Lake Forest and Milford School Districts in lower Delaware have big races for the 2017 School Board Election. In Lake Forest, there is a three-way race between Austin Auen, Phillip Thomas, and Stephanie Justiano Johnson. For Milford, an epic five-way race has Ronald Evans, Michael Firch, Jason Miller, Michael McKain, and Michael Wells vying for the At-Large seat. Milford has another open seat in Area D, but only Judith Purcell filed so she gets the board seat.
I reached out to the candidates in all the Delaware school districts. For Lake Forest, I received a response back from Austin Auen. For Milford, Ronald Evans and Michael McKain responded. I used the contact information on the Kent County Department of Elections website as well as combing through Facebook. I also gave “public notice” about the surveys on this blog if I did not have contact information. I want to thank those who did respond with great answers to tough questions. Don’t forget to vote on May 9th!
1) Do you support a parent’s right to opt their child out of the state assessment? Why or why not?
Austin Auen (Lake Forest): Absolutely, parents should have the right to decide that their children shouldn’t be tested day in and day out so the state can collect data that will in no way tell them how that child learns or who that child is. We send children to school in order to learn and grow, not be data centers for the state.
Ronald Evans (Milford): I firmly support a parent’s right to opt their child out of the state assessment.
First, there is no law (federal or state) which mandates all children to take state testing. Districts throughout the country have pointed to federal regulation; however, those regulations only discuss what the state “must provide for” and provide no requirement of the child or parent. Even in State regulations, it only speaks to that children cannot be excluded from taking a state assessment. This means that no one can tell a child that they are excluded from taking the assessment. It does not, however, say that the child must take the assessment. At the end of the day, parents know their children best. This includes understanding the child’s ability to handle the stress associated with a state assessment and/or any mental/emotional conditions which may make taking the state assessment difficult for the child.
Secondly, I believe state assessments, at the end of the day, break a child down into a data point taken at a couple of specific points in time (i.e. the days the child takes the assessment). As anyone who has compiled and used data could tell you, this is inherently a flawed measurement. When anyone uses data, it should be measured continually using somewhat consistent inputs. As everyone knows, children themselves are inconsistent; furthermore, to expect similar growth from very different individuals is flawed to begin with, especially when considering the various factors that affect children. This ultimately tells me that these assessments were put into place by individuals to simply get some type of measurement. What’s worse is that the tests are created by corporations whose driver is profit versus progress. At the end of the day, you get children taking high stakes tests to produce data alone.
At the end of the day, I fully support any legislation which would formalize the existing rights of parents to opt their child out of state assessments, along with creating processes and procedures that districts must follow to allow parents to do such.
Michael McKain (Milford): Yes. Besides it being part of the law that parents have the right to opt out, I have serious concerns over the necessity and validity of the state assessment system as it currently stands. Statistically, for comprehensive schools, these tests are as much a measure of the poverty levels as they are performance or instruction. Additionally, preparation for and administration of these tests take up entirely too much time. We have to find a better way to show that quality instruction is taking place.
2) Why are you running for a board seat in your district?
Auen: I am running because I believe I have the fresh new ideas, and unbiased thinking that the Board needs. We need someone who just recently was in the system and knows what works and what doesn’t work. We need someone with business experience so that they can deal with the upcoming budget cuts, and most importantly we need someone who is not a rubber stamp for what the district wants.
Evans: I have been actively involved in the Milford School District for multiple years. I have acted as the Treasurer for my children’s PTP at Morris Early Childhood Center and then again at Mispillion Elementary School, even forming the Mispillion Elementary School PTP as a tax-exempt organization. In addition to be involved at the school level, I served on the Citizens Budget Oversight Committee. Working with the Milford School District has become a passion of mine; therefore, running for the At-Large Board Seat is simply an extension of that passion. I truly believe I have a lot to give being that I have children in the district, my wife is a teacher in the district, and I have the professional background, as the Chief Credit Officer of a large Community Bank, to help understand and manage the financial condition of the district.
McKain: I’m running because I know times are difficult right now and I have two young kids in the district in addition to deep roots in the schools, as my father was a teacher at Milford High School for 33 years. I feel as though I have the background and knowledge to make a positive contribution and help guide the Milford School District forward into a brighter future. I’ve studied politics and policy, along with economics in my undergraduate studies and have a Master’s Degree in instruction. I taught for ten years in public schools in Delaware before becoming a full time instructor and department chairperson at Delaware Tech.
3) What are your thoughts on digital technology in the classroom?
Auen: I think in the 21st century, technology is vital to engage children in the learning process. I also know that some children on the spectrum work better with technology and that is just another plus for engaged learning.
