School Board Candidate Forum

The five candidates for three seats on the school board are all present, as the rules are explained to the audience.  Each candidate is permitted a three-minute opening statement, followed by questions from the local media, then quesitons from the audience.

Opening Remarks:

Dan DiGregorio – Dan arrived in Oak Ridge in 1969, knows the Oak Ridge Schools from many different viewpoints: teacher, coach, parent, grandparent.  Some of the recent events, the departure of our principal and coaches, have highlighted one of our challenges.  The average tenure of a superintendent in Tennessee Oak Ridge is five years; our current superintendent has been here for seven.  You should elect someone who can best represent you in the duty of selecting a superintendent.  Our three main foci are planning, policy, and promotion.  With regard to policy, we need to do a better job; some of our policies are ancient, and what was appliicable then may not be applicable now.  I’ll push harder to get our five-year plan current.

Bob Eby – has served twice before on the board, including service as Chairman in the 1990s.  His wife, Jean, has taught for many years at Linden Elementary.  Bob is the technology director for USEC, and is actively involved in many community boards.  He is an Eagle Scout, a professional engineer, and a certified instructor of problem solving.

Brenda Fellner – Moved here ten years ago following an article in Money Magazine about the quality of the schools here, so that both of her sons could be educated here.  She has taught in several states and systems, including Oak Ridge.  She has a lot of experience with changing demographic populations.  Wants to make use of our senior population, as they could be a valuable resource as tutors in the schools.  We need to educate the public, much like the Council Night Out.  Not all of our parents have access to newspapers and the internet, so we need to find other ways to reach them.

Jenny Richter – Grew up in Oak Ridge, left for 12 years, then returned so that her children could attend school here as she did.  Jenny has served two terms on the Board, both with Ann McNees, and with John Smith, who has decided not to run this time.  Many things have happened in the last eight years, with the capstone being the completion of the high school renovation.  But, we can’t remain static — we must respond to change in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.  We face serious curriculum changes, and budget challenges  I understand the pressures, and look forward to addressng the solutions.

John Soldano — a dental crowns dentist here, as long as a long-time resident.  His whole family are graduates of ORHS (youngest daughter graduating in June).  He presents the opportunity to vote for a candidate with a wealth of business experience.

Media Questions:

Q) How would you suggest that ORS resolve their budget problems:

DiGregorio: How do we get more money?  From Tuesday’s forum, bring in more families, more recreational activities, more retail.  We need young families.  We must promote the school system, and build the tax base.

Eby: Obtaining the budget that the school desires can only occur through open dialogue with City Council.  All citizens must be cognizant of what the funds are used for.  School Board goes through the entire budget line by line, and it’s up to the citizens to participate.  The only source for additional revenue is from the City.

Fellner: We do need to work hand-in-hand with the city, to find out what parents think needs to be done differently.  One area that we could look at is the communications budget, which increased sharply this year.  There are some things that we do that could be tailored back, such as ordering supplies through the central office rather than at each school.  We must work with the City; it’s very difficult to get any extra funds from the County.

Richter: If you look at the budget, you’ll see that the great majority of funds is used for instruction, and that means people.  To cut the budget, you almost must cut people — people in the classroom who instruct children.  The one item that has the greatest impact on the education of a child is the quality teacher.  I am absolutely FOR maintaining the quality of our instructional personnel.

Soldano: I read the 142 pages of the school budget.  As a business person, I would review the budget to determine whether each expenditure is indeed legitimate.  Only after reviewing the entire budget to look for savings, should the school board go to Council for more money.

Q) What personal strengths do you bring to the table.

Eby: Engineering and business education; personal experience in technology and management; community involvement.  All of these things are great assets to the school system

Fellner: The diverse background in education that I have, serving alongside board members in other schools to improve services in other systems.  I’ve served on building and system leadership teams that evaluated schools for SACS accreditation, as well as for school improvement.  I’ve taught teachers in best practices.  I have the ability to communicate with all parents, all children, and adults in the system.

