BOE candidates talk issues with editorial board

Apr. 2—Still-flagging reading and math scores wrought by the pandemic.

New challenges accompanied by the introduction of charter schools to the region.

And a $142.6 million bond call for a standalone school devoted solely to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that could be open to Monongalia County students by 2027 — if voters say yes on the ballot next month.

Those issues, and more, are currently on the collective plate of the Mon County Board of Education.

The three candidates for BOE who are also on that ballot sat down Tuesday with the editorial board of The Dominion Post to talk about the above, and more.

Ron Lytle, current school board president, is facing challenges by Christina Fattore Morgan and Shawn Smith, who are both making their first-ever runs for office.

Lytle is the founder of Lytle Construction and Morgan is professor of political science at WVU. Smith is an industrial engineer at Milliken and Company.

All three are parents of children who attend Mon County Schools.

"I'm not done yet, " said Lytle, who touted his institutional knowledge of having serving on the board since 2012.

"Not only am I parent, I'm also an educator, " said Morgan, who said she knows how to run her own classroom while helping her kids with their homework at the kitchen table.

"I just wanted to do more, " said Smith, who is active in his kids' schools while also volunteering for several community causes across Morgantown and Mon.

Steering toward STEM full-on (maybe)

The Renaissance Academy is where the aforementioned $142.6 million bond comes in — and while Lytle acknowledges it's a big ask, he said that's because "it is so critical " to the education fortunes of Mon's youth.

Students from Morgantown High, University and Clay-Battelle would rotate in and out of the Renaissance Academy for deep dives into STEM courses and more extensive career technical education offerings, with no interruption to their core classes at their respective schools.

The academy would be a first for Mon and also the Mountain State.

"This is the future of education, " Lytle said. He drew upon an earlier analogy where he envisioned, say, robotics students designing a robot, fabricating it, then marketing it — and all under one roof.

"We need to do this, " he said, "or in 20 years, someone else will have these tech jobs."

Morgan appreciates the proposed mission of the academy, she said, but she painted a broader stroke for the editorial board, related to those COVID-induced learning losses that she says are still being felt in this district and elsewhere.

"We also need to recognize that we are still trying to catch up, " she said. "We need to deal with our immediate issues, first. What about students who start going [to the Renaissance Academy ] then change their minds ?"

Smith looks to the successes of the Monongalia County Technical Education Center, which would be reconfigured for middle school students if the academy gets built.

"There's one school in Monongalia County that has a 98 % attendance rate, " he said.

"That's MTEC. You know why ? Because it's hands-on, and kids appreciate that kind of learning."

The Hope scholarship — and charter school newcomers All three allowed that the Hope scholarship — which provides for private, charter and home-school opportunities to families who might not have the resources otherwise — isn't necessarily bad for the local school district.

Morgan, though, offered a cautionary caveat: "I do think we need to be concerned with saturating our area with charter schools, " she said. The maintaining of standards and accountability is why, the educator said.

North Elementary, and beyond Allegations of aggressive disciplining of students, special-needs and otherwise, put a shadow over the school last year that had been long-lauded for its test scores and diversity of its student body.

The candidates didn't want to directly refer to the parties involved in the two high-profile incidents, but they did talk about procedure and protocol.

It was alleged during the investigation that neither incident was reported in a timely manner.

"When you take a job as a teacher or administrator in our school system, the one thing you become is a 'mandatory reporter, '" Lytle said. "If you see it, you say it."

"Students first, safety first, " Smith said. "We need to give that training and we need to ensure that everyone understands the repercussions."

Morgan, citing her experience in the front of classrooms, said the same.

"Training. Balance. Being calm with students. Making sure you are the calm in their storm."

Recruiting and retention The district in recent weeks has gone through reduction-in-force hearings, which are known in the field as RIFs, where districts and schools base the number of teachers and staff they'll need for the coming year on projected enrollment.

Initially, 50 positions — half of them professional staff, the other half service personnel — were eliminated under the RIF process. Those positions were filled using federal COVID relief dollars the district received at the height of the pandemic four years ago. The district and the teachers taking those positions knew COVID dollars and those jobs would go away this year.

Lytle said the professional positions, save for one, were being reshuffled back into the system. Later Tuesday, Mon Schools Superintendent Eddie Campbell Jr. confirmed to The Dominion Post that was the case.

"We aren't losing anybody, " Lytle said.

Smith was thinking just as much about recruitment — as he was RIFs.

Nearby Fairmont State University and California University of Pennsylvania offer teaching majors, he said, with graduates who could fill Mon classrooms in critical areas, such as special education.

On the books: What's 'offensive ?' — what's not ?

While districts nationwide are grappling with books and matters of objectional content, all three BOE candidates here have varying ideas about thorny titles — or, titles deemed as such.

"I've never heard a complaint about books in our libraries, " Lytle said.

But what about taking a book off a shelf permanently if there were a complaint ?

"Librarians are professionals, " he said. "I trust them."

Smith does too — with a hierarchy, though, added by the school board.

"I do think there needs to be a framework, he said, which means policy and protocols stopping at the district central office.

Morgan gave that the same read.

What's "inappropriate, " she said, might simply be a matter of someone, or a group, being uncomfortable with the subject matter.

"I don't think it's appropriate for an individual school to make a decision to pull a book off the shelf, " she said. "I think that has to be done at the board level."