Evans: I believe that digital technology in the classroom is an important tool to be used by teachers; however, it should never be used to replace the education provided by a teacher. I think it is important that all students and teachers in the district have equal access to those tools. Use of technology is important because it is necessary to expose students so that they are prepared to act and compete in a world where there is an increasing emphasis and focus on understanding and using technology. With that being said, I do not believe that digital technology should ever, on its own, replace existing educational methods and resources.
McKain: Digital technology is great when it is used to enhance the student experience, instruction, and communication. It cannot nor should it replace quality instruction and interactions among students and staff.
4) With a massive state deficit for FY2018, what are things you think your district can do to save money during this crucial time?
Auen: I think the Board will have to look at long term budget choices and cuts will probably have to be made. If elected, I will get sworn in on July 1st, so I would have to deal with whatever choices the current board will be making, at that time I will read the entire budget and host community events to hear what the parents and taxpayers think.
Evans: First, the Milford School District has an abandoned middle school building. As long as the building is under the control of the district and stays in its current condition, it will continue to cost the district money which could be used elsewhere. Secondly, I believe the district should, on an ongoing basis, re-evaluate programs based on needs and successes. If a program is being used at one school but not others, then it should be eliminated, for a cost savings. Even is the district is still under contract, if a program is no longer being used or if it was purchased to fulfill Race to the Top requirements, then the district may be able to realize a savings by discontinuing the program. Often there are penalties for early termination, but a one-time penalty is less expensive than the cost of keeping the program over the life of the contract.
McKain: I know district administration is currently looking at ways to bring more special programs into our schools rather than pay tuition to other districts, and I support them in this effort. Costs keep increasing, and Milford is situated on two major highways between two counties; there is no reason we could not host some of these programs ourselves. We also need to make sure that the basics are covered – are our busses running at full capacity? Are there positions at the various schools or district level that are not having a major impact on students? Obviously staffing is the largest cost; I’m certainly not an advocate for the RIF process, but we should be shuffling human resources rather than filling vacancies unless necessary at this point. Milford right now is looking at a $1.25 million deficit, assuming no Match Tax increase. That is huge, and is going to be painful no matter what avenue we pursue.
5) The local teachers union plays a large part in school districts. How do you plan to engage this association in your district?
Auen: I have met several teachers from the union, as well as the union President and I can’t wait to work with them in order to create an atmosphere where they can teach and thrive.
Evans: I first think it is important to not only engage the local teachers’ union, but to also engage the teachers themselves. Regarding the teachers’ union, I believe it is best to have an open and honest line of communication with them. This means working with respect for each other and taking the time to listen and understand the needs of teachers in the district. More importantly, I think it is necessary to show the teachers in the schools, whether they are involved in their local union or not, that I truly care about them and their needs. This means taking the time to attend events at the schools and expressing my gratitude for everything they do.
McKain: When I first decided to run for school board, the Milford Education Association was the first major group to which I reached out. As a former DSEA member in the two districts in which I worked, I know the important role they play in advocating for both teachers and students. I’m proud to say that I have earned their endorsement, and look forward to working with them on the crucial issues facing Milford.
6) Recently the Christina School District Board of Education passed a policy regarding safety zones in their schools. This gives a uniform process for federal immigration officials in the event they should question or contact an undocumented student whereby the feds would have to consult the Superintendent first. Are you in agreement with this policy? Should the policy go a step further for sanctuary schools?
Auen: If it is simply a question of helping officials should there ever be an incident, I don’t see why not.
Evans: I think that it is important to have a process for both sides. It gives direction to the federal government on how to engage the schools and it provides a process for all employees of the district, in the end removing potential confusion and conflict. Any time you lack a solid process you run the risk of creating more problems than necessary. Without a good process issues may range from confusion and frustration for people in the buildings and the federal government to something more serious like potential legal issues due to how a teacher or administrator in a building would handle the situation. The later situation affects not only the district but also the taxpayers, because lack of policy may lead to a lawsuit which would cost the districts money. Additionally, a good policy/process would act to shield other children in the classroom from a potentially disruptive situation.
Regarding creating sanctuary schools, I think this is taking it a step further than necessary. I believe it should be the district’s focus on controlling what it can in the context of educating its students. I believe taking it further runs the risk of creating divisions in the community and even amongst its students. To this end, the districts could end up doing more harm to the students than good.
McKain: Schools should be a safe place for all students to come and learn without fear. From the time students step onto school grounds until they leave at the end of the day, education should be their only worry and the only concern of the school unless an incident occurs internally that requires contact with outside agencies. Those agencies should not be doing their work in the schools and disrupting the educational process.
7) Are you in favor of Delaware going through a massive redistricting of their school districts? If it meant you would have to give up your board seat would you be in favor of this?
Auen: I serve the taxpayers and students, if it meant a plus for those two groups, I’d happily give up the seat for them to get the better part of the deal.