Richter: I could listen to a wall.  You have to be prepared to walk slowly through Kroger, because people in the community are comfortable in talking in informal settings.  I’ve learned a great deal through listening.  In my work at UT, higher ed is very much like K-12, just bumping up the age group.  I’m constantly lobbying for UT’s new hires to come to Oak Ridge.

Soldano: I bring 4 things: business experience, experience as a former student, as a parent understanding the issues that confront students today, and I bring my listening skills.

DiGregorio: I’m just great.  I’ve got 38 years with Oak Ridge Schools, from many different viewpoints.  I believe that I’ve answered every single e-mail that has been sent to me.

Q) How can Oak Ridge attract quality teachers in the coming years?

Fellner – We need to look at the teacher training programs, and actively recruit the best and brightest.  We need to utilize the internship program at UT, where we get at 6-12 week preview of what these teachers would be like in the classroom.  Senior teachers could mentor the new teachers, meeting several times per year to mentor.

Richter – While it’s impossible to replace people, but we can send out ambassadors to recruit, pushing the qualities of Oak Ridge, making Oak Ridge an attractive place to teach.  Our teachers should know when they go into a classroom, that they will have the tools necessary to be successful.

Soldano – The easy answer is more money, but that’s not always the right way.   Hands down, most teaching graduates said that support of their principals, relevant inservice training, and recognition for their education and performance would be key.

DiGregorio – The Board and administration must behave professionally, to treat the teachers with the respect they deserve.  If we don’t have good teachers, we won’t have good students.  We do need to have a competitive salary and benefits package.  Teachers also need the opportunity to grow, to keep up with the current trends.

Eby – Oak Ridge has a history of outstanding teachers.  When they leave, how do we replace them?  There are several factors besides the facility; community support and involvement are also important.  Secondly, teachers need to be involved in the critical decision making.  Let teachers advise on curriculum matters; provide highly competitive pay and benefits.  Provide state of the art tools and quality teacher development.

Q) Appointed or elected school superintendent?

Richter – We’ve always had an appointed superintendent, so that he/she can be selected on the basis of qualifications and experience.  We have certain, expected minimums for every staff member.

Soldano – I also support selected, rather than elected, superintendents.  With an election, it’s possible to get a charismatic individual without the necessary skills.

DiGregorio – No (that’s my short answer).  Heck no (that’s my long answer).  I was an educator, and have no confidence  in an elected superintendent.

Eby – selected, not elected.  First and foremost, you want an educator.  You want the best person you can get from all over the country.  Elections preclude the widest range of choices.

Fellner – I’ve taught with both methods in place, and a selected superintendent is far, far better.  We get a lot of community involvement in the selection, and that’s one of the best reasons to have selected.

Q) What is the biggest problem right now?

Soldano – It seems like every year, we come down to this issue of funding, but that’s not to overlook issues like drugs.  Making sure that we have the proper funding and materials is the biggest issue now.

DiGregorio – I think our biggest problem is going to be how to educate all students to all the new standards that take effect this year.  Whether or not we agree, we must comply.  I don’t think we can continue to teach the way we have always taught; there have to be changes in the way children are taught.  Giving a child a zero for not doing their homework is counterproductive; somehow, we have to get the kid to do the work.  That decreases failing grades, increases the graduation rate.

Eby – There are many problems facing ORS today, and it is difficult to choose the biggest one.  Changing demographics is a big one.  Ensuring student safety, new graduation requirements, and lack of resources to address these problems.  Meeting all the needs of ALL children is the biggest challenge.

Fellner – to motivate and educate all the students in Oak Ridge.  We must educate ALL children, not just the college bound students.  We should work with labor unions, with the ROTC, and other resources that we need to tap into in order to accomplish this.

Richter- The greatest short-term challenge will be to implement and educate people about the new curriculum standards that are now in place.  Ultimately, we hope it will raise the standards for all children around the state.  We will have students being funneled into programs wth requirements that they have not faced before.  Students will now have to take courses that are not of their own choosing.

