The Lebanon Democrat asked candidates for the Wilson County Schools Board of Education to tell readers why they are running for office and how they would address the challenges facing the district. Here are the answers from Zone 1 and Zone 3 candidates. In Zone 1, current board member Wayne McNeese is being challenged by Carrie Hartzog Pfeiffer, Mitch Rollins and Lauren Smith. McNeese did not submit answers. In Zone 3, incumbent Mike Gwaltney is not seeking reelection. Don Weathers and Jonathan White are vying for the seat.

The election is Aug. 6 and early voting is underway. For more information, go to www.wilsonelections.com.

Carrie Hartzog PfeifferAge: 43

Spouse, children: Matthew Pfeiffer, Lucy, 16, Lilly, 13, and Joel, 10.

Highest level of education attained: Master’s of Education in Social Studies Education

Question 1: What makes you the best candidate for the position?

My experience as a teacher and as a parent with children currently in the school system gives me a perspective that is underrepresented on our current board. Education is a swiftly changing field, and I know the challenges our teachers and parents face in a 21st century classroom first hand. I am familiar with the budget and its processes on both a school and district level, and prepared to advocate for changes to the BEP funding formula on the state level. I have established relationships with several county commissioners already, and believe that I can build on those relationships to create a better working relationship between the school board and county commission as well.

Question 2: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing WCS and how would you address it?

I believe that meeting the demands of explosive population growth in Wilson County will continue to the be the number one challenge facing Wilson County for the next decade. This challenge is multi-fold, as it touches on issues of buildings and infrastructure, as well as the changing face and needs of the students we serve. We will be challenged to build new schools, while maintaining existing structures, and renovating those that are aging. In order to do this, I believe that it is essential to construct a building maintenance plan that will put the needs of our physical infrastructure on a schedule to have long term maintenance completed before it becomes an emergency need, and to ensure that we maintain equitable facilities across our district. Additionally, it is imperative that our board members build communication and trust with the county commission and all constituents, so that our funding needs are better understood. It is the responsibility of the board to educate the community on the needs of the schools, and this must be an ongoing process, not one undertaken once a year when it is time to pass a budget. As a part of the challenge of growth, we will also likely see growing diversity in our student population. We must take conscious steps to meet the needs of a diverse community of learners who may speak different languages, represent different cultural backgrounds, or otherwise have different learning needs from typical student of the past. We will need to be intentional in recruiting and retaining diverse educators who have the knowledge and experience to help us meet these critical needs.

Question 3: What does WCS do well?

WCS offers world class opportunities for students to grow both in and out of the classroom. From arts education to student government to athletics, our elementary, middle and high schools offer a wide variety of opportunities for students to explore more than just academic interests. These activities often help our students to better define their career paths, and teach them important lessons about the value of teamwork and dedication. The fact that these opportunities are not limited to older students, but extend to elementary grades is a key component to the sense of community in our schools, and the creation of the village of adults who care about our kids and are there to coach them on the road to adulthood. Our recent history of recognition of exemplary schools in WCS demonstrates that our academic programs are also working to move students to greater levels of achievement.

Question 4: What does WCS need to do better?

WCS needs to do a better job of supporting our teachers, and creating an environment in which they feel valued and empowered in the classroom. We need to continue our efforts to make teacher pay and benefits in Wilson County equitable with surrounding counties with whom we compete for the best talent available in the classroom. We lose too many teachers each year because they can earn more money and better support their families in other counties. Many of our teachers express that they do not feel as though they can voice concerns or disagreement with policies at the building or district level. We must make sure that our teachers know that they can trust the board of education to listen to their concerns with no fear of repercussions. We must also return a spirit of creativity and cooperation to our schools. Everyone benefits when teachers are empowered to use their creativity to engage students in new and interesting ways. The focus on testing over the last several years has dulled this spirit, and I believe that we must find ways to renew and reenergize that spirit among our teachers.

Mitch RollinsAge:

Family: Children, Stephanie Rollins and Garrett Rollins.

Highest level of education attained: Master of Arts.

Question 1: What makes you the best candidate for the position?

I have been a psychology professor/instructor for over 18 years, including MTSU/APSU, and I am currently with Nashville State Community College. I am serving my second term on the faculty senate along with being on several committees. My experience includes 25 years in law enforcement and 15 years with a national automotive repair franchise. Understanding behavior and mental processes allows me to communicate effectively and better understand the relationship building that is critical between the school board, teachers, staff, community, students, parents and various government identities. In addition, I have never ran for a political position and I will bring a fresh perspective to our school board. Bringing back a common sense approach to education and the values that my generation believed in is my primary goal. By simply putting others before yourself and living by the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have done unto you” this can be accomplished. My experience in hiring various positions from patrol officers/body shop technicians and CEOs along with the ability to balance a budget and make responsible decisions have prepared me for this position. I will be available 24/7 to respond to any comments or questions and I will represent our schools with total transparency.

Question 2: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing WCS and how would you address it?

