Candidates running for a spot on the Ferndale Board of Education tackled student retention, the superintendent's salary and contracts and a host of other issues Thursday at a candidate forum at Ferndale City Hall.
Eight candidates are running to fill four seats on the school board. You can read their candidate profiles here.
The Ferndale political action committee Citizens for Better Education is supporting candidates Keith Warnick, Katrina Collins, Jim Pfleger and Bradford Parks.
Ferndale political action committee CLEAR is endorsing the "BOLD" slate including candidates Amy Butters, Jim O’Donnell, Raylon Leaks-May and Kevin Deegan-Krause.
Here are some highlights from some of the questions and answers at the forum, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters. To view the full event, stay tuned to the LWV web site for cable re-broadcast times.
Question: Describe in detail the problem of student attrition and its cures.
Butters said it's something the district has trouble with. "It's hard for there to be any sort of consistency in the education of that child and also it takes away from the community," she said. "We don't want to lose kids."
She said addressing academic achievement is part of the solution - "improving the performance of the students in our schools to make it easier for kids to stay, for parents to be comfortable keeping our kids in the schools all the way through senior year."
Collins said she has gone door-to-door talking to parents and found that for some parents, it isn't all about test scores. One parent who asked not to be named told her that she "didn't feel there was a good element of children that went to our school district," Collins said. "I told her I had three sons that go to school here," including two who have graduated and gone on to excellent colleges.
She said her children have "learned compassion, tolerance of people of many different beliefs and cultures" and have made "lifelong friendships of all colors."
Deegan-Krause said he has gone to 300 to 400 homes so far and has found that test scores are an issue - "Those will be a long hard struggle to raise, and we can do that," he said.
There are also concerns of parents feeling they are being ignored, and issues of bad marketing, he said. He suggested board members and administration go door to door, identify the parents of young children in the district and "convince parents to stay, if you can."
Leaks-May said "strong retention rates equal strong community" and said it's important to find out the reasons behind why parents leave the district. She said surveys and other forms of getting feedback from residents would help.
O'Donnell said the solutions to student attrition "are probably as many as the causes." He said among the ways to address it would be improving customer service in the enrollment office, better marketing efforts, more accountability at the board level and doing a "better job of raising academic achievement."
Parks said parents choose other public school districts and private schools for a variety of reasons. "Do I wish that everyone went to the same schools? Sure, but I don't really think that's realistic," he said. "There are so many educational choices that are out there these days for children" and "so many different factors" playing into the decision.
Pfleger said he has worked on school improvement plans and wants to continue to improve student achievement. He said he understands that some people have no choice over what schools they send their children to, while others have many choices.
"Our obligation as a board is to set the policy that would say ... Ferndale is tough to turn down," he said. "We need to do a better job at showing people that they have that opportunity here."
Warnick said student retention can be addressed by offering "the best programs that you can." He said Ferndale Schools offer numerous electives and programs and said the expectation at the administration and board level is "high expectations for high achievement."
Superintendent salary and contracts
Question: Do you support the superintendent's current contracts and salary- why or why not?
Collins said she was part of reviewing Superintendent Gary Meier's contracts and she does support his salary and contracts. "He has not taken any raise in the last couple of years," she said. As for his consulting contract, Collins said: "I signed that contract a year ago and in that year I have not seen any problems with it," she said, noting that Meier "works 24/7 for the district."
Regarding the $180,000 a year the district gains under the contract, Collins said, "if we didn't have that we'd have to find that somewhere else."
Deegan-Krause said Meier's five-year contract is too long, his salary is too high and there is not enough oversight. "We have the highest paid superintendent in Oakland County," he said, and the fourth-highest-paid top administrators in the county. He said there needs to be more oversight and attention from the school board. "We could probably save some costs as well."
Deegan-Krause also said the district doesn't need the distractions of the consulting. "Our district has enough challenges as it is," he said.
Leaks-May said a five-year contract may be too long and she would prefer one-year contracts. "Contracts are fine but us being citizens of this community I think they should be made public, we should know what they're about when we ask about these contracts," she said. "... None of us know what it consists of. And it effects our district and I think everyone here has a right to know."
O'Donnell said it's a problem that Meier is the highest compensated in the county and said Ferndale's teachers are the second lowest paid.