Q)  Do you support providing transportation to all students?

DiGregorio – Yes.  Transport them all.  We don’t have a very walk-friendly community.

Eby – We ought to provide transportation opportunity to all schools.  Safety is an important factor.  However, we have to do it within the bounds of working with the City for crossing guards, sidewalks, and the funding to support transporting students.

Fellner – I agree that we need to transport all students.  The 20-mph school zones are a bit of an inconvenience, but we must ensure safe transportation for all students and help the city to provide safe avenues for students to do choose to walk.

Richter – it’s a harder question than it seems.  Children have different methods of getting to school, and we must recognize that not all students will ride the bus even if it is offered.  However, unformed officers make a tremendous difference in traffic safety, as not all children will ride the bus.

Soldano – if all students are required to attend school, then we should provide safe transportation to and from school.

Q) Are gifted students treated better, and is that right?

Eby – No.  The goal of public education is to offer challenging opportunities to all students.  We offer a very broad curriculum, have teachers who can teach at all levels.  We offer a range of classes that encourage all students to reach academically.

Fellner – Maybe not treated better, but there are disproportionate opportunities for gifted students, such as many more AP or honors classes than remedial classes at the high school.  If we do a better job in the elementary school, we won’t need as much remediation in the high school.

Richter – No, I don’t belive that we treat our gifted students better.  All courses are open to all students.  We encourage students to attempt material that they haven’t taken before.

Soldano – The gifted program reflects the population that we live amongst.  The national trend is 28-30% AP courses, so at 34%, we’re in line with the rest of the country.

DiGregorio – I don’t know, but it’s disturbing to me that it’s still being asked.  Whether it’s real or imagined, it’s a problem.  We must get rid of that perception.  We provide a good and complete education for all students, without prejudice.

Q) The administrators are interviewing candidates for the next ORHS principal.  What qualities do you want to see?

Fellner- a broad educational background, who knows about our diverse demographics.  I want someone who cares for all students, who supports all teachers, who can keep a clear line for all budget issues, and is on top of technology.

Richter – we need someone who lives, eats, and breathes high school issues.  I would be looking for someone who is highly educated, understands the 9-12 system, and who understands the demands that will be placed on the person leading this high school.  They must understand the value of the teaching force that we have here, and rely on them for key decisions.

Soldano – You need a good leader who supports the staff, understands the students and the mandates.

DiGregorio – I am sorry to see Chuck Carringer go.  I want a new principal who likes kids, is a good educator, and who is involved in the community.

Eby – I agree with the others’ statements.  When I think of an outstanding principal, it is someone who will listen closely to the staff and lead quietly.

Q) What policies may need to be changed?

Richter – there are several that we have been trying to plow through and change, but I can’t think of one that warrants particular focus at this moment.  A few years ago we changed our cell phone policy somewhat, and there are a few things like that that change as time goes on.

Soldano – has anyone tried to pick up a document from the administration lately?  There’s a five-day waiting period.  Zero tolerance probably needs to be re-evaluated.  I understand the reason for rules, but sometimes it can be cumbersome.

DiGregorio – staff residency and school trips are two that come to mind.

Eby – the travel policy is one; if we have a policy, we need to ensure consistent execution.

Fellner – There’s no one policy that stands out, but consistency is of utmost importance.  That goes back to communication with the public.

Q) Teachers and staff have not received a salary increase.  How would you propose giving staff a raise next year?

Soldano – You can get so far behind that you’re trying to play catch-up.  In my business, we try to at least do a cost of living increase each year.  We have to ask the City for the money.

DiGregorio – I am not in favor of cutting staff positions to give a raise; with that, there is no other alternative except to ask the City for additional funds.

Eby- There’s only a finite amount of money.  If we do get the money, we should look at several different options.  For the last two years, the teachers with the most longevity got nothing.  Two possible methods would be to add a step at year 25, or to add a longevity bonus as the City did for City staff.

