Three of five candidates vying for four spots on the Hastings Board of Education participated in a candidate forum Tuesday.
The forum hosted by the Hastings League of Women Voters at the Hastings Public Library gave candidates the chance to voice their opinions on a variety of topics, including free outdoor play, high ability learner education, guns in schools and protection for LGBTQ+ students.
Incumbent candidates Brady Rhodes, Becky Sullivan and John Bonham attended. Incumbent candidate Tracy Katzberg and non-incumbent candidate Paige Bruntz did not attend.
Candidates were asked questions by the media along with those in the audience. One audience question addressed the issue of outdoor recess and playtime and any possible reduction in that time.
“I don’t know the answer to that question except from my fourth-grade son,” Rhodes said. “He tells me how much recess he has and it doesn’t seem to be diminishing.”
Rhodes said he believes the social interaction, relationship building and boundary testing that goes on during that time is important for students and he hopes it continues.
Sullivan discussed the wellness policy for the district that the school board approved in summer 2017 that addresses everything from mental health to nutrition and physical activity.
She doesn’t see a reduction in that physical activity coming in the district. In fact, she believes it is increasing as more teachers are working physical activity even into their classroom lessons.
Board member John Bonham joked that recess was his favorite class as a student at Hastings Public Schools.
“It’s part of our learning process, getting out and shaking all the wildness out so you can focus in class is a good thing,” he said.
Continuing the focus on student education, the candidates were asked what the district is doing to meet the educational needs of high ability learners.
Sullivan highlighted some of the programs, including the HAL program at the elementary level that identifies those students early in their education. From there, those students are given different reading assignments or more work to help keep them engaged. There is also the quiz bowl team and invention convention at the elementary level.
In high school, students can take honors classes, dual credit classes and other courses to meet their educational needs.
“We can always do more but I think we have a lot of that in place,” she said.
Bonham said the district puts a focus on educating all kids to meet their needs.
“It’s only limited by how far the student can go and our resources,” he said. “I think we do a good job of identifying them early on.”
Rhodes said he believes the district does a good job of working with HAL students but believes the district could do more.
He said so much necessary effort is put into bringing all students up to baseline and he wishes that it could get to a point where teachers could then work on bringing more students up to that next level.
“I feel that is a place we can grow. I really do,” Rhodes said. “I feel we can stretch ourselves, though. I feel district has feet under it. The PLC culture can focus on some great ways to meet the needs of those high ability learners.”
In working to meet those student needs, the board would love to see continued growth and expansion in the high school’s career pathways program that already gives students educational opportunities in a variety of areas, primarily in industrial arts.
As an employee with Mary Lanning Healthcare, Bonham said he would love to see the pathways expand into the medical world with educational opportunities for nursing aides and even nursing students.
“I think that’s a need that will always be there and it’s something we should get our kids involved in,” he said.
Through programs like MentoringWorks and others, Rhodes said he wants to see continued partnerships between students, the school district and business partners to build those student opportunities.
“Having kids who are in high school now its even more apparent to me how valuable those experiences are for kids to get out in the community and see what jobs they are interested in,” Sullivan said. “I think we have a very supportive community that is willing to let kids come in and do some things.”
The board candidates also addressed a number of other topics including the following:
Several months ago, the board updated the district’s anti-discrimination policy. It considered adding “gender” and “sexual orientation” to that list but opted not to based on the recommendation of legal counsel. The candidates were asked about the state policy and about protections for LGBTQ+ students and staff.
Becky Sullivan said the state law does not cover those individuals so the school board voted to update their anti-discrimination policy to meet the current state policy based on the recommendation of the district’s legal counsel.
“We weren’t necessarily in agreement as a board,” she said. “I think I can speak for everybody that we were in agreement everyone cares about kids and we want to make sure kids are treated fairly and so that policy does reflect current state statue. I know I personally would love to see that changed.”
John Bonham agreed that while the district policy reflects state statue that if the statute would change, he believes the district policy should also change.
“I think there’s probably going to be work done at the state level on anti-discrimination forever,” said Brady Rhodes. “And that’s a good thing because we need to keep looking at those conversations.”
In the board’s discussion about updating the policy a few months ago, Rhodes said the board and the community heard from stakeholders who may not have been heard from before.
“I think what it cause our district to do is really look and see are we doing our best and I think the policies will say what we agree to do and then we have to look at what are we doing that is meeting all kids needs,” he said.
Pledge of Allegiance
The board candidates were asked if the Pledge of Allegiance was said every day in classrooms and if they thought that should be a policy.
Becky Sullivan said the pledge is said at school board meetings and in classrooms every day as far as she knows.
“I feel it should be,” she said of the pledge. “It’s an important part of our school system. Been doing it since I was a kid. Not sure why we would remove it.”
Bonham agreed by simply saying, “Yes, it should be.”
Rhodes said not only should it be said as a way to tie kids to their greater community and country but it should also be used as a teaching moment for kids to learn what this pledge is and why they say it.
“I think we also have a great responsibility to talk about our civic history and civic education and what does it mean when you say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Rhodes said. “I don’t think anything should be words to be said. It’s a great learning moment.”
Graduates joining military
In the days after the 2018 graduation, there was controversy in the community regarding a student who wanted to wear a military sash to graduation because that student at recently enlisted in the U.S. military. The question was how the district can honor military graduates.
“I say we treat all our students with respect and those that choose to pursue the military after high school, that is very admirable,” Bonham said.
Rhodes said he agrees that the district should respect all students. He then went on to say that the situation last May came down more to the issue of a conversation on social media going viral.
“As a community, what can we do to handle those situations better and not start waving the red flag without researching the back story.” Rhodes said. “There could really be some concerns there and we want to make sure we heard the concerns but in the drama and the hubbub, those concerns get lost and the good ideas get lost.”
That’s why Rhodes encouraged people to come to school board meetings and share their concerns and ideas.
“I agree with Brady,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes we don’t know whole store before it explodes on social media and that can be harmful to a lot of people.”
She said the district does a good job of recognizing students joining the military through senior honors night and recognitions at concerts and other events.
Guns in schools
State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings has been discussing for several months the idea of allowing teachers and school employees to carry concealed weapons as a way to protect schools in the event of school shootings. The board candidates were asked about how they would communicate with Sen. Halloran on this issue.
Bonham said on the issue of communicating with the senator, it comes down to speaking and listening and sharing ideas to better understand the opinions and concerns of others.
“It’s a tough topic because you’re concerned about kids in school and their safety but I’m not in favor of guns with teachers,” he said.
Bonham said you can put a gun into a teacher’s hand but there’s still the issue of pulling the trigger.
Rhodes agreed saying he’s also not a proponent of guns in schools. He said there may be districts where staff feels that is a legitimate response. However, he has conveyed to Halloran that he does not believe that is the right move for HPS.
“We’re not interested in him putting forth that proposal in our name,” Rhodes said. “We would not do that in our district.”
Instead he said he would rather see the senator introduce a conversation about funding for school resource officers in more schools. HPS already has two school resource officers, which, according to Rhodes, is a proven research-based way to protect schools and students.