"The board is responsible for both," he said. O'Donnell also called for "much more detailed disclosure" and transparency and more oversight from the board on contracts.
Parks said consulting "is a good thing for the district." He said his wife, who is a teacher in another district, has consulting contracts based on her expertise.
"If you can serve as the subject matter expert for your district it shows you have qualities people are looking for," he said.
Pfleger said he's "not an advocate of turnover" and prefers long-term contracts. He pointed out that probably no one thinks Justin Verlander's five-year contract is a bad deal right now.
"This superintendent has done an excellent job for this district," he said, adding that the district's administrators are also well qualified and well respected. He said other districts have sought out Meier for an interview. "[The contract] was a good thing for this district," he said.
Warnick said he does support the superintendent's salary. "He might be one of the highest [paid in the county] but he's been with the district for 12 years and the average superintendent serves for three," Warnick said.
As for his consulting work, "they work on Ferndale business first before they work on any consulting issues."
Butters said "a lot of things" trouble her about the topic and said parents are often surprised when they find out Meier has a consulting contract. "People are like 'What? Who is he really working for?"
She said the consulting could be fine "but we don't know because there's not a whole lot of information about the contract." She also has concerns over the nature of the business, advising other districts about charter schools. "That troubles me. We're a public school district and there needs to be an advocacy for public schools," she said. "It just raises a lot of red flags for me."
School board decisions
Question: Are there any board decisions over last the last two years that you would change or disagree with?
Leaks-May said she disagrees with the board's decision to extend their own terms. "The community really came out in opposition of that decision and I felt that the decision was pretty much made ... we weren't really heard," which she said people have expressed is a common problem on the board.
Leaks-May said that decision should have been something residents voted on. "No one should be able to extend [their own] terms," she said.
O'Donnell said the purchase agreement for the Hayes Lemmerz property, which "was widely known to be a contaminated site," was made without a business plan and was a mistake.
"We knew about the environmental risk and went ahead with it anyway," he said. He also said in response to Pfleger's comment on contracts earlier, "I don't think the Yankees are happy to have Alex Rodriguez's contract right now."
Parks said in response to concerns over the Hayes Lemmerz property that sometimes people want information so quickly that they aren't willing to wait to get the background information.
"They won't even wait long enough to let the board look into something and make a decision that then the community can look at," he said, adding that people "are so anxious they like to micromanage the board" before the board has time to review something.
Pfleger said a lot of things happen at the committee level and said the board is generally in agreement about the best things to do for the district.
"The vast, vast, vast majority of the votes are seven to nothing," he said.
Warnick said a lot of positive things have come from the board and said most votes are "pretty close to unanimous."
Butters said she is more concerned with the "culture of the board" overall. "I'm worried that not enough respect is being paid toward the people who come to speak to the board, members of the public, even just the board members themselves showing respect."
"I believe that the board needs to communicate why it's making its decisions to the community," Butters said.
Collins said she has never been disrespectful to anyone on the school board. She said she has spent a lot of time in meetings and there are always lots of questions. "If you ask any questions they're answered," she said.
On one of the committees she is on, she said there is an agenda item called "rumors" where people can discuss other things going on that people have questions about.
Deegan-Krause said the "rumors" agenda item on the board Collins referenced was about "controlling" rumors. "That was the main focus. How do we control the rumors?"
As far as board decisions, he said what's bigger is how they are being made - like the Hayes Lemmerz property purchase agreement being signed "without ever asking to see a business plan," Deegan-Krause said. "I went to all those committee meetings ... those committee meetings weren't any better."
Question: Describe the value of adult education and alternative education to the school district and society at large. What would be the consequences of a loss of the program?
Warnick said the value of adult education and alternative education is graduating additional students, which benefits the community at large. He said losing the program would mean a loss of employees.
Butters said the district has a long history of alternative and adult education and there are many success stories out of the programs, though there have also been community concerns.
"We need to know what the community wants out of our school district. Does the mission of alternative education still resonate with the people who live here? I believe it probably does," she said.
Collins said as a board member she attends all three high school graduation ceremonies and her favorite is for the adult and alternative education programs, where she has heard many touching stories.
"They are very motivated students. This is a wonderful opportunity that they're given," she said. "I wouldn't want to see it go away."
