Fort Smith Public School Board member Dalton Person is being challenged by Tara Mendoza for the district’s Zone 5 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 Mendoza and Person.
• What do you believe should be the top three priorities for the Fort Smith Public School Board in the next few years?
1. Getting our students on grade level and addressing the learning loss over the past few years.
2. Work on chain of command within all levels of the district, and expanded communication between students, parents, teachers, and administors (sic).
3. Parental involvement within the schools.
Person: First, the district has to be competitive in all respects. We have to provide students with a superior education. We need the confidence of parents that they are sending their kids to a safe and strong learning environment. Our teachers and staff have to be fairly compensated with the support and tools to do their jobs well. If we can do those things, we will set our students up to succeed and create a better future.
Secondly, we need to continue to push for a unified curriculum across the district. A third grader from one school should be able to move to another school in our district and be able to pick up almost immediately. A unified curriculum across the district will create more opportunities for success.
Finally, we must continually invest in workforce development. The Peak Innovation Center is a game-changer for our area. Kids need to have the option to learn beyond a textbook and develop practical skills for the real world. Hopefully, they will also be exposed to job opportunities right here at home. Our goal should be for all students to walk across the stage at graduation with skills and a plan for their future.
• 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?
Mendoza: I believe that the School Board has a responsibility to make sure that what is available and taught to our students is age appropriate and aligned with state standards.
Person: The school board is elected to represent the community. We are the voices for those who do not always have a voice. One of our duties under Arkansas law is to approve of the selection of curriculum. Sometimes that means ensuring that the administration is upholding the values of our community in what is taught in our classrooms. If they are not, then we do have a responsibility to step in.
However, it is not our job to ban books or materials simply because some folks disagree politically with the material. Our duty is not to censure speech. At the appropriate level, open discourse is a good thing. Freedom of speech is a good thing. Faculty and administrators are employed because they are educated and trained to do their jobs. The school board should not meddle with that. There is already too much red tape and oversight over what happens in the classroom. As long as those folks are acting within the color of the law and within the general values of society, they should be allowed to do their jobs.
• 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?
Mendoza: We need to not only attract the students with a wide variety of skilled technical courses for those who do not plan to go the college route, but we also need to make sure that the parents/guardians know that FSPS is a safe and secure environment where their students will flourish.
Person: It is important to note that increased opportunities for kids to succeed is a good thing. Additionally, I am hopeful that our district will be able to partner with new schools in the area to improve education and create a better future for all.
That being said, I believe that our district will continue to be the answer for the vast majority of families in our area because we already offer a plethora of options to help students succeed. When I graduated from here, I was surprised at how well I had been prepared for college. That’s a testament to our teachers and schools. For those who want to get a head start, we offer many Advanced Placement and concurrent credit for college courses. Soon, we hope to be able to offer associates degrees for our students, as well. Finally, the Peak Innovation Center is an opportunity for students to develop applied skills for the workforce. No matter what path a student wants to take after high school, I believe we can set them up for success. As long as we continue to adapt and innovate, we will be an attractive option for education in the community.
Editor’s note: Link here for the Q&A response from Fort Smith School Board member 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.