Social Action Committee Interviews: Kent County School Board Candidates

Share

School board candidate Nivek Johnson with interviewers Charles Taylor, Arlene Lee, and Airlee Johnson

The Kent County Social Action Committee conducted interviews of candidates for three local offices that are up for election this November. The interviews were conducted over three days in October. 

Running for Board of Education seats are incumbents Wendy Costa and Trish McGee and new candidates Nivek Johnson and Francoise Sullivan. There are three seats to be filled. Election to the board is non-partisan, and the ballot does not list the candidates’ party affiliation.

The first question for Board of Education candidates noted that the schools had experienced “very serious violence and racism” during the previous school year. It asked candidates how, if elected, they would create a Kent County Public School system that is “fair, equitable and effective for all students, including students of color.

Nivek Johnson, the first to be interviewed, said that a lot of school systems are facing similar problems. He said he would encourage the County Superintendent to look into restorative justice, an approach that encourages students to resolve conflicts on their own, by bringing them together in small peer groups to talk, ask questions and air grievances. Also, he said, a round table discussion about issues of racism and violence would allow teachers to bring problems to a fair resolution without resorting to punishment. He said he had experienced the positive effects of restorative justice while teaching at St. Peter and Paul’s in Easton.

Francoise Sullivan said that many of the “ugly events” last year were the result of the board’s decision to bring in an outside contractor for school buses. She said she favored starting to talk about racism at an early age, pointing to the Students Talking About Racism (STAR) program at the middle school. She said her own daughter, an elementary school student in the county, had been told by classmates she should only play with “others like her” – “I was appalled,” Sullivan said. 

School board candidate Francoise Sullivan with interviewers Charles Taylor and Arlene Lee

Trish McGee, currently President of the Board of Education, said the board doesn’t have the power a lot of people think it does. The Superintendent and staff make the day-to-day decisions. She endorsed the steps taken last year, including a multicultural committee at Kent County Middle School. “It’s important to communicate and give value to everyone’s story,” she said.

Wendy Costa also endorsed restorative justice. She said it should be used throughout society, beginning in the schools. Also, she said, students need to visit institutions such as the Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington. Seeing different perspectives and having diverse friends can do a lot to defuse racial problems, as well, she said. Black History month should expand its material beyond the accomplishments of Martin Luther King. And students need to read more, especially reading books in common so they share more experiences with one another – she suggested the biography of Frederick Douglass and “The Color of Water” as books that would give students a wider understanding.

The candidates were asked whether they were willing to take part in a workshop on racism and whether they would require school system staff to do so. Johnson, Sullivan, and McGee said they would participate; Johnson described himself as “a huge advocate” for the training and encouraged the superintendent to pursue the idea for staff. Sullivan said it should be done for all staff and teachers, and McGee she would “encourage it in the strongest way” for board members and top staff. It would also be beneficial for students, she said, commending the STAR student group for taking on the issues of racism. “I need to do this for myself,” she said.

Kent County school board President Trish McGee

Costa said she was unfamiliar with the workshop, but that the schools “should do this kind of thing.” She said she had done similar things in other districts she had been involved with, including attending Challenge Day at the schools every year.

Candidates were also asked about ways to improve recruiting of minority teachers and administrators in the county. Johnson noted that Kent County has “a unique makeup” – its small size means that people outside the area aren’t familiar with it. He said that recruiting more teachers of color was something he had always advocated. He suggested sending retired teachers and other stakeholders to colleges outside the area to show how much the county has to offer. He also said that many black students don’t see the benefits of a teaching career, and need to be shown. He said he would work with the county commissioners on economic development as a way to make the county more attractive to new teachers.

Sullivan said there is a nationwide teacher shortage, and that the county should broaden its outreach to historically black colleges. She said that inviting candidates to visit the county, with residents hosting them in their homes – as the National Music Festival does with its performers – would be a promising approach. “We need to set a percentage of what diversity should look like,” she said, adding that the percentage should be increased every five years. Also, she said, it is important to convert new hires into teachers who stay here instead of leaving for jobs elsewhere. She suggested that the county schools partner with Washington College to become a “teacher factory” for the rest of the state.

