for school budgets is incredibly outdated and that public schools are not getting as much money as they should be.
“We need to fix that at the state level so our local budgets can be more whole, because every time the state takes back money, that takes money out of our pockets here in Summit County,” Webster said.
Moser said she would want to go line by line looking at the budget, asking how each expenditure helps the kids.
“If I can’t get an answer, then I’m going to be asking some questions because the budget either needs to go to teachers and help them help kids or go right to the kids,” Moser said. “Everything should be focused on the kids — everything — because that’s why we open our doors every day.”
Babich said he was president of a trade organization that went through similar issues with its director last year as the district did with previous superintendent Marion Smith Jr., paying him a six-figure severance package. He said the budget needs to prioritize real-world skills.
“Obviously, it’s concerning seeing the payout … but I’m not going to question the integrity of board members or the process of formulating the budget,” Babich said. “I believe some of the people I know on the budget committee and these board members take their oath of fidelity and fiduciary duties very seriously.”
As school board meetings are becoming more well attended nationwide, parents are asking for more transparency from their kids’ school districts.
Surette said she doesn’t think the board has done a good job of communicating and that there are many parents concerned about class curriculum, saying this should be made available online. She also said the time allotted for public comment at board meetings isn’t enough for parents to address their concerns and that listening forums should be held for more parent feedback.
“(Parents) deserve a voice and a say in their children’s education, and the board should want to hear from them,” Surette said. “Parents and teachers have stated that they’re frustrated because no one values their opinions. … People need to feel like they’re a part of the conversation, that their opinion matters.”
Guarino said his first priority is building trust by being an active listener and a transparent, proactive communicator.
“It’s our duty not to represent our own beliefs, but it is to represent all of you, even if we disagree with each other,” Guarino said. “… Even if I’m voting for or supporting something you don’t like, you’re going to understand why I have that feeling.”
Webster said transparency is a two-way street, saying that the board posts all of its meeting information online and that the community needs to ensure it is following along before the end of a process. She and other candidates encouraged the community to get involved with the district by volunteering or joining a committee.
The ballot issue portion of the event will be covered in Wednesday’s paper. To read more about the Summit School District Board of Education races, go to SummitDaily.com/election to find Q&As and opinion pieces by each candidate.
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