In a campaign season where the small number of contested races has only been outdone by the seemingly smaller level of disagreement on the issues between opponents, Berryville’s two Clarke County School Board contestants drew clear differences between themselves on a number of issues last night.
Approximately 30 voters attended the second evening debate sponsored by the Northern Shenandoah Tea Party at Camino Real restaurant in Berryville last night. Berryville district School Board incumbent Jeniffer Welliver and challenger Jim Brinkmeier began differentiating their positions from the very beginning of the debate.
“I entered the School Board race because there were some things that were alarming to me,” Brinkmeier said in his opening statement. “I did not like the constant arguing and bickering. It seemed like there was a lack of trust. The test scores are a big concern for me. Retention issues are also a problem now for the school system. Recruiting. And it just goes on and on,” Brinkmeier said. “I really felt like we have lost focus on academics. The new school is important and I applaud everyone’s effort in getting the new school built. But we really have to stay focused on what’s really important and that’s what’s being taught in the classroom and what’s not being taught. And I think that the test scores are a good reflection of that.”
Brinkmeier also said that he believes in a strong vocational program, but that CCPS currently does not have a strong program saying that the current vocational course offerings are not effective in providing students with a living wage once they graduate from high school and that corporate partnerships need to be part of the vocational training solution.
“Who better to coach, train and mentor our kids than corporations and business people that have the experience?” Brinkmeier asked those present.
“I have a tendency to take a little offense when we’re told that we don’t have a good career and technical program when we do,” Welliver responded citing instructor Ed Novak’s career and technical guidance program which includes a popular robotics curriculum. “We are in partnership with Lord Fairfax Community College and students can take advantage of what they have to offer as well.”
“I ran four years ago because there was quite a bit of turmoil in this county,” Welliver said on her opening statement. “It was a hotbed of political activity between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board. I greatly appreciate the work that our Supervisors do. I know that we sometimes go head to head over money, but I very much appreciate their standards in keeping this county what it is.”
“But we do have to come up with creative ways to get money,” Welliver continued. “We also have to ask our state and federal legislators to help us by reducing the unfunded mandates. Last year it was Physical Education. I think that they wanted us to provide 150 minutes of PE per week. If that’s done then something’s got to go. You have to have more PE space and more PE teachers. Stuff sounds great when you’re in Richmond – just remember that. As stuff comes down from Richmond, someone’s got to pay for it. And guess who’s not paying for it? Richmond. So it falls on the Supervisor’s backs. Then the Supervisor’s say ‘We’re not raising taxes’. So then it comes to the schools. Then the schools end up having to cut things in order to preserve the core classes. And then the schools end up not meeting the requirements of the state.”
“You hear about declining test scores,” Welliever said. “What certain people have been putting out in the public, and I’m afraid that my friend [Brinkmeier] has gotten some of that and not the whole story. Our teachers are chasing SOL scores, SAT scores, and AYP. “
“The SAT scores went down an average of 17 points in math. In taking the SAT test, a 17 point shift can be caused from two questions answered wrong.”
Welliver also attributed some of the decline in SAT scores to more students in the lower academic range of the school system taking the test in order to go to college.
“We have spent the last four years building the school and focusing primarily school construction. So my hope is that whoever wins the election, whether it’s Mr. Brinkmeier or myself, will move toward creating a unified plan for how we are going to balance our advanced classes and our career and technical classes.”
However, when asked why the School Board had dedicated two work sessions on reviewing both advanced education offerings and vocational offerings yet elected to avoid substantive discussions about the advanced education – vocational offering at a planned day-long planning meeting, Welliver responded:
“Those items had already been discussed. The planning meeting was supposed to be about trying to put together a plan based on the information that we had already heard in those two meetings that we had already heard in numerous other School Board meetings. Test scores were not supposed to be a part of that meeting. We had already talked about those. We were in a different kind of meeting at that time. If you keep trying to rehash, as I believe in that meeting… I mean the purpose of trying to bring up the test scores again, which we had already discussed ad nauseum, we were talking about where to go from there to improve the scores, not the root of the problem again. We needed to go from the root of the problem. So that’s why that wasn’t allowed on that agenda because that’s not what that meeting was supposed to be about. Rehashing something that we had already discussed at several other meetings was not the point of the meeting.”