McGee said the failure to attract teachers of color has been an issue for a long time. She said the county had hired 25 teachers for the current school year, two of whom were black and two Hispanic. She said she had spoken to Superintendent Karen Couch about it on a number of occasions, but the job of recruitment really depends on the human resources staff. “There were more teachers of color when I was in high school,” she said, noting that it’s important for students to have diverse role models. She said, “We need to go beyond the schools” to involve people from the business community and other local stakeholders in the recruitment process. “Kent County is a hard egg to crack for a new person coming in,” she said, and the retention rate of first- and second-year teachers is “not very good.” She also noted that expecting Washington College to fill the teacher shortage might not be realistic – “there were very few people of color when I was there,” she said – and added that teachers hired from the college don’t tend to stay any longer than those hired from other areas.

School board member Wendy Costa and interviewer Ned Southworth

Costa also commented on the national teacher shortage. She said Kent County gets a lot of its teachers from Pennsylvania and Delaware. She said attracting more teachers, including teachers of color, is a question of making the system competitive with others, especially in terms of salaries. Teachers have traditionally not been treated like professionals, she said, giving the example of expecting them to perform lunch and bus duty – jobs that could be done by volunteers or non-teaching staff. If teaching were a more attractive profession in general, more people of color would be involved. As far as partnering with Washington College, it would be “great, but it’s not going to solve the problem.”

The candidates were also asked about ways to involve more students in after-school activities when parents or caregivers are unable to provide transportation to those activities because of work schedules or lack of a car. “I’m a proponent of after-school activities,” said Johnson. He said the board needs to put pressure on the county commissioners to provide more funding for schools. Also, he said, the board needs to look at its own budget to find money for after-school buses. He would work with the school district’s financial department to find funding. “It can be done and it should be done,” he said.

“It’s an issue for a lot of parents,” Sullivan said. “We need to address it on a big scale.” She noted that many families need both parents to work and that it’s the school district’s responsibility to make opportunities available to all its students.

McGee said that after-school transportation was one of the casualties of the schools’ recent budget crunch. While there used to be late buses, there haven’t been any for “a long time,” she said. Given the comparatively high levels of poverty in the county, most families need both parents to work, and they can’t get back to school to bring their children home. Transportation is “a county-wide issue,“ not just a problem with the schools, she said, and there’s no money to make it work.

To Costa, the lack of transportation is one of the biggest problems. One issue is the fact that school hours are “divorced from” parents’ work schedules. “That’s got to change,” she said, with school hours more congruent with work hours. She said the transportation issues also affect academic work, making it difficult for the schools to provide activities such as debate teams or math and science clubs.

School board candidates were also asked whether they would take and encourage teachers and administrators how they would support an expanded volunteer system in the schools; and what are ways for the schools to become innovative while still working within the state’s requirements, such as physical education, recess, and relevant local content such as African American history and culture.

Interviewers included SAC members Paul Tue, Charles Taylor, Airlee Johnson, Sherrie Tilghman, Ned Southworth, Arlene Lee, and Mel Rappelyea.

The interview questions were compiled based on issues raised at a joint meeting of the Social Action Committee and the Kent County branch of the NAACP. “Our questions posed to the candidates were based on the survey of many people at a joint meeting of the NAACP-Kent Branch and the Social Action Committee in May 2018. The members of both groups identified their primary concerns, needs, and passions regarding the quality of life and justice issues currently in Kent County. The Political Action Subcommittee of the SAC then took those responses and formulated the questions posed to the candidates, specific to each of the offices represented.

The final questions – between 9 and 11 per candidate, depending on the office – were drafted by the SAC’s political committee. As might be expected from the groups creating the questions, a number of them focused on racial issues affecting the local community. 

Each candidate was asked the same questions as others for the same office, in separate one-hour sessions. They did not see the questions until they arrived for the interview, at which point they were given a few minutes to look them over. Occasionally the interviewers would ask follow-up questions or request clarification, but in general, the candidates were allowed to take their answers in whatever direction they wanted. As a result, not all candidates gave equally long answers to all the questions.

The Social Action Committee consists of about 100 community members of all ages, who came together in 2017 to address racism in the community. The SAC is comprised of a number of subcommittees, each with a specific focus to actively dismantle racism in the community in areas such as education, jobs/employment, politics, and community social events/observances. The committee meets at Sumner Hall at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. All community members are welcome. For more information, contact Rosemary Ramsey Granillo, Director of the Local Management Board:  Office:  410-810-2673; email:  rramseygranillo@kentgov.org.

Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article

We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.

*