The Charles Town Middle Builders Club held a forum for candidates for the Jefferson County Board of Education virtually Tuesday night, with Laurie Ogden, Kathy Skinner, Carmen Taylor-Bratton, Andrea Elliot and Joyce Smith all taking time to answer questions from young people voters.
All candidates were invited to participate in the forum. Smith joined late, not available to answer any questions.
Maggie Slover kicked off the questions by asking if the contestants would support a gender-neutral dress code, with each contestant agreeing that boys and girls should have the same rules to be fair, and Ava Brenneke followed that up with a question about the resources available to staff and students for mental health support, as well as the possibility of having a non-academic mental health counselor in schools.
Ogden and Skinner, the incumbents in the running, noted that the board launched the Social-Emotional Department (SOMO) in 2018, with members understanding the need for support for students and staff. Ogden pointed out that while the state doesn’t fund these types of positions, the Jefferson County Council sees the value and need for the support.
Bratton said she would like to see a survey conducted to find out what resources are needed and backed a position to provide immediate support. Elliot, whose expertise lies in mental health, added that she would like to see resources for parents, as well as mental health issues, increase during the pandemic.
Megan Caltrider inquired about compensating the money staff pay out of pocket for supplies and improving morale as a preventative measure for future staff shortages.
Both Ogden and Skinner mentioned the annual stipends paid to teachers and that it was recently implemented to have service staff also receive a stipend. Skinner also explained the recruitment and retention plan that was implemented recently, while Ogden emphasized that employees need to make their voices heard.
“I still think there’s room for improvement, so we’ll continue to work that way,” Ogden said.
Bratton emphasized his belief in giving not only employees, but also parents and students a seat at the table multiple times throughout the night, including in response to Caltrider’s questions. She also said funds could be reallocated to offset costs, with Elliot echoing that thought and adding that an audit should be carried out every year to ensure the money is being put to best use.
Emma Kinder and Henry Fesperman, who served as moderator, asked questions about what to do to prevent bullying, punishment and supporting students related to bullying.
All candidates highlighted the need for students to feel safe in schools and for a clear policy on how situations should be handled, clear disciplinary actions to be taken. All four who were at the time also asked for support from the victim and the bully, finding the cause behind the actions and how to prevent future situations, in addition to the consequences of the actions.
Both Skinner and Elliot mentioned conflict resolution, while Bratton noted that all parties — parents, teachers, and students — need a seat at the table if a bullying policy is reviewed and revisited.
Brenneke asked how students can better make their voices heard and help the board understand what they believe to be the issues in the schools. Each candidate, Smith having joined, urged students to reach out to the board, administration and teachers with thoughts, Ogden and Skinner encouraging emails and public comment submissions, while Bratton and Elliot focused on regularly organized roundtable experiences.
The final question was about cell phone use in the classroom, with Caltrider noting non-academic use and asking about the suggested intervention.
Ogden emphasized the need to teach phone etiquette, and she and Skinner explained that the policy allows each teacher or staff to manage their area as appropriate, with each handling cell phones differently. Bratton and Elliot think phones don’t need to be in the classroom, with each individual pointing to the weight of a phone being carried away and parental pick-up of the device necessary. Smith concluded the Q&A portion by saying the issue needs to be looked at, feedback needs to be gathered, and the policy may need to be rewritten.
The full forum can be found on the Builders’ Facebook page of the CTMS Builder Candidates Forum.