Candidate: Charles A. Taylor
Occupation: Professor of communication, director of master’s in communication program at Drury University
Education: Graduated from Harrisonville High School; bachelor’s degree from College of the Ozarks; masters and doctoral degrees from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Campaign funds raised as of Feb. 22: $3,300
Q: What about your life and work experience lends itself to being a successful member of the school board?
A: As a career educator, I bring deep professional understanding of the strategies, structures and technologies that can promote student learning and teacher/staff commitment. As an academic leader, having served Drury’s VP of Academic Affairs for a decade, I bring an understanding of how to work effectively on and with a board, as well as an understanding of the importance of aligning always limited resources/structures to meet district priorities. As the spouse of a long-time teacher at a Title I school, I bring at least a degree of awareness of the special challenges that our district faces in assuring academic and personal growth for all children and a deeply personal commitment to seeking ways to meet those challenges. As a two-term board member, I bring a level of experience of helping lead during a period of turbulent change that, I believe, would serve SPS and our community well for the next three years. As a person who takes his work seriously, but rarely takes himself too seriously, I bring a reasoned and mission-focused decision-making approach to board issues.
Q: If elected, your first full school year as a board member will begin next fall. What measures need to be in place for staff and students to return to school safely, and where will you look for guidance on any future decisions the board will have to make regarding COVID-19 mitigation?
A: We are all ready to return to something approaching normalcy in a post-pandemic world. That said, the pandemic has taught us that we must be mindful of the need to consult with and, as appropriate, to heed the counsel of experts in the medical and public health communities. We have made significant strides in sanitation, ventilation and filtration, and we can build on that. I am hopeful that we will not face another pandemic, but if we do, I will stand by the decision to collaborate with experts to develop mitigation strategies that align with science and serve the best interests of our students, faculty, staff and community.
Q: ACT and MAP assessment average scores have declined in recent years, and in many cases, SPS student scores fall below state averages. Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s Entry Plan released in December listed several steps to address both college testing (improving access to test prep skills for students) and MAP assessments (monthly math collaboratives for teachers and the use of MasteryConnect to analyze students’ areas of need in advance of testing). Is the school district taking steps in the right direction, and what else do you think should be done?
A: Academic achievement is a crucial goal for the district, and it’s clear that we have work to do to meet our own expectations. While there are some easy explanations (e.g., fully funding ACT exams, hence increasing number of takers, impact of pandemic, etc.), we cannot simply explain the challenges away. We must explain why achievement has lagged and identify strategies for improvement. Dr. Lathan’s entry plan observations are astute, and the reorganization she announced on Feb. 16 is a concrete manifestation of her commitment to academic improvement. With the Board’s support, she is moving quickly to eliminate operational silos that previously created gaps between curriculum and professional development for our teachers. Similarly, she is moving to enhance the district’s mastery of assessment data in real-time, allowing teachers to provide learning opportunities that meet students where they are and help them get to where we (and they) want to go. Removing some of the less educational ‘administrivia’ from teachers’ daily duties will afford more hands-on time with students, allowing teachers to do what they do best. There are myriad pedagogical and curricular strategies that we can and will implement to enhance academic achievement. Perhaps the most important strategy, however, is to set high expectations and then provide each student the appropriate support to enable her/him to meet those expectations. One size does not fit all. Students bring very different “baggage” to school each day — and we must acknowledge and respond to those differences to close achievement gaps and to meet our responsibilities to educate every student, every day.
Q: A survey of SPS parents and teachers last year found that a majority of parents believed the district’s current staggered start times for their children’s schools were not meeting their needs. Given that the staggered starts are tied to bus driver staffing issues, what is a path forward that works for SPS and parents?
A: It’s clear that the well-intended plan to expand transportation access for students throughout the district, developed in collaboration with a community advisory group before the pandemic took hold, has not achieved its desired goals. Indeed, the adjustments to start times for many district buildings, coupled with the driver shortage, have created significant challenges for working families throughout the district (including families of our own teachers/staff). The current model is simply not sustainable, and the board will review recommendations from district administration in March for implementation in the 2022-23 academic year. While there are financial impediments to creating a perfect transportation model, I hope we can craft alternatives that create less disruption, align start times with compelling data that suggests adolescents and teens could benefit cognitively from later start times, and assure equitable transportation options for all students, including those who participate in our expanded portfolio of choice programs outside their “home attendance zone.”
Q: Teacher staffing is an issue of nationwide concern, at a time when many are retiring earlier in their careers or leaving the profession altogether. What would you do on the school board to encourage teachers to join the SPS system and then to stay there?
A: We are in a competitive marketplace for talent. While not a sufficient condition for retaining outstanding teachers, increasing compensation (salaries and benefits) is absolutely a necessary condition. We have made progress in this regard in relation to neighboring districts, and more must be done, recognizing that resources are always limited. Our initial efforts to ‘grow our own’ with SPS graduates (e.g., via the teaching thread in the HHS Hornet Academy) are showing promise and we must develop even stronger partnerships with local and regional universities. Compensation alone, however, is not sufficient. We must assure a spirit of innovation that keeps our best/brightest engaged and inspired with new ideas and opportunities. Formal shadowing programs for those classroom teachers contemplating leadership opportunities and professional development opportunities for those who want to remain in the classroom — but want to do so with ever-increasing success. There are also morale issues that must be confronted if we are to reverse the exodus of our very best teachers from the profession. Unfortunately, the default setting for education at almost every level is to change only by addition. That cannot continue. It’s incumbent on the board and district leaders to assure that all the things we ask teachers do not simply pile up; they must add up to more meaningful time to work directly with students. That is why teachers enter the profession, and it will be crucial to assuring they remain in the profession. It’s also important that we turn down the volume on the unfortunate politicization of public education. Our teachers represent us at our best, and the drumbeat of uninformed criticism about, e.g., indoctrinating their students/our kids or having “three months off in the summer” is corrosive to the profession. It needs to stop. In short, we need to let teachers teach and treat them like the professionals they are.
Q: Does the Springfield Public School District need to be run more like a business — why or why not? What role should board members play in day-to-day operations?
A: As we have learned in a state that lags behind most others in public education funding, there is no question that SPS is a business, though it is not like every (or any) other business. We do not make widgets, nor do we sell gas. We educate students and our focus must always be on how to assure that we are accountable to the taxpayers for aligning our always limited resources in ways that serve THAT mission, not to turn a profit. For public entities, “not for profit” is a tax status; it is not a business strategy (or at least not a smart one). As a board, we have fiduciary and statutory responsibilities that require us to be attentive to the fiscal health and sustainability of the district and we work every day to do that. We have for several years maintained a healthy fund balance and it’s a metric that the board can and must assess as we move forward. We must enhance our transparency to assure that all district patrons have confidence that their taxes are being invested as frugally as possible in ways that serve our mission, meet all statutory requirements, and enhance the quality of life of our teachers, staff, students and community.
A board should shape the strategic direction of the district, hire a superintendent, hold her accountable for enacting that vision, shape and approve the budget, and provide counsel and guidance, as appropriate, to the superintendent and her team as they direct the daily operations of the district, and then hold them accountable for district outcomes. A board member should not meddle in daily operations or promote individual “causes.”
Q: If you have school-age children, are they enrolled in the SPS system or are they enrolled in private schools, and why?
A: While I no longer have school-age children (and my grandson is only 20 months old), our daughter completed 12 years in SPS schools, graduating from KHS in 2009.