New Fort Smith Public School board zones attract 13 candidates

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 4,714 views 

Thirteen candidates filed for Fort Smith Public School school board positions, ensuring all but one seat will have a contested race in the May 24 election. The FSPS Board voted in the fall to hold elections in May for all seven board seats following remapped zones based on the 2020 census.

The school board approved a new zone map with five single-membered and two at-large positions for school board representatives based on the 2020 census data. All seven of those representatives will be elected May 24, though not all seats will be elected for the same term length. Though all seats will eventually have a five-year term, as opposed to the three-year terms they had before, a straw vote will be held after the election results are certified to determine how long each seat’s term (one, three or five years) in order for elections of the positions to be staggered.

Each of the new zones have approximately 18,200 residents. Along with voting a person in their zones, voters will also select two at-large positions, so even if their board zone is not contested, they will vote for a candidate in the at-large positions.

Of the seven seats, five incumbent board members filed for reelection: Troy Eckelhoff, Dee Blackwell, Talicia Richardson, Dalton Person and Matt Blaylock. Because the district went from four single-membered zones and three at-large positions to the new zones, some of the incumbent’s zone numbers have changed.

Susan McFerran, the board the president and the Zone 2 representative, and Yvonne Keaton-Martin, the Zone 4 representative, did not file for reelection to their positions.

Troy Eckelhoff is running for the Zone 1 seat. He is the incumbent in Zone 1, having been elected to the seat in 2021. Phillip Whiteaker is also running for the Zone 1 seat.

Whiteaker said he was running for the seat on the school board not because of any actions the board had taken or not taken in the recent past but because he wants to be more involved in his community and the school district his children attend.

“I want to take a common sense approach to ensure a bright future for Fort Smith schools,” he said.

Brittney Hall and Sandy Dixon both filed for the Zone 2 seat. Hall, a former high school teacher and coach of eight years, said she is running for the Zone 2 position because as a mother of two children in the district, she can relate with parents on various issues seen in the schools on a daily basis.

“I would bring to the table the ability to fill any gaps existing between parents and teachers. My desire is to be more involved at the top level and to help make decisions based on my knowledge of the classroom and how things work. I am excited for the opportunity to serve the people of Fort Smith and to help assure that the education of our children is moving in a positive direction,” Hall said.

Dixon said she believes her business experience will be an asset.

“I have been in the business world 35 years, and I feel like I have a business skill set that I can bring to the Fort Smith School Board,” Dixon said.

Dee Blackwell is running for the Zone 3 seat. She is the incumbent and serving her first term, having been elected in 2020. She is being challenged by Ryan Goodwin.

Talicia Richardson is running unopposed for the Zone 4 seat. Richardson has served two terms and would have been up for re-election this year even without the change approved in the fall. Her seat is the At-Large, Position 5 seat which will no longer exist with the new districting.

Richardson said even though she is running unopposed this election, she wants to encourage everyone in Fort Smith to make certain to vote in May.

“Just because you may not be voting on someone in your particular zone, there are at large positions that have opposed races, and you will be choosing those representatives,” Richardson said.

Tara Mendoza and Dalton Person filed for the Zone 5 position. Person is already on the school board, having been elected to the At-Large Position 2 seat in 2020.

“Every action I have taken the past two years has been with the best interests of our more than 14,000 students and many teachers and staff in mind. In this day and age, it’s more important than ever to have strong gatekeepers on our school board,” Person said.

He said he is a product of both the Fort Smith school district and community, and both are intrinsically tied.

“The next school board will have a major say in the continued execution of our strategic plan, what is taught to our students, and the future of our community,” he said.

Mendoza said she is running for the Zone 5 seat because she has a desire to protect the well- being of the students, support and assist teachers and staff and bring transparency to all aspects of the district.

“I will invest time in improving the communication between the district and parents or guardians  and people of our community. As a mother of two children in the Fort Smith Public Schools, I understand first hand how important all of these details are to ensure the best educational atmosphere for students, staff, and the families who trust the district with their children seven hours a day,” Mendoza said.

Matt Blaylock and Madeline Marquette will face each other for the At Large 1 position. Blaylock was elected to the board in the At Large, Position 4 seat in 2021.

Blaylock was elected for a three-year term. Because of the changes made to accommodate the 2020 census data, he is running for re-election just one year later. Blaylock said in many aspects the position was not what he expected, noting there has definitely been a learning curve.

“I am just getting comfortable in my role on the board,” Blaylock said. “We (the board) have been able to tackle a few key issues, but most of the past year has been dealing with (COVID-19). Rarely did we have a work session, most meetings were called meetings about masks, six-foot or three-foot distance, quarantine, etc.”

However, Blaylock noted there are many things needing the board’s attention. He said he brings a unique perspective to the board and wants to continue doing so through another term.

“The millage projects are coming to a close and the District has learned a lot during that process. Now we have a great opportunity to do some incredible upgrades to facilities with ESSER funds,” he said.

Challenger Marquette also wants the chance to keep Fort Smith Public Schools in a positive light throughout the state.

“In the last few years, I’ve seen the public education system defamed and weakened. I want to help keep the Fort Smith Public School system strong and functional. I want to be an advocate for teachers and a guard to guarantee children a comprehensive, real education,” Marquette said.

Taylor Fretheim Chase and Davin Chitwood are both running for the At Large 2 seat.

“As a proud Fort Smith native and being a product of the Fort Smith Public Schools, I have tremendous pride in our city and in our school district. Being a mom of two wonderful boys, I want to ensure that the education of not only my children, but every child in Fort Smith, is the best it can be. With my eldest starting kindergarten in the fall, I feel that now is the time to get involved,” Chase said.

Talk Business & Politics reached out to all candidates. This story includes comments from those who responded by the time of this posting.