Only one of the three seats up for election in the May 18 school elections for Fort Smith Public Schools is opposed. Positions held by FSPS school board members Bill Hanesworth (at large), Wade Gilkey (Zone 1) and Yvonne Keaton-Martin (Zone 4) are up for re-election.
Hanesworth and Keaton-Martin filed for reelection to their seats according to the Sebastian County Clerk’s office. No opponent filed to run against Keaton-Martin, who was first elected in 2003. Matt Blaylock filed along with Hanesworth for the at-large position. Troy Eckelhoff is the only candidate to file for the Zone 1 seat. March 1 was the filing deadline.
Hanesworth was elected to his at large-seat in 2015 and serves as the president of the board. He believes the district has accomplished a lot of great things while he has been on the board, but he has a list of about “25 items going through my mind, that have been, that I think are the next things we need to do.” Included in those are completing Vision 2023 plan on time and on budget; establishing a district-wide Wi-Fi network so all students can take advantage of technology as an important learning tool and continuing to evaluate and expand school security needs.
As far as curriculum, Hanesworth said he would like to see the board evaluate curriculum consistency across all grades, continue to collaborate with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in pre-college credit opportunities and expand regional opportunities for PEAK Center student career opportunities.
“Some of the things I have on my list are not quite the glitz and glitter of Vision 2023 (which included new buildings and improvements at all campuses thanks to the millage increase passed by voters in 2018), but they are very important,” Hanesworth said.
He believes the district will see a change in teaching and learning once the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end and school can return to “normal.” He wants the district to continue community engagement in education needs in the future state of the school system and study the key learnings from the virtual teaching experience and incorporate those key lessons in the future classroom experience.
“There are going to be changes after COVID, and those are going to be good. They also are going to challenge us as a district,” Hanesworth said.
One of the things the district is going to need to do in the aftermath of COVID is evaluate the risk of pop-up virtual schools and how they might impact the future of education and build understanding of how it can prepare for the change in education due to technology and the COVID experience, he said.
Blaylock is the president of Blaylock Heating & Air Conditioning & Plumbing Services.
“Over the past few years I have felt there has been a shift in the community’s perception of FSPS, some good and some not so good. I would like nothing more than to help FSPS in any way I can and represent the people in Fort Smith whether they are just a taxpayer, they have children in the district or they are employed by the district in some form or fashion,” Blaylock said.
Blaylock’s wife is a teacher, his mother taught in the district and his sister and brother-in-law teach in Arkansas, which means education is often a topic of discussion at family gatherings, he said.
“I believe the students come first followed in a close second by the educators and support staff,” he said. “FSPS obviously has a major economic impact in the river valley and that needs to continue. The next item on FSPS agenda is curriculum.”
As the father of two children involved in extracurricular activities at school, Blaylock said he believes those activities play an important role in the educational process.
“There is what you learn in the classroom and then the life skills you learn in dealing with your peers and those in authority,” he said.
Blaylock would like to see more vocational training in some form and for as many students to have as many opportunities as possible in FSPS schools.
“I want nothing more than for the people of Fort Smith to be as proud of FSPS and the city as I was growing up. I think a little of that has been lost, but with the right plan and people in place, I think we could far exceed most expectations and educate a generation of students that we are proud of and that they will have pride in their school experience and community,” he said.
Gilkey said he was not seeking reelection to the seat he has held since 2015, saying he doesn’t believe school board members should serve for more than two to three terms.
“I really think we accomplished what I was hoping to accomplish when I ran for the school board. I don’t know what else I can do, so it’s time to let someone else,” Gilkey said.
Eckelhoff is unopposed for the Zone 1 seat. A graduate of Northside High School, Eckelhoff is program director and music director at KTCS 99.9 radio in Fort Smith. He said he is excited for the opportunity to serve on the school board and hopes more younger people with a vested interest in the district choose to do so in the future. He said he would like to see the school board work with the Fort Smith Board of Directors to make the schools and the city a source of pride for students.
“If we want Fort Smith to grow, we need our children to want to be here, to go away (for college) if they want, but to come back and have a life here, to raise their families here. To get that, we have to do things they find attractive. We need them to have a sense of pride in their schools again,” he said.
Eckelhoff said the improvements and expansions conducted as part of the Vision 2023 plan have been great for the district, but there is still more work to be done.
“We are the second or third depending on how the census comes out largest city in Arkansas, but facility-wise (for sports), with the exception of the new arenas built out of the millage, or the worst in the state,” he said, noting that he attended a Southside soccer game recently and discovered the visiting team players were having to change in the public restrooms.
Eckelhoff said he would also like to see consistent practices and regulations in the district, meaning all junior highs are consistent, both high schools are consistent and all elementary schools are.
“I was surprised to learn at (one of the) junior highs, they only had two pep rallies all year, one for football and one for basketball. At (another), they had several. If we want the students to be proud of their schools, these sort of things need to be consistent,” he said.
School board members serve three-year terms. Zone 1 generally represents southeast Fort Smith and Barling; Zone 4 generally represents north Fort Smith. The school board election is May 18; early voting begins May 11.