Evans: If redistricting were done with a firm plan in mind which would benefit the students, employees, and taxpayers, then I would gladly relinquish my seat. Something like consolidation could potentially be beneficial to everyone provided thestate does it in a smart and transparent manner without any other motivations other than benefiting the students, employees, and taxpayers. An additional benefit to doing such could result in not only potential costs savings, but also an equalization of the way funds are distributed to students, thereby eliminating tax “rich” districts vs tax “poor” districts.
McKain: I think this idea needs to be seriously considered. The savings at the top makes a lot of sense; there are too many small districts with a full contingent of administrators making six figures. There is also potential savings in bulk ordering power from various companies, as well as the reality that it would give us more flexibility with resources statewide and encourage an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition. After all, the goals of the schools are fundamentally the same. On the other hand, I know there are concerns over balancing out teachers’ salaries and the impact that would have on spending. Realistically, I’d like to see us at a point where the teachers in the most at risk schools are paid the highest anyway; that isn’t currently the model we use, so consolidation might make that possible. This isn’t about any one school board or board member; it is about what makes the most sense for our students.
8) Do you feel students should receive more unstructured learning time/play/recess?
Auen: Absolutely, there has been more than a handful of studies supporting more recess time for children, there is a correlation between recess and good grades.
Evans: I absolutely believe unstructured time is necessary. I think that we are seeing a limitation of that due to the requirements of various governmental agencies (i.e. DoE) which force districts and teachers to cram structured learning time into a day to meet their requirements with the aforementioned unstructured time, and its benefits, as only an afterthought.
McKain: I think it is important for kids to have time to be kids; a lot of social learning takes place during these times. That said, for some students, unstructured time can mean loneliness, isolation, and bullying. Ideally, I would like to see system where students have the flexibility to use this time as they see fit; if they want a “recess,” go for it, but if they want to use that time for other enrichment opportunities, they can do that as well. Obviously this might not be possible due to costs. I think this question also depends on the age of the student and the time that they already receive as well.
9) What are your thoughts on school vouchers where students attending private schools would receive state or federal funding from education budgets to help with tuition costs?
Auen: Anything that take away from our public schools is bad, this is a fight where one side is backed by big money and the other side doesn’t have much of a voice, unfortunately.
Evans: While school vouchers, in theory sound great, at the end of the day it would do little to drive change. Private schools, by their very name, have profit and loss as one of their drivers. They are funded with private funds for the direct benefit of those able to pay, not everyone. There is nothing wrong with this, but school vouchers do nothing to change the current system. I think what everyone ignores is the simple idea of supply and demand. If school vouchers become available and more children begin to apply to private schools, then those same private schools will be able to raise the cost of tuition. As the private schools get this additional revenue, then they can add programs and amenities which further drive up the costs all at the cost of the public school system. On the other hand, you would also expect to see a slew of newly formed private schools created with the primary motivation of profit before education.
McKain: I don’t think we should blur the line between public and private schools. It potentially raises first amendment issues and would have similar negative effects as other school choice initiatives with fewer potential positives. The voucher would not fully cover the cost of many private schools, so it would only end up helping those who already can afford to pay for education while taking money away from the existing public school funds. I see little benefit to such a regressive policy.
10) Many in Delaware feel school board members give what is known as a “rubber stamp” where they automatically vote yes on any action item the district suggests. Do you feel the role of a school board member is to serve the district or the students of the district? Please explain.
Auen: The students, period. I don’t want to go as far as to say that I would totally disregard the district… but I’m no puppet.
Evans: I believe it is the role of a school board member to serve its three stakeholders: the students, its employees, and the taxpayers. A school board member should never be beholden to any one of those groups or the rest of the school board itself. At the end of the day, it is the school board member’s responsibility to balance the needs of those three groups while also explaining to all three groups why a decision was made and how the benefits outweigh the problems/issues/risks. This means never just saying “yes” because you don’t know or because you don’t quite understand or because you feel like you have to. It means having the courage to sometimes say “no” when you see something being done that is not right or creates a significant harm to any of those groups.
McKain: The whole point of our educational system is to do what is best for students, and that should always be the priority of the Board and the district as a whole. The problem is, we run into complex realities involving funding, politics, and judgement calls based on conflicting research about what is right. As a board member, I would use my background in education and policy to attempt to balance these various interests and do what is best for our students within the realm of what is realistic.
11) Understanding of school finances and funding is crucial to serving on a school board. How much do you understand the different funding sources in education?
Auen: I think it is vital that someone know the different revenues of funding, however, I don’t know as much as I would like, so, I will continue to educate myself and work with that accordingly.