Fellner – If there’s no money, there’s no money.  We are falling behind, but if we’re no longer competitive, we’re no longer going to get the best and the brightest.

Richter – We may end up receiving some additional funding, so we may be able to provide a small raise.  Every percent raise costs us $350k – $380k, and this needs to be recurring funding because that cost will recur each year.  We are hoping to get additional information on the longevity bonus.

Audience Questions:

Q) Could cost be reduced by sharing resources with the City government, like offices or cars?

Soldano – Yes.  Duplication of costs; sharing will reduce the cost.  However, it’s likely to be an unequal division.

Q) How would you feel about members of the administration home-schooling their own children?

Fellner – If you’re making decisions about our students, those decisions should apply to your own children.

Q) The school sytem is trying to increase the graduation rate.  Are there any programs for people who have already dropped out, and should the school sytem be involved?

Eby – the alternative school is for students who cannot progress, or who have been expelled, or cannot learn in a traditional environment.  There are also GED programs, and the school sytem should absolutely be involved.  Some people elect to be in the alternative program.

Q) What would be the top 3 elements of a 5-year plan that you would support?

Richter – 1) re-examine the curriculum in light of the new standards, making sure our curriculum is properly aligned, both vertically and horizontally.  2) Prioritize and find a way to work with the City or County to return having police officers present in our middle school program (school resource officers).  It was a true safety element.  (ran out of time)

Q) the curriculum is under pressure, that is squeezing out some subjects.  How can we get PE, music, and art back into the classroom?

DiGregorio – those things still are in our classrooms, but the question is whether we can continue with the new standards, and the two additional credits required.   Now, our students are being asked to major and minor in something.

Q) What impact will the new graduation requirements have on the vocational program?

Richter – the new requirements will affect everything.  The new grad requirement is ONE PATH, and that is the college prep path.  A student must use all of their three electives to select a career path now.

Q) Over the last 10 years, overall enrollment has gone down, while spending and staffing has increased.  The school sytem has asked for additional money from the City.  Do you feel this is a sound fiscal practice?

DiGregorio – In the last two years, we have not requested anything from the city except what is in the financial model.  Enrollment going up and down is just a reality, and yes, costs do go up.

Q) Where do you rank the preschool facility in terms of need?

Eby – I would add the preschool/school administration building to Ms. Richter’s list of priorities; the preschool program has proven itself to be valuable, and we have to give them a better facility.

Q) What is your position on proposed merit pay for teachers?

Fellner – Teachers who go the extra mile deserve to be rewarded.  Going back to the GED programs, the requirements come from the State, not from the Board.  Some systems have night school classes, and one of those are GED classes.  We could do that, even with a modest tuition.

Q) According to the current rankings, OR now ranks 929 out of 1,300.  Why do you think our rankings have dropped, and how do we get back on top?

Soldano – Oak Ridge’s graduation rate is 4th among comparable schools nearby.  We have to decide if we want to stay basic, or if we want to go a cut above?

Q) How should the community be more actively engaged with the school board?

Fellner – We need to do a School Board night out, particularly in areas where the parents are less likely to come to board meetings.   We need to be available for communication, to go out into the community and work hand-in-hand with the public.

Q) How would you characterize the current relationship between school board and city council, and what one action would you take to improve it?

DiGregorio – I think we’re working better now than we were four years ago.  The one item for improvement would be communication.  Going back to test scores, the ranking may rest entirely on the number of students taking the AP test.  If more take it, we rank higher; if fewer take it, we score lower.

Q) How much input should the school board have in regard to administrative decisions, and how do you hold them accountable for their decisions.

Eby – there is a very clear delineation of responsibility, set out in the city charter, in state law, and in federal law.  The board must hold the superintendent accountable for adhering to policy.  With regard to the relationship with City Council, we used to have a 10-year plan.  We need a strategic plan that lays out where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there.

