Waynesville school board candidates offer varied backgrounds in race
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Monday, April 5, 2010 9:26 pm
WAYNESVILLE, Mo. (April 5, 2010) — When voters in the Waynesville R-VI School District go to the polls tomorrow, they’ll choose between incumbent Lori Laughlin, the manager of St. John’s Clinic in St. Robert, and three challengers: a bank vice-president, Nathan A. Purdome, a pastor, Marcus L. Davis, and a retired command sergeant major, Dorsey L. Newcomb. The top two candidates will be elected to three-year terms; the other incumbent school board member, retired Waynesville Technical Academy principal Jan Dye, isn’t running for re-election.
The four candidates for school board all spoke in a televised candidate forum on March 23, sponsored by the Waynesville Certified Teachers Association.
Although she’s not a Pulaski County native, Laughlin told forum attendees that she was raised in the area and is the only one of the three candidates to graduate from Waynesville High School. Laughlin said her father retired to Pulaski County in 1968 after serving 22 years in the military, and she graduated a decade later and married Waynesville native Bobby Laughlin.
During her three terms totaling nine years on the school board, Laughlin said board accomplishments included building the new Waynesville High School and Waynesville Career Center, as well as retrofitting numerous other school buildings.
“I promise to serve you with all the values that my parents taught me, which is love of God, hard work and honesty,” Laughlin said. “I’ve always said this and I still believe that a school board member’s job is not to tell the teachers how to teach. It is to provide the policies and the equipment to do the job.”
Like Laughlin’s father, two of the four candidates are military retirees.
Davis now pastors the Victorious Ministries church where his duties include overseeing a church-related preschool; he’s lived in the community 16 years since retiring from the Army and is also involved with the St. Robert Park Board and numerous school activities.
“I see my service on the board of education as one of the ways that I can give back to my community in a way that will make a difference in the ongoing quality of education we have in our district,” Davis said.
Newcomb, who moved to the area five years ago and recently retired from the Army, brings to the race an unusual item from his background: unlike the other non-incumbents, he’s previously served as a school board president at a prior Army installation. Newcomb also serves as an appointee by the Missouri governor to the interstate compact committee on education of military children.
He’s lived in the Waynesville district a total of eight years, the first three in 1999 when the military police and chemical schools moved to Fort Leonard Wood from Fort McClellan, and then again in 2005 when he became the commandant of the Army’s largest non-commissioned officer academy at Fort Leonard Wood. One of his children is a Waynesville High School graduate and another is currently a freshman.
“It is my appreciation for this district that has motivated me to run for the school board,” Newcomb said. “I am proud more than anything to say that my children have been part of this district for the last four or five years and that is very near and dear to my heart.”
Purdome, whose wife is a Waynesville High School graduate, serves as a vice-president of Bank of Iberia and said his background in finance was a major reason to consider him as a board candidate.
“I feel that community service is something that is very important to me, and where is there a better place to be involved in our community than in molding our children’s future?” asked Purdome.
All four of the candidates said they believe board members need to support rather than second-guess decisions of the district administrators, staff and teachers.
“I believe we have hired good administrators and will continue to hire good administrators and it is the board’s job not only to support them in their day-to-day activities but also to provide them with the guidance as to what the people of the district want, to provide them the direction of where the school needs to go,” Purdome said. “I also believe as a school board member it is important to stand behind the decisions of our administrators, to support the school’s teachers, and to make sure that everybody has what they need to do the best job they can to educate our children.”
Newcomb voiced similar sentiments.
“I see my role on the board of education as being a leader and an advocate for the very best public education that we can provide for our students,” Newcomb said. “I intend on doing so by assisting the district in continuing to improve student achievement and by effectively involving our community in the attainment of that goal. I plan to perform this role by focus in on the work areas of vision, standards, assessment, accountability, alignment, climate, community engagement, and continuous improvement.”
Davis said that if elected to the school board, he would view himself as a liaison between the district’s residents and the teachers and said he was glad one of the teachers challenged his own son to focus on academics, not just sports.
Newcomb echoed that sentiment about prioritizing academics over athletics.
“As most people know, I am pretty avid about athletics but I want to set the record straight and let everybody know that first and foremost, academics for our kids are what we should be after,” Newcomb said.
Laughlin said her practice for the last nine years has been to pay close attention to as many people as possible.
“I continue to see my role as a board member to be a great listener,” Laughlin said, which include listening to “stakeholders” such as teachers, administrators, patrons and students.
“Now that’s a lot of stakeholders to listen to, but every one of them plays a part in the decisions we make as a board member,” Laughlin said. “After listening to my stakeholders, then I have the opportunity to listen to six other board members, and they are very smart people and they are very wise and I always try to listen to them. Then the bottom line is I do what I think is best. I take a mixture of all of that and I do what I think is best.”
None of the four board candidates disputed that one of the district’s major challenges during the next few years will be trying to decide how to handle rapidly expanding numbers of students due to the growth of Fort Leonard Wood while coping with financial problems caused by the statewide economy that is leading to cuts in state aid for local districts.
That’s not a bad problem to have, Davis said.
“We have approximately 5400 students and I believe that is a good thing. I remember in the mid-1990s when they were talking about closing Fort Leonard Wood down,” Newcomb said. “More families have come to our area and that is an awesome thing to have.”
