School Board candidates answer series of questions

By Lynn R. Parks

There was a lot of consensus at last Wednesday night's forum for candidates in the upcoming Seaford School Board election. In fact, on several occasions the candidates followed moderator Steve Schwartz's advice that if they didn't have anything to add to other candidates' previous answers, they didn't need to say anything at all.

The forum was sponsored by the Seaford chapter of the American Association of University Women. Six candidates are vying for two seats on the board in an election that will be held May 14. Rebecca O'Day Adams, who was named to the board in December to fill the vacancy left after the resignation of Joanna Adams, is being challenged by Jeffrey T. Benson Jr. They are running for the one year that remains of Adams' term.

Four candidates are running for a five-year seat on the board. Incumbent Clint Dunn, who is running for his second term, is being challenged by Jerry L. Semper, David Tull and Andrew S. Cannon.

A fifth candidate, Armand Carreau Jr., withdrew from the race before the forum.

In her introductory remarks, Adams, a 1991 graduate of Seaford High, said that she wanted to be on the board to help to make the school district better. "We are seeing a mass exodus of good students and it's really sad, especially when we have very good programs here," she said.

She added that her financial background she has a master's degree in business administration from Wilmington University and is a loan officer with MidAtlantic Farm Credit and her volunteer work with Seaford schools have prepared her "to make good decisions to help make the Seaford School District better."

Benson, who graduated from Seaford High in 2002, said that he would like to reinstate the pride in Seaford schools that existed when he went there. "I would like to see that Blue Jay pride come back," he said. "Education is served when we all work together for one common goal, to serve the students."

Cannon, who grew up in Cambridge, Md., said that he was surprised when he moved to Seaford in 2001 to learn that the high school band was so small that for performances, it had to fill in with students from the middle school. "That lack of spirit piqued my interest in what I could do to help the community," he said.

Dunn graduated from Seaford High in 1990. Like Benson and Cannon, he said that he was inspired to run for the board by the lack of school spirit in the community. "The district was ready for new leadership and I wanted to be a part of the group that had some say about that leadership," he said. Long-time superintendent Russ Knorr retired last year and current superintendent Shawn Joseph came on board in February 2012.

Now, he said, with Joseph at the helm, the district is moving in the right direction. "I want to continue to be part of what's going on, to work with Dr. Joseph and the board to see our plans through."

Semper is a former New York City police officer, an instructional aide at Delaware Technical and Community College and an adjunct professor of black history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He said that he was inspired to run for the board to try to reverse what he sees as apathy in the community. "A lot of things that we had when I was going to school have gone away and we need to get them back," he said. "I think that I have something to offer and I want to help."

Tull, a 1967 graduate of Seaford High, is a retired math teacher. "I feel that the board would benefit from my background and my experience in education," he said.

The forum consisted of questions written by members of the AAUW as well as questions submitted by members of the audience. Following are the questions and the candidates' answers. If candidates did not answer a question, it was because they felt that they had nothing to add to what had already been said.

Question: What do you think is an administrator's role in supporting the staff in dealing with disruptive students and mental health issues? Answer, Adams: Administrators are there to help teachers teach. If there are issues in the classroom, they need to handle that. They need to make sure that students are ready to learn and if they aren't, they need to seek assistance for them, from the resource office, from the guidance counselor or from whoever else can help. They need to ensure a situation that allows the teachers to teach.

Question: What do you believe is the most important responsibility of a school board member? Answer, Benson: School board members should promote legislation to enhance the plans that are in place. They should also help administrators and teachers to facilitate the goals that are written in policy. Answer, Adams: It is our job to set policy. We give direction as far as making sure that we are meeting the needs of all the kids. We are always looking out for the best interests of students, whoever they are. Answer, Tull: To make sure that the right policies are in place. In addition to that, school board members should be in the schools to see what is going on and whether things are being carried out as they should be.

Question: What would your legislative priorities as a board member be? Answer, Dunn: Sussex Tech is the elephant in the room. We need to hold their feet to the fire and say, "This is what you should be doing, but you're not doing it." The state needs to level the playing field and we need to get with other districts to demand that they do that. That would be the biggest step that we could take to restore community pride. Answer, Semper: My biggest priority would be to increase funding, so that we can have more programs. Answer, Tull: We are not losing students because of Sussex Tech. We are losing students because administrators are not carrying out the district's policies. We have good people here; we just aren't putting everything together the way it should be. Answer, Adams: Our problem isn't just with Sussex Tech, but with funding across the board. We need better ways of funding our districts in this county. I don't have a problem with Sussex Tech being a vocational school. But as it is now, it doesn't take care of students who want a vocation and who will stay in this community and work. Answer, Benson: I don't think that Sussex Tech is the issue. If we do what we are supposed to do, we will have good students here. We need to reach out to Seaford alumni and engage parents.

Question: What new ideas do you have to engage parents and to keep students in Seaford schools? Answer, Dunn: We need to meet parents where they are, to go out to meet them. We need to host more events that are not held in schools, to get people in who might be a little intimidated by the school building. And we need to do a better job of serving high-end students. We've always had programs for them in place, but they haven't been of the highest quality. We need to offer programs, and then stand behind their quality. Answer, Semper: We need to make our schools more parent friendly and to reach out to let them know that they are welcome.

