Education

Incumbent demanding transparent school board faces mom wanting parent, teacher control

Will Nash, who runs a division of a non-profit providing educator professional development, stood out after being appointed in November 2018 to the Fayette County school board by raising questions about the district’s fiscal accountability.

The term he filled for the first district seat expires at the end of 2019. His opponent in the November 5 general election is Christy Morris. The mother of two is a school volunteer and co-founder of a non-profit that provides food for low-income students.

The two candidates disagree on several points:

Nash is adamant that he is not pro-charter school, Morris maintains that he is.

Morris said that school decision-making councils that include parents and teachers don’t get money to fund a curriculum of their choosing. Nash said that’s incorrect. By law, he said, every school council in Fayette County receives guaranteed funding which can be used to purchase items such as curriculum, technology, and books. When a school chooses to use the district-recommended curriculum, that curriculum is paid for by the district, freeing up money for other uses. The school doesn’t lose access to funding by using the recommended curriculum, he said.

Nash says Morris is violating policies by wearing her campaign t-shirt to a school when she volunteers. Nash said that any candidate who wears a “branded” campaign t-shirt during instructional time “is opening themselves up to campaigning.” Morris said the “negative” tone disappoints her and she has not campaigned during instructional time at schools.

Nash said he is the most experienced candidate in the race with the boldest vision. Morris said she would bring multiple perspectives to the school board with roles that include a mom with sons in the district, a school volunteer, and non-profit manager.

The elementary schools assigned to the first district seat are Cardinal Valley, Garden Springs, James Lane Allen, Meadowthorpe and Rosa Parks; the middle schools are Beaumont and Leestown and the high schools are Lafayette and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Nash, who turns 36 on Oct. 11, is married to Katti Nash. He is a former teacher and graduate of the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. Nash said he is the executive director of New Site Development for New Leaders, a New York-based non-profit that provides professional development for teachers and principals across the country. Nash was previously a founder and executive director for Teach for America — Appalachia.

Nash said his history of fighting on behalf of students, his reliance on data and best practices, his ability to ask tough questions and his unwavering belief in all students is why he was appointed to the Fayette school board.

Morris, 38, said she is married to Michael Morris and they have two boys, ages 6 and 9; who both attend Rosa Parks Elementary. She said she graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

With a background in finance, Morris said she is a co-founder and serves as treasurer of a non-profit called FEED. She said that group provides healthy, kid-friendly food over weekends and holidays during the school year to children in Fayette County Public Schools who live in food insecure households.

Morris said one of her concerns is that the district needs more teachers who look like their minority students. Morris said Fayette County schools that are struggling academically need smaller class sizes and more funding that parents and teachers can decide how to use.

“My decisions on the school board will be guided by what’s best for each of our schools based on their unique needs,” she said.

Morris said she’s running a grassroots campaign and has received endorsements from the Kentucky Educators Political Action Committee or KEPAC, from the Kentucky National Organization for Women and from the Bluegrass Central Labor Council.

Nash said he spent 13 years in public education, beginning as a middle school math teacher, which showed him that all students can achieve at high levels. He said he has worked in teacher recruitment and certification and supported professional learning of principals and teachers across the country.

One of Nash’s most prominent actions on the school board occurred when he raised questions about the school district using the same external auditor since 2006 without seeking additional bids. He also opposed a tax rate increase this year, which he sees as one of his biggest accomplishments.

“Over the last 11 months I’ve asked tough questions and raised important issues about the district’s fiscal accountability,” he said. “I voted to increase pay for teachers, substitute teachers and bus drivers, and I’ve supported the hiring of more school-based police officers, social workers and mental health counselors.”

Nash said he voted to increase pay for the district’s teachers with more than 25 years experience, that he voted to fund capital projects and in his first two months on the board, called for more fiscal transparency than any other board member had done in that short amount of time. He said he wants to continue the fight for fiscal accountability and transparency so that every dollar meaningfully impacts student learning.

He said he will continue to be an advocate for all students.

Nash said he knows that parents want safe schools, but also want the Fayette school board to iron out kinks in the district’s 10-point safety plan.

