R2 School board candidates share views at forum

School Board candidates who participated in the candidate forum are, from left: Teresa Holmes, James Mobley, Angela Nash, Niki Porter, Darrell President, Eric Rovelli, Larry Smalls, Terrence Staley, Joe Trapp, Tamika Washington, and Maryann Wright.

COLUMBIA – School safety, teacher shortages, diversity, fiscal transparency, and the importance of civility in leadership were among the issues discussed Monday night during a forum for Richland Two School Board Candidates.

There was no argument or debate among the 12 candidates on stage, each of whom gave answers to four questions created by the organizations that put on the event: the Richland Two Teacher Forum and Columbia League of Women Voters. It was held in the auditorium of Spring Valley High school and streamed online.

Only one current member of the embattled school board, which has faced widespread criticism for its dysfunctional dealings, is seeking re-election: its controversial former chairman, Teresa Holmes. The other three board members whose seats are up for election this year opted not to run.

The other candidates include recently retired USC swimming coach McGee Moody; realtor Angela Nash; former teachers Niki Porter and Tamika Shuler Washington; government employees Eric Rovelli and Terrence Staley; Larry Smalls, who works in banking and finance; small business owner Joe Trapp; retired teacher and community volunteer Maryann Wright; James Mobley and Darrell President.

Several of the issues the candidates brought up highlighted characteristics that some say have been lacking in the current board.

“I want to see accountability on all levels,” said Washington. “We have to have integrity. That means that we uphold values at all times – standards – and we tell the truth at all times, even when we’re wrong. We do what we have to do to make it right, and we are accountable.”

Several candidates also mentioned the importance of giving teachers, students, and parents a voice.

Each Candidate’s Stated Top Priority

Moody: teacher staffing crisis
Nash: safety/healthy school environment
Porter: more support for students/teachers
President: school security
Rovelli: classical education curriculum
Smalls: parental rights in education
Staley: school security
Trapp: achievement/safety
Washington: teacher staffing crisis
Wright: academic achievement
Holmes: mental health
Mobley: school safety

“I did not have running for school board on my bingo card for 2022, but over the last few years I’ve had conversations with teachers, parents, and students, and what I found was they felt like they weren’t being heard,” said Nash. “[We need] someone who is going to advocate for the parents, students, and teachers in this district.”

Smalls and Rovelli stated a desire to draw upon their background in finance to help ensure that the school board’s finances are balanced, sound, and transparent.

“When you’re dealing with finance, there’s a lot of policies and procedures that have to be abided by,” said Smalls. “Financial integrity is very important because we’re managing the taxpayers’ money.”

Asked about their top issues, several candidates – including Nash, President, Trapp, Mobley, and Staley – listed safety and security as a leading concern

“The school should not be a soft target,” said President. “It should not be the first place someone who wants a target to shoot at goes.”

They listed ideas from obtaining expert security assessments to building up building security and security personnel to providing increased mental health support.

 “I took an oath to serve this country against all enemies foreign and domestic,” said Staley, who served in the military and has also run a successful after-school program for at-risk youth. “I believe I can do the same thing with the safety of our children, the safety of our teachers, and the safety of our staff in our community.”

The shortage of teachers – which is occurring as many longtime teachers near retirement age and a relatively small percentage of college students seek teaching careers – is also a big issue of concern, and it was listed as a top priority by several candidates, especially Moody and Washington.

“We have to create an environment where teachers are valued,” said Moody, who noted some of the challenges that both new and veteran teachers face. “Teachers are overworked, and they’re over-stressed, and they’re stretched too thin.”

He, Washington, and Wright pointed to policy changes that could improve the situation: offering more support and a culture that doesn’t penalize time off, offering professional and soft-skills development, coordinating mentorship pairing between seasoned and novice teachers, providing opportunities for degree-holders to become certified to teach, recruiting year-round, and avoiding the excess paperwork that often leaves teachers packing their bags with work to take home.

“I have one simple answer, and it is to let the teachers teach,” Washington said. “And what I mean by that is we cannot have initiative overload and expect teachers to be thriving in their classrooms.”

Holmes suggested bonuses, tuition reimbursement, and salary increases past the 28th year of teaching, which is where the school system’s current salary increase schedule stops.

