Ten candidates for Pine Bluff School Board presented their platforms and fielded questions at a public forum Thursday night at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
The candidates had gathered at the invitation of Parents & Patrons of the Pine Bluff School District for the first of two candidate forums intended to introduce the candidates and their ideas to the public and to create a more informed electorate for the Sept. 18 school board elections.
Board vice president Donna Barnes, representing zone 6 and board member Chandra Griffin representing zone 7 attended; while board president Herman Horace, representing zone 3, board secretary Freddie M. Johnson representing zone 4, and board member Ellen Nichol representing zone 2 did not attend.
Board members Harold Jackson representing zone 1 and Kenneth Dickson representing zone 5 are running uncontested and were not present.
Challengers in attendance included Mark Essex Smith and Phyllis A. Wilkins running for the zone 2 seat; Piccola Washington running for the zone 3 seat; Lee Meadows and Henry Dabner Jr. running for the zone 4 seat; Carvis J. Campbell and Leon Jones Sr. running for the zone 6 seat; and Andrea Roaf-Little running for the zone 7 seat.
Rev. Johnny Smith who is running for the zone 7 seat did not attend.
The event was moderated by Bernadette Davone with the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
“I’m not a politician,” Roaf-Little said. “I am a concerned parent and a dedicated candidate. A quality education means that the sky is the limit for our children. Our ultimate goal should be doing what we can for our children. We can lean on God to make this a reality. Children should be given a voice and be able to make their voices known. I believe in working together.”
Campbell said that being a parent made him want to improve the school district.
“I have a strong desire to help improve conditions of this school district,” Campbell said. “I am a parent. I will ensure that student learning is first and foremost. There will be no unnecessary spending. I will work with the board and the superintendent to promote accountability. I look forward to maximizing performance and achieving measurable academic standards.”
Barnes emphasized her experience.
“I have a passion for education and a strong desire to see students educated,” Barnes said. “I have in excess of 120 hours of board training and I am PTO president at W.T. Cheney Elementary where my son is in the fifth grade. A vote for me is a vote for your most prized possession — your child.”
Jones said that he has a genuine commitment to bettering children’s lives.
“I know what to put into educating children because I raised mine,” Jones said. “I have a passion to see grades come up and the dropout rate come down. We need to ensure that our students achieve and not fail.”
Washington emphasized her multi-decade career as a teacher in the Pine Bluff School District.
“I am a retired teacher of 36 years and I put two children through this school district,” Washington said. “We need to have love and concern for the children and the community. It is important to look at the district’s mission. It is our job to ensure cooperation with the board, the superintendent and the community. We must make this district what it used to be.”
Dabner also had children in the district.
“I am running as a concerned parent,” Dabner said. “I put three children through the Pine Bluff School District. Student achievement should be the number one priority. I feel we need to have more parental involvement in the district. I’ve coached Little League baseball and football and was active in the PTA the entire time I had children in school.”
Meadows highlighted his desire to see district students ready for the global workplace.
“I was prepared to work in the field that I wanted to go into, which is information technology, thanks to my education,” Meadows said. “We must do what is right by our children and the community. Students must be prepared for today’s workplace. Pine Bluff can, will and must succeed.”
Wilkins focused on nurturing students.
“I believe all children have a fundamental right to an outstanding education,” Wilkins said. “We must give our students the best opportunity to learn and we must work with our community stakeholders. We must be a parent friendly district because education functions best with the cooperation of all.”
Mark Smith highlighted his journey from being a Hurricane Katrina refugee newly arrived in Pine Bluff to an educator in several Jefferson County school districts.
“We can no longer afford to play politics,” Smith said. “We must put the most qualified people in these positions. Common Core is coming. I lost everything but I have something to add.”
Griffin pointed to her experience as a board member.
“I have had more than 90 hours of board training which is essential to understanding how the board functions,” Griffin said. “I have the passion and experience to help to train students.”
Davone began the question and answer period by asking the candidates what they considered to be the top three issues facing the school district.
The recruitment and retention of teaching staff; fostering a sense of cooperation between the board, the superintendent and the community; and increasing student test scores were the issues most frequently cited by the candidates.
The second question concerned how the school board could foster greater parental involvement in the education of their children.
Several candidates, including Roaf-Little, Dabner, Campbell, Washington and Wilkins, said that greater efforts should be made to create a more welcoming environment for parents at district schools.
Griffin said that parents need to make it a point to look for ways to get involved and Barnes said that parents should be encouraged to participate in the Parent Teacher Organization at their child’s school.
Meadows suggested the creation of learning committees to help parents learn enough of a school subject to be able to help their children with their homework.
Smith said that he would personally go out and speak with his constituents to see what their concerns are.
In another question Davone asked the candidates for their opinions on what can be done to address the high percentage of high school graduates in need of remedial course work once they enter college.
Roaf-Little said that students need to feel more invested in their own future, while Campbell said that efforts must be made to improve student ACT test scores to at least a 19 in order to qualify for scholarships.
Griffin said that students in junior high school need to be be kept motivated so that they don’t fall behind and that potential problems at home may be holding student achievement back.
Barnes said that the practice of social promotion should be ended.
“If you don’t get it you don’t get to move on,” Barnes said.
Jones and Washington said that the focus on improving student performance should begin in the early grades.
Dabner said that parents need to make sure that they don’t lose focus on their children’s education as they get older.
Meadows agreed with Barnes on the ending of social promotion.
“If we don’t pay now we will pay later,” Meadows said. “Either the higher education system or the criminal justice system will receive each child.”
Wilkins said that parents must be engaged with their children’s learning from the earliest age.
“Parents need to read to their kids,” Wilkins said. “They need to send them to tutorial programs and things like the Boys and Girls Club.”
Smith said that he developed an ACT prep course at Watson Chapel High School that has achieved results.
“I’ve taught students different ACT strategies and achieved increases in test scores,” Smith said.
The second candidate forum is scheduled for 6 until 7:45 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center, 211 W. Third Ave.
Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Waymond Brown is scheduled to be the moderator.
The school board election is Sept. 18. Early voting will be Sept. 11-17, excluding Saturday and Sunday, at the Jefferson County Courthouse from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.