Sarasota school board candidates debate back to school, charter schools
Candidates faced off in a virtual forum.
| 6:31 p.m. July 23, 2020
Though they couldn’t meet in person, candidates in the 2020 race for Sarasota County School Board faced off virtually Wednesday evening.
Around 270 viewers watched District 2 candidates Karen Rose and David Graham and District 3 candidates Tom Edwards and incumbent Eric Robinson debate issues facing Sarasota County Schools.
Here’s what they had to say about schools reopening, charter schools, closing the achievement gap and protecting arts programs and all students in schools:
Schools reopening during the pandemic:
Rose said the highest priority of the district has to be the safety of children and students. She said the district needs to work to ensure the COVID-19 plan is visible and that every stakeholder has a chance to provide feedback.
From there, she said families need to be able to make the best decision for their children, but the district needs to ensure that no matter what decision parents make, their child has access to a high quality education.
Rose also said she’d like to make sure the most vulnerable teachers are eligible for remote teaching, a position district officials say will be limited because of a lack of demand. She also said she wants personal leave to be readily available for those teachers who don’t feel safe returning to school.
“If we can’t ensure a safe school for everyone, we can’t open,” Rose said.
Graham said that student and staff lives are the top priority. However, he said the district must follow the state mandate to reopen physical buildings.
He said the district should work to create a more clear protocol on what will happen if a child or staff member is exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Additionally, Graham said the district should focus resources on the elementary schools because they may have greater challenges than schools with older students.
He encouraged families to choose the remote learning option so that classrooms will remain at half capacity for students and families with greater need.
“It’s up to each parent and family to decide what’s best for them,” Graham said. “Many of our students and families want to return back to school and there are many that want to do distance learning. It’s important for each of our families to understand the impacts of each option.”
Robinson said he was frustrated with the governor’s decision, but the district must work within the confines set forth by the state.
He said the district should invest in high-quality PPE and listen to teachers’ concerns. He wants the district to improve air purifying systems in the schools and take the time afforded by pushing back the school’s start date to train staff.
Though he said the district will work to make the schools as safe as possible, he encouraged families to pursue remote learning when possible.
“Those who are high-risk or whose parents want them to stay home can work remotely,” Robinson said. “I have faith in our administration, teachers, custodians, staff, that they’re going to make sure the schools are as safe as possible for our students and teachers.”
Edwards said his first choice would be to have all children back at full capacity, but with the current upward trend in local cases, he would not advise opening schools at all.
He said he’d like to work to make remote learning readily available should the need rise again. He said schools such as Miami-Dade already had a contingency plan for distance learning and were able to quickly and smoothly implement it.
“I believe a lot of the distress our parents are feeling about remote learning has to do with the fact that we slapped something together pretty quickly,” Edwards said. “God bless the teachers and the administration for having done it as quickly as they did, but it left a really bad taste in our parents’ mouths.”
Rather than reopening now, Edwards said the district should stand up to the state and submit a reopening plan that includes keeping campuses closed until it is safe. He also would like to spend money developing high quality remote learning, and follow a European model of reopening, which focuses on opening schools for the neediest families first.
Charter schools and voucher programs:
Rose said she opposes public dollars going to private organizations, and the best thing a school board can do is expand parent choices within public schools.
She said many of the county’s specialty programs have more applicants than they can accommodate.
“I don’t agree with public dollars being given to private organizations for profit,” Rose said. “I don’t agree with anything that threatens our public schools.”
Though he said organizations receiving state dollars could hurt the public school system, Graham said the district’s nonprofit charter schools offer a variety of options to families.
He said he opposes for-profit charter schools and private school scholarship programs because they do not have to accept every student. If this continues, he said charter schools could “cherry-pick” the best students, leaving public schools with students with the greatest need.
Robinson said in his time as a school board member, he has steadily voted against charter schools. He said the best way to combat charter schools is by expanding choices within the district.
“Nobody on the school board has held charter schools more accountable than Eric Robinson,” he said.
He said he’d like to offer transportation to students who choose to attend a school outside of their zoned school, something the district currently does not offer.
One of Edwards' main platform points is protecting the district from the voucher system and privatization. He said school board members should work to end state policies that are harmful to public schools.
“I promise you I will be a steadfast guarding in keeping our public schools public, period,” he said.
Closing the achievement gap:
Rose said the best way to close the achievement gap is by giving individual schools the autonomy to create and manage programs that work for their students. Standardized tests should be minimized, she said, and budgeting should be prioritized for students in need.
“As educators, we have a history of going uphill backwards with achievement gaps and now we have to solve it and get in front of it,” she said.
She said she’d like to enlist the help of experts to look at early learning programing that helps address social and emotional learning so students won’t be hindered.
Using data from previous years, Graham said that low-income students’ test scores have remained flat and the district needs a fresh approach to address it.
He suggested using former teachers working at the district offices as classroom helpers on a need-basis. He said they could help teachers with specific goals that could boost learning.
Robinson said in his first few months in office he, along with union leaders, helped students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School acquire materials that helped bring the school from a D rating to a B rating in one year.
He said the district should work to create individualized curriculum that helps schools succeed.
Edwards said it is a board member’s job to provide oversight and accountability for a superintendent. It is the superintendent’s job to create a program to close the achievement gap.
He said he’d like to meet with district leadership to discuss their plans for programs and then meet with them incrementally to discuss their effectiveness.
Protecting arts programs and students
All four candidates said they would work to protect arts in the district. Edwards said he would never support cutting funding to the arts and would seek creative ways to fund programs. Robinson said he has continuously campaigned for the district’s tax referendum, which helps support arts programs.
The candidates also discussed protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ students in the district. Rose said as an educator for the past 28 years she has worked to create a comfortable school environment for everyone and would continue to do so.
Graham said he would like to see a zero-tolerance policy for the bullying or harassment of any student.
“This needs to be a welcoming, supportive environment with no exception,” he said.