Evans: I thoroughly understand the different funding sources in education. Part of this comes from my experience as a member of Milford School District’s Citizen’s Budget Oversight Committee; however, the vast majority of it comes from my educational and professional background. I understand what Fund Accounting is. I fully explain the differences in funding sources and restricted, temporarily restricted, and unrestricted funds. In my current professional role, I am required to explain not only fund account but Governmental Fund Accounting, which is what all districts in the state use.
McKain: I had a general sense of how this worked from my time working in public education and have spent the last several months reading up on it as well as meeting with our district’s Chief Financial Officer, who has been very helpful and willing to discuss all matters of school funding as well as the present challenges. I have an open line of communication with her in case other questions arise, and I continue to read other views and information as well to assure I am receiving a balanced picture of the realities that we face.
12) What volunteer experience have you had in traditional Delaware public schools or in the school district you seek to serve?
Auen: I’ve been on the PTO for Chipman Middle School, I was elected Treasurer and have helped in several fundraisers and events. I have talked to teachers and administration, and it was only a few years ago I was in the public school system!
Evans: I have served on the Evelyn I Morris Early Childhood Center PTP as Treasurer, the Mispillion Elementary School PTP as Treasurer, and on the Milford School District’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee. I believe it is important to have been and continue to be an active participant in the district in which I live beyond simply being a member of the local school board. Additionally, as a foster parent, I have served as an Educational Surrogate Parent for the children place in my home.
McKain: I spent ten years teaching in public schools in Delaware in grades 6-12, seven in the Seaford School District and three in Polytech. I’ve seen the various struggles and challenges these schools have faced, and have had the opportunity to work directly with students and families of all abilities and walks of life. While my schedule has not allowed me many opportunities to volunteer directly in the Milford School District, I look forward to doing so more in the future regardless of the outcome of the school board election now that my kids are both older and I have a bit more flexibility.
13) What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing Delaware students at this time?
Auen: I believe the budget cuts will hurt deeply, I believe the diversity in learning is hurting the students as all students learn differently, and I believe making politics of education is hurting them.
Evans: I believe there are multiple challenges facing students, but ultimately I believe it comes down to the effects of cuts facing school districts. On its face, this does not affect students; however, the potential cuts could result in the loss of needed programs, loss of paraprofessionals and reading and math tutors, down to the potential loss of teaching staff. All of these things would directly affect the students.
McKain: Poverty. Poor students start behind and have greater difficulty catching up. We need universal pre-K to have everyone on an even playing field in Kindergarten, though in the current fiscal crisis, that isn’t going to happen for some time. From there, we need more supports in place for our students who come from low income homes. Free lunch isn’t enough when they go home to an empty house because mom is working two or three jobs to get by. We also need a better way to fund our schools in an equitable way. The equalization funding does not make up for the difference between our richest and poorest districts; the gap is simply too big, and that is reflected in both facilities and in teacher salaries. Standardized tests consistently show that the poorest schools have the lowest scores; it is no coincidence, and we need to acknowledge that reality and work to fix it rather than to replicate the tests that show the same thing over and over.
14) Can you please discuss your thoughts on special programs and de facto segregation?
Auen: Special education is nowhere near where it needs to be, I want to fight to bring it up to date. I want to be able to hear from special education teachers, and education leaders to see what we should do to make Lake the leader in special education.
Evans: I believe programs which serve the needs of the student population with IEPs is a necessity. Being the father of a child with special needs, who will likely have an IEP, I understand the importance of these programs to ensure the success of these students. I believe school districts should work to bring out the best in every child in order to prepare them for their futures, whatever those futures may hold.
Regarding de facto segregation, we are fortunate in the Milford School District in that this is not a challenge that we face the way it may occur in districts which encompass the City of Wilmington. My ultimate thought on this issue is that the focus needs to be on ensuring schools which may be affected by this situation receive the same funding as other schools. This brings up a much larger discussion on equalization of funding amongst school districts, which is something I strongly believe the state should focus on. At the end of the day, I believe the focus should be on ensuring that equal opportunities are in place for all children in the state to succeed. This may result in identifying educational deficiencies or barriers in certain communities and/or schools where additional resources must be put into place to ensure success of those students.
McKain: Sussex Academy as a whole is 75% white and under 4% African-American, located in a county where the average comprehensive district is 53.2% white and 22.4% African-American. Sussex Tech sits at 68.2% white and 12.9% African-American. Even worse, Sussex Academy serves 10.4% low income and Sussex Tech serves 19% low income, while the rest of the districts serving Sussex County average above 42% low income. These “special” schools do not have to beg for money from property owners, either. While I have no objection to parents making the choice that they think is best for their students, something must be done to balance out these “public” schools so that they are all playing on equal footing. The segregation that is occurring is as much economic as anything, and these schools, the way the model currently exists, are exacerbating the problem rather than working towards a solution.