Dayton voters to decide three school board seats

For the next two years, the Dayton Public Schools board of education will try to steer the district away from a potential 2018 state takeover. Voters will pick three of those seven board members Nov. 3.

Four candidates are running for three spots on the board of education — incumbents Robert Walker, Sheila Taylor and Nancy Nerny, plus challenger John McManus. The three winners will serve four-year terms on board, and will be paid for board meetings and trainings — generally between $5,000 and $7,000 per year.

DPS’ most recent performance index on state tests was second-worst of Ohio’s 600-plus school districts, and the district got an ‘F’ in student progress. As a result, the state is working with the district on turnaround efforts.

John McManus

McManus, 31, moved to Dayton in 2014 and is a law student at the University of Dayton.

He repeatedly points to the Ohio Department of Education’s recent review of Dayton Public Schools, arguing that 11 of ODE’s 15 recommendations for change can be traced to “administrative failures” in Dayton schools.

Before law school, McManus worked in government compliance and human resources roles, both in Washington and for the state of Tennessee.

“The board has a fiduciary responsibility of overseeing administrators. Who better to oversee administrators than a former government administrator?” McManus said. “The Dayton school board needs to get far more aggressive in its responsibility of oversight. … I want the administration to know that the board of education and the people of Dayton will be holding them to a far higher standard.”

McManus, who founded a charity in Tennessee to do work for the elderly, said he wants “to bring that same mission of service and charity to government” by helping students in need. He pointed specifically to bullied, disabled and mentally ill children. He also pledged to donate all of his school board pay toward school supplies and teacher advocacy efforts.

McManus said the school board needs to more actively lobby state officials on policy and funding issues, and more aggressively seek grants. He said he “doesn’t necessarily advocate for a levy,” calling it an option, but one that “lacks creativity.”

“I’m young, but I have a lot of experience and a lot of passion that I think is absent in the district and on the board,” McManus said. “I feel like young people need someone they can relate to and say, maybe I can make a difference in helping my community, too.”

Nancy Nerny

Nerny, 74, is a retired DPS elementary school teacher. She has served the past eight years on the school board and also volunteers in school and park programs.

Nerny trusts current district leadership, but has doubts about the Ohio Department of Education’s review of the district.

“I think we have a cohesive (school) board, which is something we didn’t have when I first came on, and it’s a multitalented board,” Nerny said. “We have faith in our superintendent and her plans.”

Nerny said she does not trust state test scores, arguing that they don’t show the hurdles that poverty creates. And she doesn’t think the state’s review process was handled well.

“It was an audit, but not a thorough one. I take the ODE things as reminders,” Nerny said. “Some of my opponents say, oh, we’re going to be closed down. I don’t like to work that way. I don’t think the state can afford us. … Maybe I’m jaded.”

Nerny advocates for “practice-based curriculum,” where students learn via hands-on projects, and she wants to expand DPS’ focus on career paths and job preparation.

She champions the district’s “Positive School Climate” program to deal with discipline issues and says DPS needs to do better at providing social services at its schools, addressing student and family health needs.

Nerny said it’s “absolutely” time for a levy in the next couple of years, so the district can make salaries more marketable and bring back programs like instrumental music.

“The money the governor gave us showed us some things we can expand a little, little bit,” she said. “That taste … has made us go, what if we had more? Then again, we have a poor community, so I’m not sure how much we can ask, if anything.”

Sheila Taylor

Taylor, 62, is a deputy clerk in Dayton Municipal Courts and has served on Dayton’s school board for the past eight years.

She is calling for the school board to be more aggressive — whether questioning the work of the administration, taking a more active stance in labor negotiations, or spending more time in schools to see what’s happening every day.

“The board should be doing some strategic planning, and I believe we should be the leaders for the superintendent and the treasurer,” Taylor said. “(Right now) the superintendent and treasurer come to the meeting, give us information on what they’ve decided to do, we vote for it and move on.”

Asked why DPS hasn’t improved on state tests during her term, Taylor blamed divisiveness and disorganization on the school board, plus a disconnect between front-line employees and DPS administrators and board members. She said projects like providing social services at schools are moving slowly, with school board members not getting enough information.

Taylor said she does not currently support any move for a school levy, saying much would have to be proven before going to the ballot.

Like Nerny, Taylor has problems with the state’s potential takeover of DPS in 2018, arguing that it wouldn’t improve the district. She said it would be better for the state to educate the board and staff on what they should change — something the state did in a 72-page report this spring.

“I’m going to fight more loudly this time for the things that I believe,” Taylor said. “One of the things I plan to fight for is to eliminate all the busing. … It’s unfair to the community to say the answer to the issues in the district and the disparity is to bus students to another neighborhood.”

Robert Walker

Walker, 66, is the retired director of the Wesley Community Center and a community volunteer. He is finishing his first four-year term and is the board president.

Despite DPS’ dire test scores, Walker claims in campaign materials that he has “a proven record of success” as board president. Asked about that claim, Walker said the board has become more unified during his term and is addressing deeper issues.

“I believe that if we do strategic planning and stay the course, that we will see incremental change,” Walker said. “Can I suggest that we’ll have radical change? Absolutely not. But I want to see a change so that we are providing access to quality education for all of our children.”

Walker complains that the district has not offered parity in educational options at all schools. He argued that decades ago, when the district was integrated, many in East Dayton simply opted out of DPS. Now he says many senior teachers choose higher-performing schools in middle-class neighborhoods, rather than serving students in poorer areas.

Walker says he is pleased with how the district is working with ODE on its recommendations. He identified three areas where he acknowledged DPS needs to improve — lobbying state officials on education policy, setting high expectations for parents of DPS students, and finding innovative ways to get social service programs into the schools, despite cost hurdles.

Walker said he sees a need for a tax levy in the next couple of years, even though the state would say DPS is in a good financial situation.

“We’re still lacking in extracurricular and enrichment activities for our children — the cost of the failed levy in 2007,” Walker said. “To restore some critical programs would be a great help. Enrichment like arts, music and drama enhance students’ ability to succeed academically.”

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