Local activism and advocacy groups Monday night asked the four candidates running for two available seats on the Board of Education for Jefferson City Public Schools to take the district's temperature.
Incumbents Michael Couty and Pam Murray and newcomers Ken Enloe and Lindsey Rowden weren't given thermometers, but they were asked at a school board candidate forum at Lincoln University's Scruggs Student Center to assess the district's health and its climate and determine where things could get better and how.
In a couple instances, the candidates were asked to give a numerical assessment of the district's performance and use the readouts to give a prognosis for improvement.
The Rev. Adrian Hendricks facilitated the forum, which was sponsored by Citizen Accountability Partners, Missouri Faith Voices and the LU chapter of the NAACP. Hendricks is the pastor of the Joshua House Church in Jefferson City and works for LU as a youth development educator.
Hendricks' questions for the candidates included having to rate the district's transparency and the performance of Superintendent Larry Linthacum on a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being poor and 10, outstanding.
Murray didn't provide a numerical quantity for either answer, but on transparency, she cited that while communication with parents is generally good, "I think we could improve on family engagement."
She explained family engagement tends to be good at affluent schools with active parent-teacher organizations and larger budgets, but it could be improved at other schools with students and families who have more needs that occupy their concerns.
Rowden, as a parent, rated the district's transparency at a 7.5. She said information is released more often, but she hoped to continue to increase the speed that it does come out.
She cited the recent threat at Thomas Jefferson Middle School: "I think the district learned a big lesson from that, that they need to get ahead of those things fast," she said of how rumors spread quickly via social media.
Couty rated the district's transparency at a 6 or 6.5 on the building level, and a 4.5 or 5 at the administrative level. He said the district has to be careful about the information it releases in situations like the threat at TJMS, because that can hamper law enforcement investigations. He focused on a need to continue to expand the number of district administrative meetings and work sessions that are livestreamed, as board meetings are now.
Enloe rated the district's transparency at a 7.5 or 8, but noted he doesn't think he has all the information need to give a fully accurate estimate.
All the candidates agreed Linthacum's performance as superintendent is a vast improvement over his predecessor. The candidates credited Linthacum's public presence and community outreach efforts.
Murray cited that evaluations of the superintendent by the board are usually done in closed session, so she refrained from giving a specific numerical answer to the question, but she said, "with any personnel, there's always room for improvement."
Enloe gave Linthacum an 8 or 9 based on his observations as a district patron; Rowden a 9, and Couty between a 5 and 6.
Couty credited Linthacum with creating the chief of learning position, improving curriculum and providing the board with more reports. He added the board should make public the board's specific expectations of the superintendent as a measure of accountability — though not the evaluations of the superintendent.
The forum also focused on a vision for the district's budget, improvement of school safety, resource equity throughout the district, an assessment of the district's racial climate, poverty-conscious policies, reading achievement and views on disciplinary policy.
Candidates' answers to many of those questions shared a common framework — issues and circumstances should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis before a response. Murray said strategic budget plans should be developed for each school building. Rowden wanted money allocated to assess each building's safety and security measures. Early childhood education being foundational to reading achievement and individualized, holistic disciplinary approaches and alternatives were also shared views.
The school board election is April 3.