Several months from now, members of the Fayette County school board will be faced with a series of difficult — and potentially controversial — decisions.
The school board ultimately will need to work together to address problems with the district's budget, to bridge the achievement gap for poor, disabled and minority students, and to figure out what to do when Superintendent Tom Shelton's contract ends next year.
Two of the five Fayette County school board members will be competing with political newcomers in the Nov. 4 election for the right to help make those critical decisions.
The school board races are important for all Lexington residents, because voters paying school taxes should exercise oversight, Transylvania University Political Scientist Don Dugi said.
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"There are lots of reasons to have an effective educational system," he said, "and things like financial mismanagement and other factors that might cause the educational system to function at a lower level than it should are things you want to avoid if at all possible."
In the 2nd District, incumbent Doug Barnett, a senior staff attorney in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, is running against Roger Cleveland, an associate professor in the College of Education at Eastern Kentucky University. The district covers northern Fayette County.
In the 4th District, incumbent Amanda Ferguson, a former mediator and non-profit manager, faces Natasha Murray, a consultant with the Kentucky Department of Education. The district includes an area south of Main Street and east of South Broadway.
Barnett and Ferguson have been the two most outspoken members of the board, questioning Shelton about budget cuts and other issues.
All candidates have children attending schools in the district. Murray and Cleveland served on school-based decision-making councils. Before Ferguson and Barnett were elected to the school board, they were active in the PTA.
As a board member first elected in 2010, Barnett notes that he has advocated for a new elementary school. He, along with Ferguson, worked to preserve funding for band and music programs during a contentious budget cut this year. Barnett also pushed for the creation of a task force to improve special education, and fought a plan to outsource custodians. With many schools in his district beset by the achievement gap and limited fundraising for student activities, he called for equity for students and staff.
Cleveland points to 20 years of experience in higher education and elementary, middle and high schools. He spent six years in the Kentucky Department of Education. He served on the Fayette Equity Council, and volunteered in at least 20 schools in the district. His campaign platforms include equity and excellence in schools, increasing family and community engagement and closing what he calls the "opportunity" gap for students.
Barnett said that in addition to having high expectation for all students, high-poverty schools need resources from the district and schools need a long-term plan in place. Achievement gaps will never improve until they improve staff morale and include all parents in the conversations.
Barnett, who serves on Fayette's redistricting committee, said that Fayette County needs to ensure that schools are not overcrowded.
"I think that because we have fewer middle schools and high schools than we do elementary schools, the best thing to do would be to keep the elementary kids close to home and consider socioeconomic diversity in the feeder patterns for middle and high schools," he said. "I think this approach meets the goals in the board's guiding principles for school rezoning."
Cleveland said elementary children should go to a school near their homes and that redistricting can't be accomplished on the basis of race and ethnicity.
Barnett said the most important issue for the district is that all students are learning at levels so they will be prepared for college and careers.
Barnett, 39, said a trust fund most recently used to make loans to teachers for travel and other situations, should be used to support high-poverty, low-performing schools. William Wells Brown Elementary, which is in District 2, had the lowest tests scores in the state among elementary schools.
Cleveland said "You can't throw money at low-performing schools."
He said you have to create a culture in the district of good teaching and believing that all kids can learn.
During the campaign, the candidates have been asked about State Auditor Adam Edelen's special examination which found chronic mismanagement in the district, Barnett said the school board needs to assure the public that the board will hold the responsible parties accountable.
Cleveland, 51, said the allegations that led to the audit resulted from personality conflicts among district officials and "had nothing to do" with children.
He is concerned that the district spent thousands of dollars on the audit and district officials already knew much of what was in the findings. Cleveland said "too much play" had been given to the findings in the audit. Instead, he said the district should be talking about student achievement.
"Students are not reading on grade level, there are horrendous gaps, we should have more conversations about student achievement versus personality issues," Cleveland said. Everyone should be held accountable for the problems outlined in the findings, including current board members, he said.
Murray, in her work for the Kentucky Department of Education, has reviewed programs at low-performing and high-performing schools. She said that her area of expertise was evaluating gaps in reading and math, and that she hopes to bring a fresh perspective of how to navigate challenges that impact the academic success for all students. Murray said her professional experience in educational policy sets her apart from Ferguson, her opponent. Among her priorities are equity in education and increasing innovative educational opportunities to raise student achievement.
Murray said community partnerships is one way to make that happen: "I want to see Fayette County become one of the trendsetters ... that other districts look to us."
Ferguson, who is wrapping up her second four-year term on the board, said she has been a strong advocate for all of her constituents and is getting positive feedback for her questioning of Shelton and other district leaders.
"I have always tried to represent the best interests of both our students and the community, to make sure every tax dollar is wisely spent, and to be a voice for those who feel they have not been heard — whether they be students, parents, teachers, administrators, or simply concerned citizens," said Ferguson.
"To me, a school board member's responsibilities include serving the public by asking questions, sometimes tough ones, of those in leadership, offering critical analysis, responding to citizens' concerns, and listening to the needs of teachers and other employees. All of these tasks work together towards the most important goal of educating our students and ensuring their readiness for college and careers beyond their time in the Fayette County Public Schools."
Ferguson said she was concerned that Fayette County was classified as a "needs improvement" district, instead of "proficient" in the latest round of statewide student testing.
Murray said she is concerned that students are not equipped to be successful in the work force.
On the issue of Edelen's audit, Ferguson, 48, said while the superintendent is working to correct problems and the district should move ahead, people in the community are not satisfied that full responsibility has been taken for the problems that Edelen found.
Murray, 39, said the audit should assure people that every dollar was accounted for — Edelen found no criminal wrongdoing — and she thought Shelton had taken immediate corrective action.
Ferguson, meanwhile, said that redistricting is needed to address Fayette County's overcrowded schools. She said to balance diversity and let children attend schools closest to their neighborhoods is "not always going to be possible."
Murray said the redistricting debate should include weighing economic diversity, maintaining feeder patterns of schools so that elementary students go to the same middle and high schools, and the costs of transportation.
The Herald-Leader searched Fayette County court records for all four candidates.
In December 2009, the University of Kentucky Credit Union filed a civil complaint in Fayette District Court against Murray to collect on an unpaid $1,193.33 Visa credit card bill. Murray signed a document called an agreed judgement in January 2010 saying she would make payments. An order of wage garnishment was issued June 28, 2011. The case was resolved July 2011, according to court documents.
Murray said in an email that her “bank information had been leaked.”
"I closed accounts and thought everything was taken care of, but apparently with that one card the Credit Union had been sending information to the wrong address," Murray said. "All debt was cleared and has been settled."