Additionally Nash said, “we have to maintain laser-like focus on achievement gaps so we can promise a high quality education” at all schools. Nash said it’s not right for parents to have to buy a house in one part of Fayette county or another because the quality of the schools are not the same.

He said Fayette County has a good school district, but he believes it could be the best school district in the state. Nash said schools need funding so that they can provide the personnel that could address a range of student needs.

Nash said Fayette County’s recent statewide school test score results which state education commissioner Wayne Lewis described as “mixed” show both that the district is making meaningful progress and that improvements are still needed.

He said he is concerned that Morris “wants to eliminate the recommended curriculum and return to a time when schools with the ability to fund raise had better resources than those who could not—significantly contributing to achievement gaps.”

Nash said with suggestions from school leaders, parents and teachers, the Fayette school board adopted a recommended curriculum for schools that gives every student an equitable and comprehensive education. He said the curriculum is freely available to all schools if they choose to use it. However, he said by law, schools retain their right to choose any curriculum that’s best for their students.

Morris said more power needs to be given to school decision-making councils and the parents and staff on them. “We should be able to choose our own curriculum. We pay taxes for that money and right now the resources are being wasted on materials that we don’t want,” she said.

Morris explained that Rosa Parks Elementary parents found a corporate sponsor to purchase a math curriculum which she liked and that she thinks could be a factor in the school getting the top five stars in the new statewide accountability system.

But she said parents and teachers at nearby James Lane Allen elementary where she has volunteered don’t have the same capability to fund-raise and are stuck with the curriculum that the school board chooses.

Fayette County district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said that several external audits noted that Fayette County lacked a common curriculum so the district made an unprecedented purchase of a districtwide curriculum, especially to help low-income students and those who change schools frequently. Schools receive an annual allocation to purchase instructional materials and $116 per student -- Fayette County spends $16 more per student than the state requires, she said.

School councils that adopt the districtwide curriculum receive training , support and instructional materials. Those that choose a different curriculum can use the instructional dollars they receive for that purpose. For example, this school year 31 elementary and middle schools adopted the district science curriculum and the remaining schools are using different resources to teach science.

Morris’ biggest criticism of Nash?

“The reality is my opponent was handpicked by Frankfort, even more troubling, is funding his campaign with money from a pro-charter group based in Washington, D.C. My priority has always been making our public schools stronger. That’s what I’ll do on the school board,” Morris said.

At the time Nash was appointed to the school board, state law called for appointees to be selected as a finalist by a screening committee made up of three school board members from across central Kentucky, and he was then chosen among two finalists by Education Commissioner Lewis. Morris said she has not been able to find out who that committee initially recommended.

According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Nash has raised $25,609 and spent $8,582. Morris has raised $5,224 and spent $1,908.

Nash received $2,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based group Leadership for Educational Equity, according to the registry.

The Washington Post reported in November that the Leaders in Education Fund, the political giving arm of Leadership for Educational Equity, is an organization that trains Teach for America alumni to run for public office and is tied to billionaire donors allied with the charter school lobby.

Jason Llorenz, vice-president of communication for Leadership for Educational Equity, told the Herald-Leader that “our leadership development work is policy agnostic.”

Morris, who said she is “passionately” against charter schools said that Nash made social media posts a few years back that indicate he was pro-charter. Nash said he posted some sarcastic tweets in jest.

“Any attempt to paint me as pro-charter is clearly debunked by my voting record and multiple public statements,” Nash said. He said on his campaign website that he’s been “clear from the very beginning that Fayette County doesn’t need charter schools.”

“We have more than 30 non-traditional academic programs like SCAPA, ...Spanish Immersion, and others. As a current board member, I’m focused on expanding these opportunities and improving communication with parents so they are aware of the multiple options,” Nash said.

Nash said his experience in public education and focus on improving outcomes for all students is “why I’ve received the support of many people with varying political perspectives”, both Democrats and Republicans.

Nash said he wants all schools to be “truly great schools” so that the conversation about charter schools can be moot.

Proponents of charter schools say they offer parents more choice. Amid much opposition from people who maintained that charter schools take money from traditional public schools, public charters were approved by Kentucky’s General Assembly in 2017. But no charter schools have opened in the state because lawmakers have not yet approved a funding mechanism for them.

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