4 questions: Leon Schools Superintendent candidates on segregation, charters and COVID-19

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Tallahassee Democrat | by CD Davidson-Hiers | October 5, 2020

Three candidates are competing to lead the Leon County school district as local educators grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rocky Hanna, incumbent and current superintendent, longtime educator Pam Hightower and Keisha Washington, a write-in candidate on the ballot, are vying for the superintendent position. 

Hanna and Hightower took part in a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by the Tallahassee Democrat and League of Women Voters. Here are excerpts from the discussion, which were edited for space. Watch the full debate online at tallahassee.com.

Superintendent candidates Rocky Hanna and Hightower
Candidates for superintendent of schools, Rocky Hanna (incumbent, NPA) and Pam Hightower (D). Tallahassee Democrat files

Question 1

Schools in Leon County remain very segregated, leading to a greater disparity of achievement between schools. Do you believe this is a significant problem in Leon County Schools and how do you address it?

Hightower: “We’re going to have to go back and look at the many factors that have contributed to the segregation of our schools. History has played a significant part in that, largely because of zoning and housing. Many neighborhoods have changed over the years, so families have moved out, which further exacerbated the segregation. I plan to address that issue when I become superintendent by first getting input from our stakeholders — from our schools and from our communities — and examining what impact school choice has had on segregation when students don’t have a choice and they have to stay in school zones in which they’re living. I want to develop a plan with all our stakeholders including our parents and our teachers and our clergies and all of our community members… so that students can get that chance if they need a different environment or need a different type of learning setting.”

Hanna: “Unfortunately our community is somewhat segregated already … My goal is for all of our school populations to represent what Leon County looks like. Unfortunately, I think prior school choice practices led to ‘white flight’ and we had a number of our schools where we were losing students because of the favoritism that was shown and other practices. Since I did away with that and we’ve gone to a lottery system that’s fair and equitable for everyone, enrollment at (James S.) Rickards High School is at an all-time high…The same at (Amos P.) Godby High School… We’ve taken action. We’ve revised our school choice practices to make them fair and equitable for everyone and are reimagining our schools. We’re doing capital projects at Rickards and Fairview because those schools have been neglected for far too long…”

Question 2

What is your opinion of school vouchers and charter schools and do you support the expansion of charter schools?

Hightower: “I do not support the expansion of charter schools but what I would like to do is make sure all of our schools are schools of distinction – where parents want to bring their students, putting programs in so we don’t lose children to private or charter schools. As a Title 1 director, I had a revelation that the money follows the child. So if a child leaves us and goes to a charter or private school, the money will go with that child. That’s not something I can control. Now, do I support taking money from the public schools for charter schools? I do not. I have been a public school employee for all of my life. But in those situations where the law dictates that the money follows the child, we have no other choice than to do that.”

Hanna: “I am pro-school choice. What I did was level the playing field because the prior practice was that if you were coming out of a charter school or private school, you got automatic choice into one of our public schools… I have been outspoken on that from the very beginning. We stood up to two charters that were going to open here in Tallahassee. Once they’ve been accepted, fine, we will welcome them with open arms to help our children. But I have been a vocal opponent of both reckless charter school expansion and private school vouchers… Us sending money to private schools that don’t have the same assessments, teacher certifications and all the accountability levels that we’re held to, it just doesn’t make sense and is dead wrong.”

Question 3

When should Leon County and/or the state mandate students return?

Hanna: “I don’t see that any time in the near future. I dare not say even this school year. We’ve given our parents and families choices that best fit them and we are meeting them in that space. If they feel good about kids coming back, God bless you. Send them back to school and we’ll educate them. If you don’t, then we’ll bring the classroom to you… We’re prepared to welcome everyone back, we’re prepared to send everyone home again and we’re prepared like we are right now to be in the middle. That’s why all this hard work was done on the front end and we’re reaping the benefits on the back end.”

Hightower: “We would have to follow the guidelines from the CDC, the infectious rate and look at the positivity rate in the district is what would guide my decision as superintendent… and all students should be in school when it is safe to do so. We want our students back in school, but we don’t want to jeopardize our families, our teachers, our staff. We want them to return when it is safe to do so and we would follow the guidelines of the CDC.”

Question 4

What’s your message to parents and teachers who think we should have stood up to the state to keep things completely virtual?

Hightower: “I would have started school with us all being at home, which would have taken care of those first two weeks. And then we could’ve gone back and given those parents that option because parents have a choice and they would have had that choice of virtual or brick-and-mortar. But I would’ve started at home first to get out some of the kinks we were having with our computers. We would have all been online and then moved to brick-and-mortar and then whatever hybrid model the parents chose. They would have had that choice… We would have started as the state required us to do so by Aug. 31.”

Hanna: “No, I think we’ve made the right decision. I wasn’t going to test them and risk the financial stability of our school district well into the future to call their bluff. Look, we should have reopened. There were thousands of parents that were counting on us to reopen schools… We’ve given those families and students options to decide what’s best for them. But for us just to close the doors to everyone? I think that would have been a mistake and I think the School Board agrees with that… We’ve been held captive by this virus for far too long and we need to push back, but in a safe way, a responsible way…”

Featured photo: Incumbent Rocky Hanna and his opponent, Pam Hightower, answer questions in a candidate forum. PTAL