School board candidates address issues at forum


Alachua County School Board candidates address an audience of about 100 people during a forum at Hammock Oaks Sunday for the upcoming Alachua County School Board election. From left to right, District 1 candidates, Charles Goston standing in for Bonnie K. Burgess, April Griffin, Felecia Moss (with microphone), Rick Nesbit and David Palpant. District 3 candidates Wayne Gabb (not visible) and Gunnar Paulson.

Jason Henry/Correspondent
Published: Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 10:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 10:53 p.m.

Eight of the 12 Alachua County School Board candidates who attended Sunday night's forum at Oak Hammock retirement community, along with stand-ins for two candidates who couldn't be there, agreed on one thing: age-appropriate sex education in schools is a must.

"One in four seniors in high school - girls - has an STD," said April Griffin, who is running for the District 1 seat. "Two hundred girls in Alachua County schools had a baby last year. A lot of parents don't want to teach them or don't know how to teach them."

Beyond that, it was an ideological free-for-all for the candidates running for the three open seats on the school board. About 100 people packed into a conference room, most of them residents in the retirement community, to listen as candidates addressed issues like the budget, creationism, sex education and merit pay for teachers.

Moderators pointed out that state funding for Alachua County schools has dropped 28 percent since the 2007-08 school year - including cuts of $17 million last year - and wanted to know what candidates would do to ensure increased funding levels.

"Florida has never, ever been kind to children in funding education," said Carol Oyenarte, who is running for the District 5 seat and helped in the effort to get a one mill increase in school funding from Alachua County taxpayers. "We're 49th in the nation. Part of that is that we just don't value education. Our community believes in education for our children. We have to keep persevering."

Many of the candidates said they would develop relationships with local lawmakers and urge them to fight for funding in the state capital.

Some of the candidates thought creationism has a place in public school education, with others saying it should be taught in a class that discusses theories or philosophies of all world religions. Some, though, said it belongs in church or at home.

"I am absolutely opposed to teaching creationism as science in our schools," said Rick Nesbit, who is running for the District 1 seat. "I would absolutely safeguard the separation of church and state."

Many of the candidates were passionate about bringing up the four-year graduation rate from its current level of 77 percent.

Gunnar Paulson, who is running for the District 3 seat, also was involved in the successful fight to increase school funding from county taxpayers by one mill. He is currently involved in a lawsuit to force the state to "adequately provide for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools." He pointed out that 50 percent of Alachua County students go on to college, 15 percent go into a vocational program, while another 35 percent are "just drifting."

Felecia Moss, who is running for District 1, said 40 percent of Alachua County school children will spend their entire school careers without ever being taught by a teacher of color. She pointed out that the segment of students with the highest dropout rate is black males.

"We need a school district that is culturally responsible to our students," Moss said. "We need to meet them where they are and accept them for who they are by not breaking the spirit of these children."

One of the thorniest issues touched on was merit pay for teachers. Some said it should not be based on FCAT scores, while others say it simply doesn't work.

"One of the major flaws of merit pay is it's dependent on tests - the tests are flawed," said District 5 candidate Christopher Smiley, who is against the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other standardized forms of multiple choice tests, saying open-ended answer tests are more effective.

"There are teachers in these schools that these kids adore," said David Palpant, who is running for District 1. "Some of these teachers that need to go, they need to go."

Wayne Gabb, who teaches math at Talbot Elementary School and is running in District 3, said he knew how much money he would make when he signed his teaching contract.

"Giving teachers more money will not make them better teachers," Gabb said. "You teach because you have a passion."

Jodi Wood, running for District 3, and Jennifer Deachin, running for District 5, did not show up or send a representative in their stead. Bonnie Burgess, who is running for District 1, sent Charles Goston in her stead, and Jancie Vinson, who is running for District 5, sent the Rev. Milford Griner.

The primary election is Aug. 24th. Candidates have to get more than 50 percent of the vote in order to win or else they go on to the general election in November.

Contact Moore at 352-374-5036 or kimberly.moore@nytrng.com.

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