Fort Smith School Board At-large Zone 1: Q&A with candidates Matt Blaylock and Madeline Marquette

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 650 views 

Fort Smith Public School Board member Matt Blaylock is being challenged by Madeline Marquette for the district’s At-large Zone 1 position. The school board approved a new zone map with five single-membered and two at-large positions for school board members based on 2020 census data.

The school board elections will be held May 24 with Arkansas’ primary election. (Link here for the Talk Business & Politics story about the candidates who filed in each zone.)

Though all school board 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. School Board member Talicia Richardson, in Zone 4, is the only candidate running unopposed.

Talk Business & Politics sent questions – with answers to each question limited to 200 words – to all candidates and will post the responses in a series by zone. Following are the responses from Blaylock and Marquette.

• What do you believe should be the top three priorities for the Fort Smith Public School Board in the next few years?

Blaylock: Students, Staff, and Stakeholders! Students have to come first period. Anything we can do to create a safe, disciplined, and exciting learning environment for them is paramount. We lost some ground during the pandemic and we need to do what it takes to get back on the right track. Staff moral has taken a hit over the same time period. We need to support them in any way possible. Our Staff needs to be excited to come to work everyday and we need that attitude and passion for learning to be infectious. We need to be good stewards of our Stakeholders resources. Whether that is financially or community partnered efforts we need to leverage those resources to maximize positive outcomes that benefit the Students, Staff, and Stakeholders.

Marquette: The top three priorities for the school board to look at should be chosen with input from teachers and parents and students, if possible, along with administrators. Too many decisions are made top down. The top priority should be to make sure schools and teachers are adequately equipped. Too often, the equipment they need to use, is not functioning  for example, even basic items like printers not available in a consistent way. Shortages and unavailability is very frustrating. Look at some of the programs available at schools to see if they are actually helping students snd teachers. Some of these can be very costly and not offer meaningful changes. Many of these are implemented by outside contractors and are not cost effective. They often make teachers have extra work and teachers are already hard pressed to keep ahead of the forms and business of teaching. The board needs to keep up with changes in education and refer to the community (all sources) to make future plans. This has been a push in recent years but maybe a broader base of ideas to work with more concerns from the public.

• Do you believe the school board has a responsibility to moderate literature available to students, or do you believe that is best left to experienced administrators and faculty?

Blaylock: I believe we have to trust the experienced administrators and faculty to moderate literature available to students. That does not mean I believe the school board turns a blind eye or a deaf ear to the topic. Parents have a choice as well. If parents do not approve of a certain book for their child, they can request another book and they will be accommodated. If the board does have to get involved we will, but if we do I believe the system in place has failed. I think this topic would be much less of a discussion point if the parents knew in advance what books their children are going to be assigned so they have a chance to review them beforehand.

Marquette: I believe that the school board needs to trust the highly educated teachers and administrators to choose the literature offered in the classes. They are trained to choose appropriate and important literature for their students.

• There are several new charter schools in the area. What do you believe the Fort Smith Public School District should do to be an attractive option for students who now have more options?

Blaylock: I look at this question in reverse. What do the several new charter schools have to do to be an attractive alternate to FSPS? That might be a cavalier way of thinking but I believe that FSPS offers the total package in elementary and secondary education. The incoming charter schools do not. FSPS is now offering a virtual charter school (which I oppose, I support in-person learning) but parallels an incoming charter school from what I understand. No other incoming charter school offers the extracurricular opportunities that FSPS can offer the students that can be a large part of a student’s overall experience and growth. We do need to leverage those opportunities as much as possible as well as all of the community partnerships we work hand in hand with that make FSPS such an important part of this community.

Marquette: Students who have more options with the charter schools in our district need to feel that Fort Smith Public Schools are adequately meeting their needs. The high schools often only offer regular classes and not Pre Ap for that class because this is more cost effective. The higher level students are not challenged and are not prepared as well to take the AP classes. Differentiated classes help the students grow and push to achieve AP classes and credit are a big draw for students. Also, the classes are not always consistently offered at both high  schools. Any shortcomings between the offerings for these classes and the charter schools should be researched and amended.

Editor’s note: Link here for the Q&A response from candidates Troy Ecklehoff and Phillip Whiteaker who are running for the district’s Zone 1 position. Link here for the Q&A response from candidates Sandy Dixon and Brittney Hall for Zone 2. Link here for the Q&A response from candidates Dee Blackwell and Ryan Goodwin for Zone 3. Link here for the Q&A response from candidates Tara Mendoza and Dalton Person for Zone 5.