Q) Should alternatives to evolution be taught in the Oak Ridge Schools?

Soldano – Yes.  Education is a process of looking at all viewpoints.

Q) What do you feel is the greatest need, facility-wise?  Why, and do you have a course of action.

Richter – My #3 on the priorities list is the preschool.  If you have not been there, I encourage you to go see it.  I went to school there as an elementary student, and it was old then.  The preschool has been a high priority for perhaps 20 years; we need to come up with a creative way to fund it, like we did with the high school.

Closing statements:

Soldano: ORS was ranked in the top 100 schools in the country when the current administration took office.  Now, we’re 929.  If you’re satisfied, re-elect the incumbents.  If you’re not, then I ask for your vote.

Richter – I look around this audience, and see so many who helped guide my life through supporting the schools.  On Tuesday, how many of the candidates said that they moved here for the schools?  You can look at measures or matrices, but what I ask you to do is take a look at the product that our schools provide.

Fellner:  I have had a passion for education since I was 3 or 4 years old, and wish to continue my service through election to the school board.  We need to manage our budget to get the most bang for the buck.

Eby – Why would I want to be on the school board?  For a love of the town, a love of the schools, and to help the children.

DiGregorio – It’s not for money or power, but to follow the lead my dad gave me.  I want to support the next generations.  It is all of our responsibility to provide for the next generation.

29 thoughts on “School Board Candidate Forum

  1. Coach D said “the average tenure of a super in Tennessee is 5 years. Ours has been here 7 years. That speaks volumes to me. Long past time for a change.

  2. Pingback: Daily News About Forum : A few links about Forum - Thursday, 14 May 2009 16:45

  3. “Q) Should alternatives to evolution be taught in the Oak Ridge Schools?

    Soldano – Yes. Education is a process of looking at all viewpoints.”

    Apparently this candidate is not interested in strengthening our science instruction. I haven’t heard of ignorance like this justified in the last 150 years. Poor Scopes, a true Tennessee hero, is spinning in his grave.

  4. As usual, another quality job by you Citizen Netmom in blogging the forum. Almost as good as being there plus I can review and much as needed.

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  6. Cracker –

    What do you have against considering all viewpoints? Isn’t that inherent to scientific theory? Maybe you need to step back and take some time to cool off. Really, I’ve never seen you so emotional. The man was bold enough to state an answer to a controversial question (that, BTW, no one else had to answer). That’s what we need if we are ever going to start moving in a forward direction again.

    If it will help calm your concerns, why don’t you call all of the other candidates and ask them the same question and then let us all know what they say, just so we have complete data to consult?

  7. Crackers comments show that he really has been influenced by his colleagues on the Oakridger forum.He has gone off the deep-end on this.

  8. I don’t know what Cracker’s intentions are but this is a view point that belongs in a church or family, not in a school. It will not be a reason I vote for or against Soldano but I truly am an advocate for keeping religion out of a public school system.

  9. Understandable. Obviously, Soldano did not bring religion into the school; whoever posed the question did, be it intentionally or unintentionally.

  10. Doesn’t seem like this is the right place to endorse or reject candidates. Since others have, after time for reflection I like Soldano’s honesty. It would be nice to know more about his view on the matter and the other candidates and perhaps this isn’t the right time to remind posters upstream that American primary education was based on the New England Primer (a Christian based text book) and the Westminister Confession for well over 100 years. Back then public schools were not “government” schools. I’m not advocating religious based information but it has played a big rolenin our history. I do believe actual religious beliefs should be taught at church and at home and lived every day. “He shall know our faith by our works.”

    Originating evolution should he taught as all scientific theories. It just should not be portrayed as fact.

    Thanks Soldano for giving a truthful answer. Whether thevl question was a setup or not, it was still a valid one.

    Speaking of truth, I am still curious about Ms. Richter’s statement of using a fine tomb comb when reviewing the budget.

  11. Soldano commented, “if your satisfied where the school system is, then re-elect the incumbents. If not then, I ask for your vote.” That pretty well sums it up. I will not be voting for any of the incumbents. Just my view.

