Candidates in the Nov. 4 election for Lexington school board squared off at a forum Wednesday, answering questions about a scathing state audit, redistricting, and the achievement gap.
In the 2nd District, incumbent Doug Barnett, a senior staff attorney in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, faces Roger Cleveland, an Eastern Kentucky University associate professor in the College of Education.
In the 4th District, incumbent Amanda Ferguson, a former mediator and non-profit manager and current stay-at-home mom, is challenged by Natasha Murray, an education consultant who works with the Kentucky Department of Education.
The forum at Fayette County Public Schools Central Office was hosted by the League of Women Voters and the 16th District PTA. The format allowed 90-second opening and closing statements and about eight questions in each 30-minute forum. The questions focused on high-profile issues in the school district and the candidates' views on how they would proceed in the next four years. The audience of fewer than 20 people wrote questions on cards and gave them to moderators.
Barnett said he had advocated for the building of new schools and special programs. He said he preserved funding for band and music programs, pushed for the creation of a task force to improve special education, and fought a plan to outsource custodians.
"I have supported greater equity in our schools by encouraging the district to increase diversity of our staff," Barnett said.
Cleveland talked about his 20 years of experience in education. In addition to experience in both higher education and elementary, middle and high schools, he spent six years in the Kentucky Department of Education. Cleveland said he had served on two site-based councils at Fayette schools, served on the Fayette Equity Council, and volunteered in at least 20 schools in the district.
"I've always been committed to children and committed to education," he said.
Ferguson said she had served as the school board's legislative contact with the General Assembly and participated in a national health initiative. She said she had community support for asking challenging questions and standing up for what she believed.
Ferguson said if re-elected, she "would continue as a voice for those who felt they had not been heard."
Murray works for the Kentucky Department of Education and had audited low-performing and high-performing schools. She said that her area of expertise was gaps in reading and math, and that her experience would bring a needed perspective to the board.
"In Fayette County, we need someone on the board that knows how to address issues specifically in low-performing schools," Murray said.
All four candidates were asked about Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen's special examination that found chronic mismanagement of finances.
Both Murray and Ferguson said it was important that the district move forward after taking corrective action.
Ferguson said a lot of people in the community are not satisfied that full responsibility has been taken and that problems are going to be addressed.
"We need to guarantee the public that we are going to hold whoever was responsible for some of the chronic mismanagement accountable," Barnett said. "We need to guarantee to the public that this will never happen again."
Cleveland said the audit was "driven by personalities and had nothing to do with children."
"We're giving this too much play, and we are not talking about student achievement," he said.
He said the school board, as well as other staff and officials, should be held accountable for the problems in the district.
All of the candidates agreed that Fayette County needed to close the achievement gap for minority, disabled and poor children by having high expectations for all students.