Deegan-Krause agreed that the programs are important but said it needs to be done better. He said he has talked with educators who have said a largely-virtual adult education program needs to start small, have community support and have a strong student-teacher ratio.
He said the Digital Learning Center has a 50:1 ratio and started with 1,000 students. "That's more than any other program has started with," he said. "We need to do it better."
Leaks-May said she is a former student of adult education and believes in the programs. "Everyone's paths in life are very different," she said. She said she does not believe the programs should be expected to be money-makers.
O'Donnell said he supports the programs as they "provide second chances for many people." They should not be thought of as "profit centers," he said, and they need to be monitored closely for educational progress so that they succeed.
"Those students are our students," he said.
Parks said adult and alternative education are important and the new Digital Learning Center has been able to serve a wide range of students, including those who are sick and cannot leave home for that reason.
"I think it's a big part of the district," he said.
Pfleger said another benefit of the Digital Learning Center will be the effect it can have on Ferndale High School.
"The things we are learning are going to change the way we educate kids in Ferndale High School," he said, such as students being able to watch classes online if they miss class. "That kind of stuff is going to really make learning very different in the future."
Question: Highest priority day one as a board member?
Butters said her highest priority will be to listen. The board "needs to be a liaison between the district and the community."
Collins said she will let people know how to contact her, reach out to residents and continue attending community meetings. "I will let people know that I'm there and they can talk to me," she said.
Deegan-Krause said it's "going to be a long first meeting" with a lot to get done, and he wants to start right away. He said residents shouldn't be required to fill out sign-up forms in order to speak at meetings, he wants to jump-start the strategic planning process and wants to improve customer service at the first-contact level.
Leaks-May said she would make sure people know she will advocate for them. "I believe in this district. I'll listen to you," she said. "I want to hear you."
O'Donnell said step one is to "rebuild trust with the community" as he has found there is a "significant amount of distrust with the current leaders of the district." He said he wants to foster "real active transparency," get more people to meetings and reach out to community leaders.
Parks said he will continue what he has been doing for the last 10 years, working with PTAs and other community groups.
He said many people "don't have time to come out to meetings like this," and many "interact from their cubicle at work." He also said he wants to get board meetings streamed online.
Pfleger said day one is more like day 900 for him and he will continue his focus on "what is good for the kids, regardless of how that impacts anybody else."
He said he wants to support students who are having problems learning and the students who need increased challenges. He also wants to continue focusing on a balanced budget.
Warnick said student achievement is his top priority, as well as working to get legislative liaisons to help make legislative changes that need to be addressed. "We get very little support in that area," he said.
Warnick encouraged voters to choose experienced candidates like himself and the other CBE-endorsed candidates. "This is serious education business," he said.
Pfleger encouraged residents to research all of the candidates and look for a history of involvement. "Your vote is a serious responsibility. Please make a serious choice," he said.
Parks said the two slates of candidates offer a stark choice between "experience and expertise or very little experience" and asked whether voters want to take a risk on an "untested, radical new agenda." He said the CBE-endorsed candidates are supported by principals and administrators.
O'Donnell said the CLEAR-endorsed candidates offer a "new progressive change" and said former CBE members have come out in support of the BOLD slate. He said people who ask questions of the board have been demeaned and subjected to personal attacks. "We've seen more of that tonight," he said.
He asked voters to vote BOLD if they want a school board that "treats everyone with respect" and "builds on strengths."
Leaks-May said she is not part of a "radical" slate and that retaining families, engaging the community and helping "all types of learners" is not radical. She said she will make it her mission to advocate for all.
"I ask that you vote BOLD on November 6," she said.
Deegan-Krause said everyone at the table cares about education and the difference is the BOLD candidates "see good things in the district but are not satisfied with that," he said. "It's not right when someone asks hard questions to label [them] as radical or negative ... those kinds of challenges make us stronger not weaker."
Collins said the area has been through tough times but the school district has continued to have a balanced budget, add to its fund balance and increase test scores. "I have the experience, I have the knowledge to keep this district moving forward in a positive direction," she said.
Butters said she loves the community and schools and wants to be part of the decision making and let everyone in the community be heard. "I will be a strong voice for you and all of our community on the school board," she said.
Two more forums scheduled
Here are the times for the next two candidate forums planned: