Outgoing school board offers advice on Dayton Public Schools

Outgoing Dayton school board members (from left) Robert Walker, Sheila Taylor and John McManus attended their final school board meeting Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

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Outgoing Dayton school board members (from left) Robert Walker, Sheila Taylor and John McManus attended their final school board meeting Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Three outgoing Dayton school board members who served a combined 24 years said their goodbyes at Tuesday night’s board meeting, pointing out their successes and challenges in guiding the region’s largest school district.

Sheila Taylor, Robert Walker and John McManus will be replaced in January by the newly elected Will Smith, Gabriela Pickett and Dion Sampson. Taylor, Walker and McManus did not run for re-election.

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That shift will finish a complete turnover of Dayton Public Schools’ seven-member board in just two years. The new board will have three newcomers and four members with two years under their belts — William Harris, Jocelyn Rhynard, Karen Wick-Gagnet and Mohamed al-Hamdani — for a total of eight years’ experience.

Walker, the retired director of the Wesley Community Center, served on the school board for eight years, a time he called “one of the highest privileges of my life, and one of the most challenging as well.” He served multiple years as board president and kept a focus on collegiality, even with the board often at odds.

“One of the things I like so much about public education is that it calls us to take on the responsibility to educate each child to the best of the institution’s ability, and if you want to take it personally, like those children were your own,” Walker said.

Walker often expressed concern for how DPS was serving at-risk students. At his final board meeting, on his request, central office staff provided an update on how students in juvenile detention were being educated and helped with their eventual transition back to the district.

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Rhynard, Harris and Wick-Gagnet thanked the three outgoing board members for their service. Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli called them “the board that hired me,” with a midnight phone call in November 2017 promoting her to interim superintendent when Rhonda Corr was put on leave.

“It has been my privilege and my honor to serve with you,” Lolli said. “Being a board of education member is not an easy task … and it often goes without thanks. This entire board has been a dedicated board.”

McManus, who served only four years on the school board, has acknowledged being at odds with the current board majority on multiple issues. He and Taylor voted against some of the strategic plan spending ideas the board advanced this year, raising concerns about effects on the district’s fiscal condition.

But Tuesday night he said his focus was the children and families of the district, saying many of them face significant adversity, but get through based on their courage and grit.

“I would like to thank the 150,000 constituents of the Dayton City School District who took a chance on me a little over four years ago,” McManus said. “This has been the honor of my life to serve the children and families.”

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He called Taylor one his best friends and said Walker had been “like a father to me at times.” To the other board members, he added, “even when we haven’t always gotten along, it doesn’t mean I don’t wish you the best, and I hope you succeed. I mean that.”

Taylor urged district leaders to listen to students and families. She thanked Percy Mack, who was superintendent when she was elected in 2007, for accepting and guiding her.

“I felt so inferior to the people who were sitting in this room,” Taylor said. “How was I able to speak for the students and families in this district? The experience has allowed me to learn and grow in ways I never thought possible.”

Taylor highlighted DPS’ improvements in preschool quality, busing efficiency, use of culturally relevant curriculum and other advances. She has long been a vocal supporter of the district’s rank-and-file employees and unions, and she hammered home that point repeatedly Tuesday.

“I did not always trust what I was being told by those people in control, so I went to the employees. They know what’s going on in this district and they know how to solve it,” Taylor said. “My recommendation to any board member is to speak to the staff. … You can learn so much just by talking to a custodian, to a principal, to a bus driver … I don’t tell them what to do because I’m not their boss, but I’m their ear.”

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