  12. I will be voting for Mr. Eby. He is not currently on the board and represents change. I like his plan to involve city council up front in planning. While that is not voting against (as I would never do) is voting for him a bad thing?

  13. To say I will not vote for any incumbents is voting against. To say I will vote for the most qualified is voting responsibly.

  14. “To say I will not vote for any incumbents is voting against.” Except that, in this case, it is voting FOR change. Harry speaks pretty clearly for himself.

  15. Why is the question? You could end up worse off. If the FOR change are not qualified then what have you accomplished? Change to what. I never understood voting against, I have always voted qualified and that means my opinion of qualified which could be different from someone elses.

  16. girlfriend: I am voting for change, not against. I hope for an improved school system. That is why I will vote for fresh ideas.

  17. I go back to the same question, what qualifications are you voting for? Change is not always good. Change can be destructive. I personally am splitting my votes. Some on the board I consider qualified, some I do not. I would like to keep the qualified ones as I consider them an asset to our children and throw out the unqualified ones.

  18. Coach D is one of the best school board members in America! He cares about our children, everyone one of them. As he said last night, he certainly is not running for a job or for the money! I certainly hope people will vote for incumbent Donato DiGregorio.

  19. Good post GF: “I would like to keep the qualified ones as I consider them an asset to our children and throw out the unqualified ones.”

    Given there are two current SB members running, which one or ones do you consider qualified and which ones are not?

  20. Let’s not get into a “who’s qualified and who isn’t” discussion here, please. There are forums that constitute a better place to do that.

  21. I have one comment on Trina’s reaction to my comment on Soldano’s desire to teach alternatives to evolution in our public schools. While the question did open the door to teaching religious doctrine that has been put to rest for more than 150 years, Soldano’s answer invited it into the Oak Ridge School District.

    He could have said “No” or he could have placed his “Yes” answer into the context of religious history or even ancient mythology. He did neither and is not showing the kind of modern thinking that we need to teach our children to understand the world and to be competitive in that world. We need school board members who live in reality.

  22. CN,

    The fact remains that his intentions–at least judging from NM’s transcription–are ambiguous.

    If he supports teaching creationism as part of a history, comparative religion or social studies class, fine. Of course, teaching creationism in science class is a bad idea, since it isn’t science, it’s religion. Apart from the academic dishonesty, it is bad for another reason. It would invite an expensive federal lawsuit, which would only drain the city treasury.

    As science, there are no “alternatives” to evolution, although there is plenty of healthy debate about the mechanisms of descent with modification. One might just as well assert that we should teach the “alternatives” to chemistry, the “alternatives” to physics, the “alternatives” to astronomy, etc. Silly.

  23. CN: I do not want to see creation taught as science. I agree with Joel’s assessment. I doubt if such a vote ever becomes before our school board. It’s not a real issue in this campaign.

    What I am concerned about is Richter’s answer that she knows of no policy that needs to be changed. We need school bus policies. That is a more current and visible need. I can tell you there is much pent up frustration among parents, many parents who say they will voice that frustration this election, who knows. I am not one of them but the frustration is real.

  24. NM — One small correction from my opening. I just recently caught it. You have me as saying, “The average tenure of a superintendent in Tennessee is five years; our current superintendent has been here for seven.” The number, (about) 5 years, is true for Oak Ridge. I don’t know about Tennessee. Factor out Bob Smallridge’s 20-year tenure, and the number is less than 4 years.

  25. evolutionary theory, creationism, intelligent design, et al.

    The TN curriculum standards expect that in TN public schools science classes (elementary thru high school), biological evolution or biological change over time (same thing) will be taught. And, I doubt that there will be a single test question on any of the other topics. We in OR are expected to comply with this.

  26. Good point Mr. Degregorio.

    The League should have screened out that question and asked a more pertinent question but since they are volunteers working for democracy I will not be critical.

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