The biggest challenge currently is to address the COVID-19 pandemic and how to give our children the best education possible. Areas of concern are remembering students with disabilities, student athletes, students involved in school activities such as members of the band and various clubs. How do we protect our students and what guidelines make the most sense? I am currently on NSCC’s task force for a safe return and we are weighing all the options. Growth is going to be a good problem to address in the near future as well as fiscal responsibility. I am a supporter of our school resource officers and not only do I support keeping their presence, but also training our SROs in being able to identify students which may be experiencing mental health needs which is growing at an alarming rate due to the lack of social interaction as a result of the pandemic. All these topics are critical and my vision is to have discussions with not only teachers and parents, but to allow students a platform to address their concerns as well. I will make decisions based on this input and vote for what is best for ever school in our system.

Question 3: What does WCS do well?

Wilson County Schools have an excellent reputation. My family moved from Donelson to Mt. Juliet in 1991 because of that reputation, to raise our children in the best environment available. Our school system ranks higher than the state average in : ACT scores — 21.2, state 20.0; graduation rates — 95%, state 89.1%; and in attendance rates — 95.5%, state 93.1%. My goal is to improve on these results and maintain excellence in all we do.

Question 4: What does WCS need to do better?

There is always room for improvement. I see a need to improve our relationship with students and to understand their needs to be successful in life. Our future depends on educating our students to take responsibility for their actions, respect authority and provide them an environment to develop a sense of self esteem and belonging. In addition, we need to be fiscally responsible when taking bids for needed projects. Last year the school board was over budget by $10.3 million dollars and the solution was to cut positions in our system. The problem can not be solved by eliminating innocent personnel, but to stay within the budget. There needs to be review of how contracts are awarded. My experience with bidding contracts involved a RFP (rural factoring procedure), which incorporated not only the dollar amount, but included a company’s reputation and ability to not exceed their budgeted amount based on previous contracts.

Lauren SmithAge: 34

Spouse, children: Husband, Chris; children, Copelin, 19, and Miles, 10.

Highest level of education attained: Master’s degree in Public Service Management.

Question 1: What makes you the best candidate for the position?

I am the best candidate for WCS Board Zone 1 because:

I have spent my whole career working inside Wilson County to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. Whether it was through Wilson County Court Appointed Child Advocates in Lebanon by advocating for children who have been found abused and/or neglected or, through Charis Health Center in Mt. Juliet by improving access and health outcomes to both children and families who are uninsured or underinsured. I am a servant leader who can drive tough conversations, community leadership, and measurable outcomes.

In addition to working with the most vulnerable in our community I have always made volunteering and financial giving to our local schools a personal priority. I have financially given annually to multiple schools across the district including the new Green Hill High school. I have also volunteered weekly inside the schools in both Wilson County and LSSD through reading programs, special education, and PTOs.

Question 2: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing WCS and how would you address it?

The greatest challenges WCS faces are:

1. Reopening schools while keeping faculty and students safe.

Safety has always been a priority, but we must address and navigate the constantly changing recommendations around public health safety. We must use valid and reliable data to help navigate the complexities of social distancing while schools are in session. Simple health screenings, routine facility cleaning, and basic hygiene education will go a long way in keeping both faculty and students safe while learning continues.

2. Digital inclusion

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing new layers of inequality in the education system. Education leaders have tackled many unexpected challenges of providing distance learning as a primary mode of instruction. Understandably, requiring students to have the technological resources and support at home needed for effective distance learning programs to work is a challenging legal obligation. I believe answering two very simple questions can address the equity issues presented by the transition to distance learning.

a. What does successful distance learning look like?

It is important to have a clear definition and vision of what successful distance learning should look like and how we will measure the outcomes. In order for distance learning to be successful, schools will have to go beyond normal student achievement metrics. We must connect and empower parents directly to student academics. And our distance learning platform must allow for collaboration that helps measure the extent to which students are learning and growing as students outside of traditional subjects.

b. How do you make distance learning accessible and equitable for all students?

A successful distance learning model must go beyond adequate hardware and access to broadband internet. Schools must incorporate in digital literacy, so students and parents have the skillset to learn through an online media.

3. Sustainable and fiscally sound budgets

One of the biggest responsibilities of the school board is passing budgets. The school board is charged with passing budgets that can keep up with student needs, community growth, and addressing funding inequities. Having fiscally sound and sustainable school budgets means we must reduce reliance on local property taxes to fund education, target extra funds to help low-income children, fix funding gaps for individual schools, and improve state education funding in terms of increased spending on public education. We will never be able to fully fund schools at the local level until the state of Tennessee takes funding public education seriously.

Question 3: What does WCS do well?

WCS does an amazing job at proving a variety of opportunities at the high school level that allow for students to be successful after graduation. I am most impressed with the many different certifications high school students have an ability to receive before graduation that can allow for them to transition straight into the workforce. Making sure students can be successful in the workforce after graduation is what drives a strong and thriving community.

Question 4: What does WCS need to do better?

Wilson County has a wonderful school district, but we cannot have some students doing really well while others are truly struggling. It is only through new funding sources and advocating at the state level for BEP formula reform will Wilson County Schools be able to fully support public education at the local level. With additional funding special education programs could thrive, teacher and faculty recruitment would be sustainable, and new school buildings and upgrades would not be dependent on raising taxes.

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