While District 7 candidates for the Hamilton County school board shared some common views, differences in experience level and beliefs on funding shaped a Tuesday evening debate.
Incumbent Joe Wingate, the current board chairman and a career educator, is being challenged for the District 7 seat by Debbi Meyers, who has former experience in human resources in the private and public sectors and has served as a mediator for the state Supreme Court.
Despite similarities in opinions on testing, the district's handling of COVID-19 and the necessity of technology and resources, divisions arose during the debate when a moderator questioned why each candidate was running for the position.
Wingate expressed his desire as a parent of three children attending local schools to continue with positive changes he has helped bring in his four years on the board, including countywide gains in academic growth and achievement.
"I was not happy in the least with where we were," he said. "I was bemoaning all the ills of the school system and my wife challenged me to do something about it. And so I decided to stick my nose in and do something about it."
Meyers said she found faults in Wingate's governance, so she is running to better represent the conservative voice of the residents in the county, where one of her daughters teaches and three of her grandchildren attend school.
"He said that he would listen to the voices of the constituents that put him in that seat, and none of us felt that that has happened over the last four years," she said. "I believe that I will do a better job for the taxpayers, the teachers and the students."
While she maintained that her opponent had brought some good to the county, Meyers' main concerns were over Wingate's support of a $500,000 facilities review, his support of a proposed $34 million tax increase for education and the handling of the contract extension for Superintendent Bryan Johnson.
Recently, the school district completed an extensive facility review and audit that called for a ten-year, $891 million plan to mitigate issues with the district's school buildings.
Meyers argued that the district already knew that the infrastructure was in need of major assistance and didn't need to spend additional funds to tell leaders what many already knew.
In contrast to Meyers' thoughts on the facilities report, Wingate said he believed there was a need for expert advice to pinpoint how to best prioritize resources to improve each school.
"I appreciate the report," he said. "It is very thorough, and it's up to the school board to decide along with the community, what are priorities, and along with the county commission, what are they willing to fund and how can we begin to address some of those things."
Meyers later followed up and said that while she understands what Wingate is saying, that it feels like the board has done little since the report about the findings.
"I've had a debate with Joe in the past about this, and when I've asked where are they in that process he said they were at ground zero," she said. "Well that really doesn't offer the constituents of District 7 much hope about the facility study. I totally understand what Joe is saying but where is it going to go? It feels like it's just sitting there."
In terms of last year's proposed $34 million tax increase that was later voted down by the county commission, Wingate said that he would always advocate for what students and teachers needed, but that it was ultimately up to the mayor and his staff to decide on where money in the county goes.
Meyers expressed beliefs similar to views given by District 2 contender Tom Decosimo at Monday night's debate, that top-heavy central office spending needed to be reevaluated and reallocated to better support teachers and students, rather than raising taxes.
"What I believe is that the money is there," she said. "We need to take a good hard look, as you've heard in any corporate business, where we can cut the corners and make sure it's not in a classroom. We need to provide the teachers and their students what they need in their classrooms."
The final major concern raised by Meyers was Wingate's role in what she described as a "premature" contract extension for Johnson.
Wingate said that while there was some confusion around the topic, he and the board worked within the correct timeline to discuss Johnson's future in the county.
Additionally, when it comes to Johnson, both candidates were asked to assign the superintendent a letter grade based on his performance.
Wingate believed he should receive an A, as Johnson met all of the accountability metrics and goals set forth by Wingate and the board.
"One of the things that I was excited about was the reorganization that Dr. Johnson brought about in our school system from not just the central office level," Wingate said, "but also as we began to look at how we approached academics and how we're going to improve academic achievement and growth."
Meyers said that she would give Johnson a B+ because while he has done a good job with academic progress and she commends the district's designation as the fastest improving district in the state, she questions some of his personnel and policy decisions.
She also said that if elected, she would ensure that the board was helping to guide the superintendent, rather than the other way around.
"I really believe one of the primary responses as a school board representative is to supervise and manage the superintendent," she said. "I want to be a board member who respectfully challenges the superintendent's thinking, in private and public, [to find] the best possible solution for all stakeholders in our community."
A final say
Many viewers on the Facebook Live presentation of the virtual debate chimed in on the discussion through the comment section, with many noticing similarities in opinion between the two candidates, but differences in levels of expertise and experience when it comes to schools.
Meyers addressed this concern many times during this debate, saying that her business background and personal viewpoint would be vital to the board.
"I know that I have a learning curve, and I'm OK with that," Meyers said. "I think that I can bring to the board a fresh perspective. I don't have any biases built up over the years. I really want and believe that I can be an asset.
"I definitely am aware that I don't have four years of knowledge as my opponent does on the board, but I do have a heart to serve."
Wingate also leaned heavily on his background, making notes to his experience in multiple levels of education and the track record of the board during his time serving.
"I am very excited and proud of the work that the school board that I currently serve on has done over the last four years," he said. "I'm proud of the fact that there now is a plan and that plan is being pursued and put into action. And that plan has shown fruits, and so I would be honored to continue to serve in the seat to represent those in our school system."
With the smallest number of schools in the county, District 7 houses Apison Elementary School, Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School, East Hamilton School and Westview Elementary School.
District 7 constituents will be able to vote to re-elect Wingate or replace him with Meyers during the primary election on Aug. 6, or during early voting July 17-Aug. 1.
Contact Tierra Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.