Perception, you know, is everything.
That was my thinking after our two-hour candidates’ forum Monday night at the less than quarter full Paramount Theater. I have to admit to a little disappointment at the attendance, particularly for the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education segment of the forum, which capped the night. But Board of Education candidate Greg Beavers put things in context for me.
“This is a much bigger crowd than usually attends school board meetings,” Beavers said during his closing remarks, when he mentioned that he would like to see a dais full of candidates running for the non-partisan office rather than the five who filed this year (and one couldn’t make the forum due to a previous commitment).
“There are a lot of smart people in this county,” he said. “I would like to see 15 people up here, not that these people aren’t good candidates, they are, but more people should be running … and attending school board meetings.”
Amen to that.
I talked to board chairwoman Jackie Cole after the forum and she pointed that this is her third Board of Education race and the first with so few candidates. She’s right, too. Usually eight to 10 people file to run for the four available seats up for election during a presidential election year.
I have a few theories.
1. The forums are a little earlier than usual and aren’t in prime election mode just yet. Possible, but we scheduled the forum for this date because people are casting ballots earlier than ever thanks to no excuses voting. This year people can vote starting on Oct. 18. And if 2008 is any gauge, they will in droves.
2. the furor, angst, acrimony and general insanity involving the presidential election is simply dwarfing everything else. I hear very little buzz about local races — good or bad. In fact, what I hear is the hollow sound of indifference.
Idea No. 2 is particularly troubling. The presidential race has become this fetid entity that taints everything it touches. I told someone the other day that neither candidate is as scary as his most ardent supporters. The people we elect locally in some cases have a much larger impact on our daily lives than anyone elected nationally.
And 3. A lot of people who usually attend local election forums were at the meeting of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners where the big topic involved the ongoing flap between Sheriff Terry Johnson and the U.S. Department of Justice. Not out of the question, that’s for sure.
We may get a better idea on Oct. 15 when the next forum is scheduled. The Board of Commissioners race will be part of that night’s slate of debates.
In the meantime, we’ll try to tweak and improve some features from Monday night. For instance, we might need to allow more time for the Board of Commissioners candidates. Moderator Byron Tucker of our partner, WPCM radio, brought this up after Tuesday’s session. There could also be stricter enforcement of time limits for speaking and keeping candidates on point. There was some rambling among Monday’s speakers, particularly Register of Deeds Hugh Webster. But others went long as well.
And we have to do a better job of sorting through questions from the audience. Taking questions from folks who attend is the absolute best feature of our forums. I have to do some triage, though, to ensure that the best and most pertinent questions are asked. For example, one question was asked during the Board of Education forum concerning the quarter-cent sales tax,, which has nothing to do with being on the Board of Education at all. The question also had the amount of the tax wrong, which caused some confusion for our panelists.
Because that kind of question slipped in, others didn’t get asked. Here are some examples.
If the school district was a business, its greatest concern would be the turnover rate of teaching personnel. What if any actions would the candidates do to try and reduce the turnover rate?
Many of the candidates seem to be proposing micromanagement techniques such as approving small purchases. Would it not be better to evaluate how each department and principal performs with the budget?
The student questionnaire had toilet seats as one of the major problems where the girls did not want to sit on the stained / soiled seats. Are you going to investigate student concerns.
We have a lower percentage of teachers with masters degrees than many states. How would you help increase this percentage?
Since the state has not provided enough funds to oversee the expanded number of charter schools, how can the Board of Education certify the quality of charter schools in the district?
What will the public schools do to compete for students so that we do not lose funds to the charter schools? Is smaller class size possible?
City editor Brent Lancaster, put together some questions of our own for the forum. But we had so many from the audience, we didn’t use any of them. Here they are.
What do you see as the ideal role of a school board member?
How do you perceive the relationship between the school board and the Alamance County Board of Commissioners? What, if anything, should be done to improve relations between the boards?
The Alamance-Burlington School System’s average SAT scores dipped in 2012 and lagged behind the state and national averages in all three phases of the test. How concerned should we be? What strategies should the system pursue to improve student performance in this and other areas?
Who — or what type of people — would you like to see in the leadership roles of chairwoman/vice-chairman when the board fills those offices following the November elections?
In your opinion, is the system using money as effectively as possible given state and local budget constraints?
People sometimes question the number of central office employees and school-level administrators vs. teachers and others who work directly with students. Do you believe the school system has achieved a good balance in this area?
What can the school system do to attract and keep high-quality teachers?
Aside from money and how it is spent, what is the single most important thing the system can do to provide a high-quality education for students?
What can the state — either the legislature or the N.C. Department of Public Instruction – do to help school systems educate students
What do you see as the school system’s strengths and weaknesses?
We’ll do a better job of corralling our questions at Forum No. 2.
Be there. Aloha.