Brinkmeier responded “I strongly disagree with my opponent. That was supposed to be an all-day retreat. That’s how they advertised it. It was also supposed to be focused on student performance. There was only one Board member, from my understanding, that came with any real ideas or solutions. The all-day retreat lasted two-and-one-half hours and then they adjourned. Planning is important. Other issues are important. But tell me any other issue that’s not more important than student performance and making sure that they’re getting the education that they need?”
Welliver and Brinkmeier did superficially agree that the Federal No-Child-Left- Behind education requirement was a bad program but disagreed on how the school division should respond to the mandate.
Brinkmeier said “I don’t like the program. I don’t think that it gives an accurate assessment of how the children are learning. But unfortunately funding is tied to that and as long as that is, we have to do better. We can’t say ‘We don’t like it, we don’t think it’s fair so we’ll just do what we can.’ That’s not good enough.”
“I can tell you as an absolute fact that there isn’t anybody in this school system throwing up their hands and just saying ‘Oh well’,” Welliver responded. “I can’t think of one teacher, one principal or anyone in the administrative office or School Board who is not trying their level best to do the best by the students as possible. Let’s face it, everybody’s judged by the grades of the kids. The kids are judged by their grades. The teachers are judged by the grades of the kids. And that’s coming up even more and that’s just not fair. Because if you’re a teacher in fifth grade, and you’ve got a child who has had a less than inspirational teacher in third or fourth grade, and fifth grade happens to be a testing year, who’s going to get judged when that child doesn’t pass?”
“No,” Welliver said. “No-Child-Left-Behind is not a good plan.”
Welliver said that part of the problem that CCPS is encountering has to do with changing federal mandates for evaluating student and school performance and the need for less interference from the federal government in letting the local school division implement the requirements.
Welliver’s comment caused Brinkmeier to take issue.
“One of the comments that I heard my opponent make, that I strongly disagree with, is that ‘All children have the right to learn at the same level.’ I disagree with that, Brinkmeier said. “Children learn at different levels. And I don’t want to take gifted children and dummy-down them in class. If it’s a special needs child obviously they’re going to learn at a different level and have different needs. So I don’t want to throw kids into some type of homogeneous box and say ‘All children are going to do the same and learn the same. I disagree with that.”
Asked about the advanced curricula currently offered at Clarke County High School, Brinkmeier said:
“I think that we definitely need to scale it back and look at what’s working and what’s not because something isn’t working. If you look at the IB program it’s awful right now as far as the testing. The last test results I saw, we had something like a 25% pass rate. That’s not acceptable. And if you look at the other areas it’s the same thing. There’s been a decline in overall student performance. We need to do an immediate needs assessment in these areas and see what is working and what’s not. Some of the programs are extremely expensive. The AP Virtual courses seem like a good option. I like what I’ve heard about it in terms of the efficiency of the program. But some of our advanced programs are working and some aren’t. We need to either cut them or improve them. ”
“The Virtual Virginia courses are an issue,” Welliver said. “Certainly all students are required to have access to them but the Virtual Virginia AP courses are not cheap. And any online course is much more difficult than taking a class in a classroom. And again, the state wants to put those courses out there and say that they have to be available to all students. But we still have to provide the mentor, someone in the classroom. If you have one kid taking one virtual class we have to provide one mentor for them to help them get through the class. You have to also provide the materials for them. So virtual courses are not necessarily an inexpensive alternative to having the classes taught here.”
Welliver and Brinkmeier even managed to disagree on at least one non-policy driven position; Brinkmeier, whose picture has been prominently featured on the Clarke County GOP website, said that he saw no reason for School Board members to remain unaligned in terms of political party affiliation. Welliver countered that political independence was important and characterized herself as a “true independent”.
The opponents also differed on the preferred approach for dealing with possible future school funding challenges.
After Brinkmeier suggested that he would continue to look for further funding efficiencies in the school division budget Welliver replied:
“I can tell you that our schools have trimmed and made things more efficient. We have combined the maintenance department with the County. We have cut back use of administrators and days for counselors – things that actually do make a difference in the daily lives of the students. We’ve cut back on the number of calendar days that administrators work – principal’s no longer work all summer. We’ve combined the finance department with the county. We’ve done all kinds of things. We really are down to the bare bones just like the County is.”
“It’s going to be quite a challenge to come in and find things line-by-line,” Welliver said.
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