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Education

District 2 Candidates Make Their Case To Voters At School Board Forum

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Rhema Thompson
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Scott Shine would like to find ways to keep more great teachers in Duval County Public Schools. Sam Hall wants to develop a revenue stream to replace depleting funds in the district’s budget. Shannon Russell wants to emphasize more learning and less testing.

“I can’t teach a student if they’re not there and one of the biggest reasons is testing,” she said.

For the three candidates, these are some of the biggest issues that currently face the Duval County Public School system.
 
Thursday night, they each made their case for how they would tackle these challenges and more if elected to the Duval County School Board.
 
The first and only debate for the District 2 seat took place at Fletcher High School. Fred “Fel” Lee will step down as board member of the district, which oversees some of the highest-performing schools in Duval County, including Fletcher.

The Jacksonville Public Education Fund hosted the 2014 Candidate Forum event, in conjunction with several community organizations including Jacksonville Urban League, the Community Foundation, and WJCT. WJCT News Director Karen Feagins served as the night’s moderator.

A fourth candidate for the seat, Theresa Graham, did not attend.
 
During the two-hour debate, the candidates fielded a myriad of questions from the audience and the Twitterverse ranging from overcrowded classrooms and parental involvement to the district’s magnet programs and whether or not they received campaign contributions from charter schools.

At one point, the candidates were asked how they would address the student achievement gap.

Russell proposed more programs that reach under-performing students, such as the district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) college-readiness program.

“I would say the best way to approach narrowing the achievement gap is to look more closely at those programs through extensive research and implement them into our system to assist those students with those very specific needs,” she said.

Hall suggested that the district establish best practices modeled after other Duval schools that have shown significant improvement.

Shine noted that efforts were already underway to close the gap through the privately-funded Quality Education for All initiatives. The initiative targets 36 under-performing schools in the district’s Urban Core--the so-called transformation schools.  

“What I would like to do is go in and find out what are the characteristics of those educators who can go into those transformation schools and be successful,” he said.  “It’s not just money. There’s a certain personality type, there’s a certain background; we need to find that.”  

The candidates were also asked their thoughts on recent changes in the district, such as the series of “principal shuffles” implemented by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and the district’s newly revised code of conduct.

They each voiced general support for the new code of conduct, which takes a more individualized approach to discipline. But their responses to Vitti’s mid-year and end-of-the year principal changes were mixed.

“If we do the same things that we’ve done, we’re going to get the same results,” Shine said.

Russell said the change of leadership, particularly in the middle of the year, can create a huge disruption to schools. Russell teaches at Sandalwood High School where a principal change occurred last year.

Hall said there were good and bad sides to the move.

“I think the principal shuffle is upsetting the apple cart, right now, because there’s a transitional period but I think in the long-run it will be effective,” he said.

The District 2 race has the most candidates running for school board office. It will end this month if one of the candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. If that doesn’t happen, the top two candidates will advance onto the general elections in November.
 
A second debate will take place for the District 4 seat between sitting board member Paula Wright and challenger Darryl Willie on Aug. 12 at Ribault High School.

Primary elections for the Duval County School Board take place August 26.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.