“If you want people to come to this profession, you have to make it attractive at all levels, especially financial,” Holmes said, “because everyone deserves not to have to work two or three jobs after teaching all day long.”

Porter, President, Trapp, and Nash focused on the culture within schools – and the importance of creating an environment where people want to work, a factor that for some can be more important than money.

“We have to have a culture where they [teachers] feel they are supported, for one,” said Nash, “where they have actual breaks, where they have appreciation, but most importantly where they feel like they can be heard.”

Smalls said the issue also ties in with a broader one: communication. He was one of several candidates who noted the frustration with lack of clear information and communication coming from the current school board – and a desire to improve that.

“I think for any group or organization to accomplish a task, they have to first open up lines of communication,” he said, promising to make sure more parent and teacher voices are heard. “There has to be a collaborative effort that is based on trust in order for anything to be accomplished.”

On the topic of diversity, most of the candidates expressed a similar view: That in education, it’s more important to focus on the individual and his or her life circumstances than on simple external characteristics.

I’m of the opinion that we have to treat everybody like they have the potential to be an astronaut,” said Trapp. “Just don’t assume by looking at somebody that they don’t have potential. A lot of children behave poorly because they have things going on in their life that are unpleasant.”

Washington said it’s important to focus on “not things that will be a checkmark or make us look great, but things that we are actually doing to support families at all levels.”

Two political topics – the teaching of “critical race theory” and the existence and duties of a diversity and inclusion officer for the school system – came up as well.

Rovelli and Holmes came down strongly on opposite sides of “critical race theory,” a recent catch-phrase that refers to teaching certain racial perspectives on history.

Rovelli said divisive ideologies should not be taught, and schools should teach about important aspects of our shared American heritage; Holmes said it’s important in a diverse public school system to ensure that every culture is represented.

Holmes also expressed support for the diversity inclusion officer.

“There’s been a lot of critique about this position,” said Porter, noting a general lack of public information about the position and what its duties include. “Teachers should not be wondering what someone does in our district.”

Mobley expressed opposition to all race-based agendas, stating, “It’s best if schools stay focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

Moody drew on his background as a coach to explain that the shared purpose of education, like the shared purpose of athletic excellence, is a uniting factor – and it’s important to focus on building relationships with individuals. 

“We talked about life, we talked about how their day went, and when they felt valued as a person they performed better as an athlete” he said. “We may come from different backgrounds, but ultimately the goal here is the same, and that is creating the best possible environment for our students.”

Nash’s comment on diversity was the one point in the program when the audience broke the rules to spontaneously applaud.

“Diversity should never be about division,” she said. “It should always be about reconciliation.”

In their closing remarks, several candidates noted unique characteristics that they said would make them an asset to the board.

“I made the decision to run because this district made a huge impact on my life, and lots of leaders within this district are people that I look up to and are mentors of mine, and I am extremely thankful,” said Porter, both a graduate of and former teacher in the district. “I want to give back.”

Trapp cited his broad technical understanding and history as a logistics and fix-it guy as an asset in helping the board to figure out solutions that require an ability to dig into details.

“Every organization, every board, needs at least one person on the board who knows how things work, knows how things tick, and needs to be able to incorporate that into the decisions that you make,” he said.

Holmes praised the existing board and superintendent for their work up to this point – and promised more of the same.

Comments

  1. If you owned a business with $1 Billion in Assets that cost $300 Million annually to operate, which of the 12 candidates in the Richland 2 school board race would you want on your board of directors? THIS is the question, as you try to pick out four. Be serious in your selection.

  2. What Holmes really meant: Holmes praised the existing (majority of the) board and superintendent for their (woke) work up to this point – and promised more of the same. Does she promise more chaos? More disrespect? More separation and divisive D-E-I programs? More over-spending of her trustee allowance for training/travel? Why did she spend $800 on a car rental and valet parking for five days at a 3-day conference in San Diego in April? Was that a responsible executive decision?

  3. The best way to choose your Top Four candidates is to ask yourself this question: If you owned a $1 Billion business with a $300 Million annual budget, which candidates would you choose for your Board of Directors? That will quickly rule out most of them. Who is left?

  4. Jerry Wiggs says

    Holmes praised the current board, the superintendent, and promised more of the same. Pretty good justification for why she needs to go.

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