Last night, the local branch of the NAACP held a school board candidates' forum at Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. In attendance were incumbent James Buford, Peter Downs, Dennis McLin Shireff, Joe Clark, Donna Jones and Board Member Ron Jackson, who was representing incumbent Darnetta Clinkscale since she was out of town. The two-hour forum featured opening statements followed by a question-and-answer session. The candidates all seemed comfortable and level-headed; the forum was not marred by the confrontational tone other such events have engendered in recent years.
There were few surprises, though. Buford and Jackson had very little to say beyond patented defenses of the status quo and denial of the mistakes of the past three years. I really want to understand their viewpoints, but I don't think that I know why the believe in what they are saying. Their stance comes across as arrogant no matter how plainly they speak. One interesting remark by Buford that was encouraging came when asked how he would pay for the $500 million schools plan that superintendent Creg Williams wants to implement. Buford stated that the city needs to end tax-increment-financing once and for all, so that the schools get their fair share of money. He sounded sincere on this point, although his office give shim little power to act on the view. Does Mayor Slay know of Buford's view, which is a deviation from Slay's development agenda?
Shireff seemed passionate, but spoke largely in energetic platitudes that lacked specific details. His sincerity was admirable, though. For some reason Shireff withdrew from the race this morning. Joe Clark, a retired district employee, stated his opposition to outsourcing and to deep budget cuts, and interjected some humours lines. However, Clark seemed to take cues from the audience when in doubt, rather than offering an earnest answer. His stance clearly is in opposition to the board majority, but some of his solutions are lacking in practicality. For instance, he wonders if re-opening closed schools might help lower transportation costs since kids might be going to school closer to home. That sounds good, but the distribution of types of schools is not even, and the arrangement of resources prior to 2003 was not exactly efficient.
Jones and Downs did pretty well, with Jones getting the best lines and offering the fresher perspective. Both were insistent that fiscal accountability must be implemented before making big plans for the future. To those who say that such calls are empty or reactionary, they made the point that accountability is fundamental and a bigger obstacle to reform than people want to admit. It's far easier to deny and evade -- or raise taxes -- then to actually audit the district and evaluate the cost of outsourcing and administrative salaries. Jones stated that running for School Board was one of the scariest things she has ever done, because of the fierce nature of partisans involved.
Some critics allege that Downs and Jones offer no useful ideas, only criticisms. However, they are have a definite and positive plan: small class sizes, increasing teacher, substitute teacher and staff pay above poverty level, reopening closed schools, an effective district-wide discipline policy (with the resource sto actually implement), introduction of timely maintenance, reopening alternative schools with adequate resources, fiscal accountability and revaluation of the privatization of district functions. Those are a lot of important plans, and ones that will make the district a better public school district. If their plans seem weak or conservative, it's because the terms of debate have shifted in the press to those of how to most efficiently privatize the district.
The biggest distinction is that Downs and Jones answer questions from their critics with thoughtful answers, and if elected would ensure that the School Board follows an open democratic process that has been lacking since 2003. Process itself should not be a partisan instrument; an open hearing of issues levels the playing field, leaving no one at advantage. In the age of Halliburton and Sodexho, we need public officials who actually believe that citizens -- not corporations -- own government. Buford tried to convince people at the forum that he was independent of the local private power structure by stating that he had resigned from several boards after being appointed to the Board of Education and would resign from every board on which he serves if necessary. He set himself up for unfair attack, but also opened the question of whether it is simply the appearance of independence he is seeking. Clinkscale has voted for every step of privatization without reservations. We can do better, even among candidates who are not as radical as Downs and Jones.
Every candidate as well as Jackson stated opposition to charter schools, favor of a tax increase for more revenue and some degree of confidence in Creg Williams -- so there is some common ground.