Davis and the other candidates agreed that moving off-post students onto the underutilized on-post elementary schools is probably the best way to address large classroom sizes.
“It appears to me that one of the things we can utilize is the things we have now,” Davis said, noting that the district has seven on-post schools and seven off-post buildings.
“We need to look at maybe rezoning our kids to bus them back to Wood Elementary School … before we look at trying to spend more capital,” Davis said. “To me it makes more sense that if I’m going to add an addition to my home that I want to make sure there it is a necessity to do so. I do not want to take taxpayer’s dollars just to do something frivolous.”
Newcomb said he likes the recent decision by the school board to bus some off-post students onto Fort Leonard Wood for elementary school classes, but noted that more decisions of that type will likely be needed since future growth of the district will probably require building a new elementary school, expanding another elementary school to its planned second phase, and expanding the new high school.
“The district has done a good job recently of addressing the urgent need to balance the attendance of our elementary schools. The redrawing of the elementary school attendance areas for the 2010-11 academic year will optimize the use of our buildings on FLW and will result in more efficient use of all of our elementary facilities,” Newcomb said. “These decisions will impact all of our stakeholders and it will be necessary to keep them appropriately involved in the process.”
Purdome said he’s glad the school board has scheduled several forums for residents to voice their opinions on the planned busing of off-post students onto Fort Leonard Wood.
“The board made a very tough decision several days ago and there’ll be several opportunities for the public to comment on that over the next couple of weeks. I do look forward to hearing the public comment on it,” Purdome said. “It is my belief that we currently in this district have quite a bit of additional capacity, specifically in the elementary schools, but in other places we are taxed. The facilities are tight and may require extensive renovation and also some improvement if not new locations being built.”
From a financial perspective, Purdome said a way must soon be found to add more capacity to the high school even though the building was state-of-the-art when built just a few years ago.
“This building is probably going to need to be added onto in the next few years. Those are some of the challenges that we’ll face,” Purdome said. “Every capital expense is will require a great amount of study; every capital expense will have to be researched to make sure that every dollar is spent correctly and for the benefit of the district.”
How to do that isn’t clear, Purdome said.
“I come into this election without any specific agendas. I am here as a citizen wanting to be involved in our communities,” Purdome said. “I see my role on the school board being to continue to build on that foundation (of world-class facilities) … We need to look really hard at where the next dollar is going to come from and how we can get the best education for our children based on where that dollar is coming from and how to best use that dollar.”
Laughlin said she’s seen growth issues up close during her time on the school board, and realizes the district is limited in its funding options to support that growth.
“My nine years on the board growth has been both a blessing and a curse,” Laughlin said. “We welcome our students no matter how many and where they come from; the problem of course is classrooms and funding. Every time we build a new school within a year it is busting at the seams.”
While many school districts would go to the voters to get more money through a bond proposal, that’s probably not an option for Waynesville, Laughlin said.
“Our taxpayers have told us time and time that they do not want their taxes raised by not passing our bond issues,” Laughlin said. “Therefore we have bought and paid for our schools by borrowing money, but we can’t keep borrowing money, so where do we go from here? We also mentioned before we took a good look at our existing buildings and how we can utilize them. Bussing students is a tough subject and we may be to the point that we need to do that.”
Interim solutions to overcrowded classrooms could include hiring additional teacher assistants and providing more break time for teachers who are coping with large classroom sizes which “are difficult for everyone, to say the least,” Laughlin said.
Despite the challenges of limited funding due to voter refusal to pass bonds, Laughlin said the current board has successfully managed its funds.
“This year we will be facing a lot of challenges and many of them are unknowns such as funding and what we can do with crowded classrooms,” Laughlin said. “We’ve developed and maintained a budget and have developed plans for tightening our belts to get through these tough times.”
Cuts in funding from state and federal sources could create problems for the best of budgets, she said.
“(With) the state and federal budget shortfalls and other gaps in funding, board members are understanding the increased pressure to safeguard what we have,” Laughlin said. “We must be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money; we must examine and streamline operations but never lose sight of taking care of our employees, the backbone of our district.”
Davis said financial stability is also an important goal for him as a board member.
“I want to continue to improve our facilities and create financial stability in order to create a safe and secure work environment,” Davis said, with a goal to “keep peace in an ever changing educational landscape.”
Newcomb said the financial state of the district will be an obvious challenge during the next three years for whoever is elected.
“It is imperative that our district be very diligent in efficiently managing resources over the next several years in order to ensure the continued educational success of our students,” Newcomb said. “As we know, this could potentially include building new facilities and/or expanding current facilities.”
Some board candidates raised additional issues.
“School is hard enough without being bombarded by bullies, drugs and gang issues,” Laughlin said. “Too many of our students are no longer attending classes because of the influence of drugs … we must band together as a village, for lack of a better name, to stop the sorry influence of drugs on our students.”
Newcomb said he’s particularly interested in the district’s international baccalaureate program and would like to see that expanded.
While placing a focus on academics, Purdome said he doesn’t want to slight the importance of extracurricular activities and would like to see a broad range continue to be offered.
Davis said he can offer “an open mindset for critical issues the board will be facing in the future” and bring “an ongoing basis of passion” to his commitment to the district.