Answer, Adams: The fun night that the district held this fall was a step in the right direction. We also need better public relations, to promote what we are doing. Answer, Benson: We need to publicize what's going on in the schools. We should also partner with local community service organizations and through them engage with families in the community. Answer, Cannon: We need a good support system for our teachers. Kids don't feel connected with programs in the district and they need better relationships with their teachers.

Question: What do you see as the greatest need for improvement in the Seaford School District? Answer, Semper: We need to engage young people in science and technology. It pains me to see a young person who has been taught to be afraid of math and science. Answer, Tull: Discipline. We need better support for teachers in being able to do their job in the classroom. So many times it seems as though students can do as they please. Answer, Adams: There is a perceived discipline issue at Seaford High School. That is a focus that is being addressed by the board. We have a plan to improve that. Overall, I believe that our biggest challenge is pulling the community together and bringing pride back to our schools. We need to let people know what we are doing, support our teachers and improve the overall culture so that Seaford schools are a good place to be. Answer, Dunn: Culture, hands down, is our No. 1 priority. We don't have a 100-percent buy-in with the idea that kids come first. For a long time, decisions were based on what was best for adults. Under Dr. Joseph, that's changing.

Question: How can the district support a zero-tolerance policy of disruptive students in the classroom? Answer, Tull: We need more in-school detention, a place for disruptive students to go so that other students can learn without disruption. Answer, Adams: The board is looking at having an alternative classroom in the high school. Students there would have to earn points to get back into the regular classroom. Also, I believe that training for teachers on how to best handle discipline situations is a good idea. Answer, Benson: Not everyone is well-versed in the area of discipline, so more training is a good idea. I believe that students should be kept in school rather than suspended, to make sure that they are getting educated. And we need to work to understand what is causing the bad behavior, to get them back on track. Answer, Cannon: We need to put programs in place to get disruptive students out of the classroom. Answer, Dunn: The school-within-a-school model is the way to go. When a kid is disruptive, we need to find out what they are dealing with at home. And we need to show our kids respect. We have to model the behavior that we want to get out of them. Answer, Semper: We need people in the schools who have been taught how to handle discipline problems. Knowledge is the way to go.

Question: Where do you see the Seaford School District in 10 years? Answer, Benson: Improved. We should be 10 times better than we are now. We will have new leadership; I don't believe in career school board members or in career superintendents. More people will be sold on the vision of what the Blue Jay stands for. Answer, Cannon: We will have stability, and with that we will see the benefits in our kids. We will have more community involvement, with people supporting the board and the district. Answer, Dunn: I go back to what Dr. Joseph always says: We will be a world-class learning institution. We will be a model for other districts, which will come to us and ask what we did to turn things around. Answer, Semper: We will be more inclusive, in such a way that people will begin to feel a pride in Seaford. Answer, Tull: The district will come back to the way it was when I graduated in 1967, or when my daughter graduated in 1990. I believe in the vision that the board has and I see great things in 10 years.

Question: What do you believe is the greatest strength of the Seaford School District? Answer, Tull: We have a lot of good teachers who are willing to do their jobs. We have a lot of support in the community. Answer, Adams: Our greatest strength is our people. With our teachers and the leadership of Dr. Joseph, I feel that we are on a very good course. There is a big plan in place to take care of the needs of all the students. Answer, Benson: The community is the opportunity that we can offer our children. We have strong community values and the kids know that they have the opportunity to succeed. Dunn: The students are our No. 1 strength. Our kids haven't let us down. We have let our kids down. We serve them; we are here for them.

Question: What is your position on having a unified county school district? Answer, Dunn: It is a terrible idea. I understand the dollars and cents of it. But at the end of the day, it would not serve our kids the best. They need to be able to get a world-class education in their hometown where they can feel part of the community and stay in the community. Answer, Semper: It would be easier in many ways. But we would lose something if we turn our schools over to the state. Answer, Tull: I'd hate to see our schools go out of the community's control. Answer, Adams: I am not a believer in bigger is better. I would have concerns with a county school district. Answer, Benson: Intimacy is a priority for learning. Having schools in your community is better. Answer, Cannon: I agree with what had been said. The community needs to be connected with what schools are doing.

Question: What steps can the district take to improve safety and security? Answer, Cannon: I think that we've got to make our kids feel secure. I would do more research to come up with ways to do that. Answer, Dunn: We have already done a lot. We have buzzer systems on all our schools, and we are providing the opportunity for training for teachers to learn how to deal with situations that might come up. We really need to pursue that training on a higher level to make sure the teachers have all the tools necessary. Answer, Semper: We need to teach students and staff how to be more alert, and get everybody on the same page. Answer, Adams: We need training for staff on how to handle disruptions from outside as well as disruptive students. We need to do a better job of telling them what they can do. Answer, Benson: We need to do research to make sure that we know what is going on globally and across the nation. We need to be on the cutting edge to know about the new programs that are out there.

Question: What do you know about the common core standards and do you approve of the federal mandate to accept them? Answer, Semper: Federal mandates are often more appropriate for larger communities and don't so well in small jurisdictions. Answer, Adams: Federal funds often come with strings attached. I feel that if they just gave us the money, often we could do much more with it. Often federal mandates don't work for the smaller schools that we have. Answer, Benson: If the resources are available, we should take them and then adopt the mandates around what we are trying to do. Answer, Dunn: We have turned down money before because we didn't like the strings that came attached. If a program is not in the best interests of our students, it is irresponsible of us to take the money for it. They should give it to someone who can use it.

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