Thursday, October 12, 2000

Covington's school problems draw candidates

Board race is one of Tristate's hottest

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — More than half of the members of the Covington school board could be replaced next month, leaving a state-supervised reform effort hinging on the new members' commitment to the plan.

        “Accountability. That word was thrown around a lot. Let's put some action with those words,” said Marilyn Donnelly of Covington, who volunteers in the schools.

        With seven candidates — two incumbents and five newcomers — vying for three seats, the Covington election is one of the most hotly contested school board races in the Tristate. Candidates are already pointing fingers over the district's troubled past. In the last year, the superintendent resigned and the district received a scathing state review.

    The public will get a chance to question the candidates for the Covington Board of Education tonight at 7 in a communitywide forum at Holmes High's auditorium. Held by the Covington Business Council, Covington Neighborhood Collaborative and the Friends of Covington, it will be followed by a reception.

        But reform must start at the top, says Eddy VanMeter, a school administration professor at the University of Kentucky. Most candidates agree that improvement is vital, but conflict over how to get there could break the district's momentum, he said.

        “There is a need for the board to provide some continuity for the reform to take place,” he said. “... What becomes problematic is when school boards begin to micromanage the circumstances of the reform initiative.”

        The candidates will face off tonight in a communitywide debate at Holmes High School.

        Here's the lineup: Joe Boyle, Everett Dameron, Glenda Huff, incumbent Hensley Jemmott, incumbent Col Owens, Charles “Butch” Reed and Rita Wilson.

        Covington parent Renee Jackson said she'll be looking for powerful leaders. The district needs strong principals and teachers in all schools, stricter discipline and more challenging classes, she said.

        “If the kids aren't academically challenged, the kids don't strive to do anything,” she said.

        A mix of parents, educators and professionals, the field of candidates brings a variety of experiences to the arena.

        But a look at their plans reveals common themes:

        • Increase parent involvement.

        • Work as a team.

        • Raise test scores.

        • Support the state's recommendations for improvement.

        All candidates say they want a more harmonious board. Last year, board members fought repeatedly and some walked out of meetings. All say the board needs to be more welcoming and visible in the community. All say real improvement will take a few years.

        The biggest disagreement is how to be a school board member.

        “There are board members who believe they are supposed to run the system,” said Hensley Jemmott, who has been on the board for five years. “That's what we pay the superintendent fat bucks to do.”

        School board candidates are often hard to come by, especially when a district is in turmoil. Other Northern Kentucky races have drawn little if any competition.

        “It's easier to serve on a school board when everything's going great and test scores are up,” said Brad Hughes of the Kentucky School Boards Association. “When a community school system has a lot of controversy, people don't offer their services.”

        Covington's wealth of candidates is born out of a cry for change. But parents and business leaders in Covington are demanding stronger schools.

        “The schools lose children, and we lose good neighbors because they're worried about their children and where they're going to school,” said Anne Mitchell, a neighborhood activist.

        Many of the political newcomers say the problems the district has faced in the past few years spurred them to run for the board.

        “Last year we had a school board full of members with their own political agenda,” said Joe Boyle.

        A parent of two Covington graduates, Mr. Boyle said the board needs “new blood” to carry out the improvement plans. And he'd like to see board lead by consensus instead of voting on issues.

        His key concerns: security and test scores. As a former school council member at Chapman Academic Vocational Education Center, Mr. Boyle helped get security cameras installed at the center, something he wants to see for all schools. He also supports tougher standards to move to the next grade.

        Glenda Huff also decided to run for the board because of her dissatisfaction with its past leadership. A mother of four, one Covington graduate and three current students, Mrs. Huff said the board needs to focus on children.

        A past member of Holmes High's school council and a substitute teacher, Mrs. Huff has seen the schools from the inside and outside. Describing herself as a peacemaker and a good listener, she said the board needs to teach parents how to get their questions answered and problems solved.

        While the board doesn't run the daily operations, it must hold the superintendent accountable for that, she said.

        “If people aren't doing their jobs, we need to find out why and either retrain them or let them go,” she said.

        The state audit has given the board a common goal and created consensus among members, said Col Owens, a board member since 1993. The board's main job right now, he said, is to support interim Superintendent Jack Moreland in carrying out the recommendations.

        During his time on the board, the district has seen three superintendents and three interim superintendents.

        Mr. Owens, a lawyer and parent of two Covington graduates, said he has pushed for improvement over the past seven years - such as better early childhood and adult education programs - but blames much of the district's troubles on poor leadership from the superintendent. Schools weren't supported by administration. Staff weren't held accountable for doing their jobs, he said.

        “I don't think we've ever had the leadership that we need until now,” he said. “Lots of promises were made. Lots of assertions were made about what was going on. A lot of those did not come to pass.

        Mr. Jemmott, however, lays the problems of past year at the feet of the other four board members, criticizing them for trying to micromanage district issues.

        A retired teacher and principal from New York, Mr. Jemmott touts his educational expertise in running schools. The superintendent and principals must be the educational leaders in the district, he said.

        But you don't have to be an educator or a parent to be on a school board, said Everett Dameron. Owner of Alte Haus Renovations, Mr. Dameron is a developer and real estate investor, which he says has given him financial and management experience and an appreciation of a good school district.

        “You can build hotels and office buildings, but you'll never have a viable community until you have a good school system,” he said.

        His No. 1 goal is to bring some stability to the district's top job, hiring a full-time superintendent who understands Kentucky education, urban districts and early childhood education.

        Covington also needs to put more dollars into the classrooms, he said. That includes developing staff through better pay, benefits and administrative support.

        Rita Wilson says she may not be up to par on the budget or districtwide policies, but she has first-hand knowledge of what's happening in Covington's classrooms.

        After 13 years as a Covington teacher, 10 as a Holmes business teacher, Ms. Wilson retired six years ago.

        “I got tired of the Covington schools being put down the way they were,” she said. “You can't blame everything on the teacher.”

        Schools need more support from district administration, and teachers need more training on classroom management and establishing rapport with students, Ms. Wilson said.

        A few of her ideas: more volunteers working in the classrooms alongside teachers and a homework room run parents and teachers during and after school for kids who need extra help.

        Charles “Butch” Reed said board members just need to hone their listening skills.

        “You've just got to talk to kids,” he said. “You can't sit back in an office somewhere and expect them to come to you.”

        A retired firefighter with four grandchildren in Covington schools, Mr. Reed has spent a lot of time talking to Covington students while helping his wife run a concession stand at Holmes High sporting events. Kids just need encouragement and motivation from parents and schools, he said.

        “I just want to help the kids,” he said. “They need all the help they can get right now.”


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