Fort Smith school board candidates discuss student prep, teacher pay

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,159 views 

Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education candidates on Monday (May 16) touted the need for educational alternatives so all students could be given the best opportunity for success after graduation.

The candidates spoke during the League of River Valley Voters candidate forum at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.

Candidates for each of the contested school board races spoke at the forum with the exception of Taylor Freitheim Chase, who had a death in the family and could not attend, and Tara Mendoza and Ryan Goodwin, who could not attend the event. Chase faces Davin Chitwood for the At Large Zone 2 seat; Mendoza faces Dalton Person, who is on the board, for the Zone 5 position; and Goodwin is running against incumbent Dee Blackwell for the Zone 3 seat.

Chase’s opponent said he believes the most important things the school board needs to focus on are transparency, growth and support. Chitwood said there should be transparency in curriculum and opportunity for all students.

“But we need to realize we are not the professionals here, so we need to support our teachers and administration,” Chitwood said.

Person, who has been on the school board since 2020 and faces Mendoza for the Zone 5 seat, said he is running for the board again because he believes there is no better investment in the future than children.

“Education is vitally important and as we are in the 21st Century, especially as we learned with COVID, more and more people have discovered the advantages of electronic communication. What is vitally important is that we as a district continue to innovate and provide more and more opportunities for students to succeed outside of the normal avenues,” Person said.

Like Person, Blackwell pointed to the district’s Peak Innovation Center and the district’s three other schools of innovation as key components in making certain students are best educated for whatever they may face after graduation.

“So students who want to go on the college track have opportunities, and those who want to go directly into the workforce have opportunities. There is so much innovation in these programs that the diversity is there.There is a place for every student in Fort Smith,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell, who faces Goodwin in the election for the Zone 3 seat, has served on the board since March 2020 and has two sons in the school district.

“When sitting at the table (on the board) it’s important I remember my role. It is to advocate for all the students in the district, all 14,000 of them, not just my own personal two students. … My first priority is to always make sure that all students are receiving quality, high-level education,” she said.

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. Eckelhoff said many of the issues he felt needed to be at the forefront of the board’s focus when he took his seat on the board were not able to be addressed because of COVID-19. He still wants to look at mental health, upgrades around the schools and compensating teachers. In terms of educating all students in the best way possible, he said the district started doing what is needed in the district with Peak.

“A lot of the time people think children need to be educated in high school and sent off to college. We also have a lot of kids out there who can’t do that. Peak teaches skills in school, so before they even graduate, they have hireable skills,” he said. “We attract people here globally because we have students trained in the skills they need. That’s what we need to do with education, we need to develop our children now and get them to come back and help our community.”

Whiteaker said the district needs to reinvest in the community and that is something on which he will focus if he is elected to the position.

“If Fort Smith Public Schools relies upon the support of the Fort Smith community, then Fort Smith Public Schools should support the Fort Smith community,” Whiteaker said. “I would want to make sure that we hold our administrators fiscally responsible and to be the absolute best stewards of our communities money.”

He also said he wants to make sure the board does all it can to make sure all students and teachers have the opportunity to succeed.

Brittney Hall and Sandy Dixon are both running for the Zone 2 seat. Hall said curriculum will be big on her list of focus if she is elected to the board as will be supporting teachers.

“Right now the greatest issue is our teachers. I know that the salary was the newest hot topic. I do get the whole picture of it when you look at (things) compared to the surrounding districts. I get it. It makes sense. I am proud of what (the board) did. It stinks that it was at the expense (of veteran teachers). Now I think we need to take what was approved and build on that for our teachers in the future and for our incoming teachers that we will potentially get,” Hall said.

She also said the district’s personnel policy committee (PPC) needs to get some focus.

“I understand that the PPC committee is not as involved as what we once thought it was,” Hall said, noting that the board needs to look at how that is and is not working so they make sure they are supporting the teachers.

Dixon, president and owner of Turnkey Construction in Fort Smith, said though she has completed a number of projects for FSPS over the past 20 years, she has informed the district her company will not bid for any future projects in the district in order to be financially responsible and transparent as a board member. She also said education for all students should be the district’s No. 1 priority.

“The better education you can get at a young age, the better prepared you are for life in general. I do not believe all students should be taught the same way. I believe that there is a difference in who children are and that some who are bound for college may not be the same as those bound for a technical school or perhaps going immediately into the workforce,” Dixon said.

She said Peak offers options for students that will help their future as they go on to be young adults, which is a very positive thing for the district.

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 said he wants to bring pride back to Fort Smith Public Schools and to get as many people as possible involved in the schools and their activities. He said FSPS does a much better job than many other districts in preparing students for whatever they want to do, whether it is going on to college or entering the workforce, especially with the addition of Peak to the district.

Marquette said that to be on the school board you need to be a leader and volunteer and know how boards work, all three of which she has a great deal of experience. She said it’s important for board members to listen to all the stakeholders in the schools – the students, teachers and administrators. She also believes teacher pay needs to remain a focus in the years ahead because it is very important to “compensate our veteran teachers in a way they deserve.”

The school board elections will be held May 24 with Arkansas’ primary election. 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.