Four at-large Hillsborough School Board hopefuls agree on class size, differ on religion's role listen07/29/10 Kate Bradshaw
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This year’s primary elections are less than four weeks away, and in an election season the mainstream media is dubbing the year of the anti-incumbent, the ideological rivals are squaring off at all levels. One Hillsborough County School Board race in particular is a sign of the times.
In following the race for the Hillsborough School Board’s District Six, a county-wide seat, it’s clear that religion and politics are as inseparable from education as economics. The school board faces a startling $42 million budget gap, and all four candidates say funding is their biggest concern. Yet they differ on what should go on in the classroom. Take evolution. Incumbent April Griffin says science classes should teach science, and science only.
"I support Science in the classroom, and I think that you get into an area where it's going to be very very divisive if we start having conversations about teaching religion in a science classroom classroom. The question that I ask, always, is who's religion are you teach?"
Griffin’s most well-known challenger is Terry Kemple, an outspoken evangelical Christian activist who is in favor of abstinence-only sex education. In 2006 he unsuccessfully lobbied the school board to require students to seek their parents’ permission if they want to join a gay-straight alliance. Kemple fought the state Board of Education’s inclusion of evolution in its science standards in 2008.
"I believe that they chose the wrong path, and I lobbied diligently to get them to re-think that decision because it is only a theory. And to exclude other theories in view of one theory, to me is not education. That's indoctrination."
The two other candidates have more of a middle of the road stance. Sally Harris, who has worked as an occupational specialist and founded a preschool, said religious views should stay home.
"I am a strong Christian. However, I believe that religious values are something that should be taught in the home, not in school. I feel that we should build our education program around education. At the same tine build values, strong values, which is no bullying, every child should be safe and be kept safe in an environment. When it comes to choosing whether you believe in abortion, or don't believe in abortion, or gays, or anything else, that has nothing to do with it as much as the safety of the child."
Benjamin Fink, who has a background in technology consulting, says things like abstinence-only and creationism shouldn’t be excluded from classroom discussions.
"There's a definite line between church, and state, and the need to not think about religion in a classroom, and understand it's there. But when we're talking about being abstinent, or when we're talking about intelligent design, those are valid subjects. When we try to really limit ourselves, then we can basically direct a whole generation, in a way, that they lose choice."
Unless one of the four candidates in the race wins over more than half the electorate in the August 24 primary, the two with the most votes will face off on the November ballot.
Also on that ballot will be a number of proposed amendments to the state constitution, including one that softens the class size amendment voters adopted in 2002. The final phase of that amendment is rolling out this year, and many involved in education, including all of the District Six hopefuls, think strict limits on class size could be troublesome. Terry Kemple says the amendment will lead to unforeseen headaches for schools.
"You know, you get one new student in a class that's already at its limit, and that students going to have to through another school or you've got to make another class. You've got to hire another teacher, whatever it happens to be."
Sally Harris says the limits could hurt the range of subjects available to students.
"We could lose some of our great programs. Some of the schools offer Latin. Some of the schools offer Physics. There's really great potential classes out there, but they don't have a full class load. Then, you've got your extra curricular activities, such as band or the larger classes, and if you can't balance that somehow, you're going to lose some of the really great electives that have made our school stand out as offering all these different subjects."
Incumbent April Griffin said schools will be forced to choose between hiring core subject teachers and those teaching more engaging topics.
"If given the choice between hiring an elective teacher and hiring a language arts teacher so that we can be in compliance with the Class Size Amendment in our Constitution now, and we're going to receive sanctions if we're not in compliance, then the choice is going to be to hire that core teacher, instead of the elective teacher. That's going to take opportunities away from students and keep them engaged in class."
She added that schools that are at capacity could have the unintended effects on families.
"If we have a school that is at capacity, and a family moves into that school boundary. If there's room for their 3rd grader, but not their 5th grader, those children will have to go to a different school.
Benjamin Fink said the class-size amendment, though well-meaning, makes no sense in such troubled economic times.
"You know, when we voted for this and everyone thought it was a good idea, we kind of turned away from the mission behind it. And we can potentially disrupt kids."
Harris and Kemple also said their other big concern was the communication line between the Hillsborough County School System and the people whose kids attend its facilities every day. All four candidates will be on the August 24 ballot.