On Wednesday, the League of Women Voters held a candidate forum for all the At Large seats for the Board of Education. The following is a recap of the Q&A for the At Large 9 seat, which includes attorney and former teacher Jason Esteves, education consultant and former teacher Dr. Lori James and former East Point City council member Eddie Lee Brewster.
The recap is fairly comprehensive and sets the baseline for the candidates positions on issues in this race. Future recaps will simply add to this baseline level with answers to new questions or changes in candidates positions on issues.
The following is a summary of the opening statements, Q&A and their closing statements. The answers are in the order the candidates presented the information.
Brewster – I am a politician. I am running for the school board because I believe that one person can make a difference as a policy maker….my theme is – let teachers teach. What does that mean? Teachers are on the front line of education….Teachers are being maligned, they are being attacked and they are being accused for failures that they are not responsible for. …I think from my experience and my background as a parent and PTA leader and an elected official, I can make a difference in setting this Board straight.
Esteves – I am a former public school teacher and I am an attorney – and as an attorney I am often tasked with at looking at big issues and figuring out what is missing and how we can solve it… we do not have a public education system that matches the greatness of our city. And everyone in this room knows we cannot have a world-class city if we are only graduating 51% of our kids and only 38% of our African-American men…We have the opportunity to change that with this election…
James – My career of choice has been education for the past 30 years. I have taught general education students, I have taught the most severe and profound students with special needs and I have taught students in between. I have been an administrator for several years…Currently I am an educational consultant … providing professional development and compliance guidance to different schools.
Question 1 – What are the most significant challenges to quality public education in the Atlanta Public School system? List 3 and explain how you will address these challenges.
Brewster – I think we need to empower teachers to be teachers…Two, there is enough money in APS to pay teachers a good salary, there is enough money to take care of our bus drivers and food service people… But there is too much money for bureaucracy and top-level administrators.
Esteves – First…we need a superintendent and a school board that will focus on the schools that need to improve. Second is the budget. We have teachers…that have not received a bonus or a raise in five years. And the last thing is that we need a school board and a superintendent that are going to be engaged in the community and empower our communities, our teachers and our principals.
James – The first challenge is that we are not providing appropriate and effective instruction for all of our students. …The second challenge is that we are not meeting the needs of all of our students. …The third challenge is to use the funds for the purposes they were set for.
Question 2 – What do you believe the top strategic priorities should be for the school board over the next four years? List three and explain why.
Esteves – The first and foremost is hiring a superintendent that will change our school system. We need a superintendent that will empower our teachers and empower our principals to do what they do best, which is to teach our kids. We need to tackle …our budget issues and tackle our pension problems…And we need to focus on transparency. I think that the school board and the superintendent really have to focus on giving everyone in the community confidence that this school system is being run the way it should be.
James – First priority is to hire the absolutely best superintendent available for our school system, but also monitoring observable objectives and goals are set for that superintendent. …The second priority is reviewing and rewriting policy….The third is to provide appropriate professional development.
Brewster – First I would reduce operating costs. From that I would work on changing the culture of the schools. …If you are in the Atlanta Public Schools, all schools should be equal….And the third, I would work to develop policy that empowers teachers. My whole theme is let teachers teach.
Question 3 – What can the school board do to ensure that teachers are truly teaching and not teaching to standardized tests?
James – …we have administrators in each school building who know how to monitor what is going on in the classroom, who know how to appropriately evaluate teachers and who are not administrators who sit behind a desk every day and have no clue what is going on in the classroom….since we can’t micromanage these schools, we have to trust the people who we put in place are doing it, and we do that by checks and balances of them.
Brewster – I think that is what got us in trouble with the cheating scandal because we put too much emphasis on testing and teaching to a test… I think we need to get back to the old-fashioned matter of the ‘three R’s’. …we have to adhere to certain national standards… and I am big supporter of Common Core, we cannot allow our students to be passed from grade to grade and some students … can pass a test but they do not know the subject matter. So we need to change that whole culture.
Esteves – The main way to do it is by stop focusing on one test…What we need to focus on is how kids are progressing throughout the year. …So what we do is change our assessment. If you have a teacher… with kids at a third grade level and …at the end of the year has kids reading at a fourth grade level, that teacher did a good job. If a teacher starts the third grade and the kids are reading at a first grade level, and at the end of the year the kids are reading at a third grade level, today that teacher would be seen as failing. But that teacher improved her kid’s scores by two years – we need to be rewarding those teachers and making sure that they get recognized.
Question 4 – APS has a budget of $600 million. Explain how your experience and skills will positively impact the school budget process.
Brewster – I have better experience with this as a city councilman in metro Atlanta – I was chairman of the budget committee in East Point as a freshman city councilman…. I know how to ask the right questions of department heads so that we do not have a lot of flux in our budget. We have enough money in Atlanta to do what we need to do in our school system. …I would have my focus on directing money for instruction, teacher salaries and professional advancement and training. …If we cut some of the top-heavy administrators out and redirect that money into our schools, we can have a good school system.
Esteves – Whether in my experience as a teacher or an attorney, I have been managing and working with budgets for a long time. And what we need is somebody who is going to ask tough questions and make sure those questions are being answered. …to make sure that when they ask those questions, that the superintendent and the school board are following through on recommendations made… Because if we can solve this budget issue, we can make sure teachers get paid, we can make sure resources are going back to the classroom and make sure our kids are getting the resources they need to succeed.
James – …I have had to sit through Atlanta Public School budgets. I have to utilize three budgets at one time to make sure that all of the money was pushed down to the school level and none of the money was used for administrative activities. … I have been there and I have helped solve problems that deal with budgetary items. And I do not have to start by figuring out where some of the problems are, because I know where they are…
Brewster – The main reason to vote for me is I am not new – I am not a “Johnny Come Lately”. I have been advocating for public education in Atlanta for the past 30 years….I am running not to just have a position, I am running because I believe I have the experience and the background to get on board to do things that can really help to improve our children. …our kids are failing not because they are not capable, but because we have adults who are playing games with each other and our kids are failing… I will not go along to get along….
Esteves – We have the opportunity to do something big in this system and we cannot let this opportunity to go to waste. Whether it is hiring a new superintendent, fixing our budget issues or making sure we have a school board that honest, ethical and transparent. …We don’t need a board member who is just doing it for politics – we can’t afford that. We cannot afford [to have the school system] fail our kids any longer. We do not need a school board member that does not have enough faith in the system to send their own child to an APS school…What we need is experience, vision and leadership because our kids need us to make sure they have a future for success.
James – I am running for this position … because I have the audacity and the courage to believe that I can make a difference. There are students in our District who are crying out for help and they need someone on the school board who knows what they are going through – whose been there, whose seen it and who continues to work in it to this day… I want all of the children in APS to have the education that they deserve – a first class education that is second to none. Our dropout rate is abysmal. We have students that leave APS, whether they graduate or not, who cannot read…I stayed with APS for 27 years trying to make a difference. Now you have to beg good teachers to come and work in APS, and as soon as they come, they run out the door.
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