Five candidates on this year’s ballots for seats on the Wilson County Board of Education answered a series of questions in a candidates forum at the Wilson County Schools Central Office in Lebanon last Thursday.
The event was coordinated by members of the Parents of Wilson County TN Facebook group. Candidates at the event were Zone 1 candidate Carrie Pfeiffer; Zone 3 candidate Melissa Lynn; Zone 5 candidates Brittany Ash and Donnie Self; and Zone 7 candidate Jamie Farough.
About 50 people attended the event in the building’s auditorium. The forum was also livestreamed by Main Street Media (which owns the Wilson Post and the Chronicle of Mt. Juliet). A replay of the forum is available on YouTube.
Candidates Greg Hohman (Zone 1), Joe Schippers (Zone 3) and Jessica Hill (Zone 7) did not attend the forum.
Both Schippers and Hill wrote in separate emails to the Wilson Post that each had a prior commitment that night. Schippers wrote that he received an invitation to the event on Feb. 2. “This is a very busy time for every candidate and more notice would have been helpful,” he wrote in the email.
Hohman is unopposed in the primary. Hohman, Schippers and Hill all appeared at a “Meet the Candidates” event hosted by the Wilson County Republican Party of Tennessee on Jan. 27.
Wilson County Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum moderated the event and posed several questions to the group about issues related to education.
The first question sought candidates’ response to potential funding loss if Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program reached Wilson County.
“Wilson County is not a community where the schools are failing and struggling. Wilson County is not a community where we lack choice in education,” said Pfeiffer, the current Zone 1 representative who said the funding burden could ultimately fall on the Wilson County Commission because the school board does not have taxing authority. “The funds would have to be made up at the local level.”
Pfeiffer is running as an Independent candidate and will be on the ballot with Hohman in August.
“It would either be made up through raising taxes or requesting additional funds from the county commission,” Ash said. “It may also be position cuts that, again, are not in the best interest of our local community.”
Farough and Self discussed their experiences with budgets when asked their thoughts about working on the district’s annual budget.
“I have gained valuable insight in the time that I’ve been on the school board working with this budget,” said Farough, the current board chair who also pointed to her work as a nurse consultant for litigation cases. “I work at the request of a lot of special needs trusts, which have pretty significant numbers and legal obligations they have to go by. I also work with the health care plans they have, so there are a lot of constraints but on those.”
Self highlighted his nearly 20-year career with the Lebanon Police Department.
“During that time frame, I was tasked with being in charge of and being accountable for funds … public funds,” said Self, who said it was on a smaller scale than the school district’s budget. “Also, as a small business owner here locally for the last 30 years, I had to take into consideration what it takes to run a business.”
Tatum also asked the group what programs and activities would be prioritized if the state were to decline federal funding.
“I would not cut any of the teacher salaries or benefits because our teachers and employees … is important to our system, and the benefits we offer them I would never want to touch those,” said Lynn, the current Zone 3 representative. “I don’t think there’s a program or activity or anything in this system I would be willing to forfeit, but it is hard because we don’t know what’s going to happen if we refuse the money.”
Farough said she would advocate that the state replaces funds if it turns down federal funds so the burden does not fall on local districts.
“I would not cut existing salaries or benefits and I would not cut safety measures,” said Farough, who said increased pay and benefits, additional training and capital projects would likely be halted. “I know nobody likes those answers, but that is the reality and that’s why you need to write your legislators, as well.”
Recruiting and retaining teachers was also a focus during the forum.
“We need to be able to communicate that we’re going to be able to give clear vision for our future here,” said Self, who also highlighted pay and benefit packages. “Let them know we’re going to support them, and I believe in communication and relieving the stress for our teachers.”
Lynn praised recent changes the school board has made regarding teacher pay and benefits packages but said other areas could improve.
“What we need to work on is making sure that our teachers are heard inside the building and are supported when they have issues,” she said.
Ash said it’s important to take a wholistic approach when asked about how to improve relationships with parents and school leaders to improve behavior in young children.
“I think it’s important that we see the whole child,” she said. “Children don’t learn in a vacuum. They’re not going to learn reading, writing and arithmetic if their basic human needs aren’t met. I think the Family Resource Center does an excellent job of identifying those needs, meeting those needs and programs to facilitate that.”
Tatum asked what main challenges are, and possible solutions, for the district’s special education programs, which Pfeiffer said was one of her motivations for running four years ago.
“I have seen our district make changes … that I think are improving that experience for parents, as well as for students,” she said. “One of the most significant challenges that we face right now however is staffing, and special education teachers are the hardest to hire right now.”
Pfeiffer said the district would likely need to look at increased stipends and other creative avenues to attract teachers and improve the program.
Tatum also gave candidates time to express why voters should vote for them.
Self said he would bring a common sense approach and work to eliminate politics from the board and strengthen communication with the county commission and lawmakers.
Farough said she would advocate for all students and parents and wants to see schools succeed.
Pfeiffer said voters could look at her track record the last four years and said she’s dedicated to serving every child every day.
Lynn said she has experienced issues inside the schools and wants to be a voice for educators and is someone teachers and parents could trust.
Ash said goal her is to do as much as good as she can, and the school board provides an opportunity to give back to community that raised her in a school system she loves.
Editor’s Note: Below is the replay of the livestream from the candidates event. Because of production difficulties, the sound is not available for the first 90 seconds of the video.