(Editor's Note: The Wetzel Chronicle mailed questions to all political candidates in races of local significance. Their responses will be printed in the April 25 and May 2 editions of the Wetzel Chronicle in a simple question and answer format.)
Three people are hoping to fill the two seats available on the Wetzel County Board of Education: James J. "Cork" Bowen, District 2; Linda Kirk, District 1, and Carolyn Lemasters Gatian, District 2. Rules dictate that the board can have a maximum of two members from any one district. Given the members not up for re-election-Mike Blair, District 1; Willie Baker, District 3; and Bob Patterson, District 3-the two new members can either be both from District 2 or one each from Districts 1 and 2.
Bowen was born and raised in Paden City. He graduated from Paden City High School and obtained a degree in Secondary Education from West Liberty State College. He did his student teaching at Magnolia High School and then taught middle school in Paden City for two years. He then worked for North American Coal, then Monterey Coal in Huntington, W.Va. While in Huntington he obtained a Masters in Safety Management from Marshall University. With Monterey Coal, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corporation, he held various Human Resource positions-Safety/Training/ Labor Relations/Supervision/EEOC Compliance and Drug Education/Testing & Awareness. Bowen was with ExxonMobil for 28 years before retiring in Houston, Texas, in 2006.
Bowen is a single parent of two adult children. He moved back to Paden City in 2007 to care for an ailing mother and to reconnect with his many local friends. He became involved in the county education system when there was an effort to merge Paden City High School with Magnolia.
He is a member of the Paden City Lions Club; Friends of the College Board, WVNCC, New Martinsville; Moose Lodge 931; officer with the Paden City Development Authority; and attends St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Paden City.
Kirk is retired from Valley High School with 38-and-a-half years experience. During her career she wrote or helped write and manage several grants, as well as other duties.
She is a native of Wetzel County and graduated from Valley. She received her teaching credentials from Fairmont State and two Masters Degrees from West Virginia University. "I believe this qualifies me to serve on the board," said Kirk.
She was married to Terry "Abe" Kirk and they operated the Exxon Station in Pine Grove for five years. Her parents are Virginia Headley Tracy and the late William "Stub" Tracy. Her four sisters also graduated from Valley.
She was a member of the NEA, WVEA, and WCEA while she worked; they have given her their endorsement. Currently she is a member of the Wetzel County Retired School Employees and the Valley High School Alumni Association, where she has been honored as an alumni and educator. She attends the Pine Grove Christian Church. She has nine great-nieces and -nephews who attend Wetzel County School. "I hope they, and all students, are able to receive the quality and relevant education they need," said Kirk.
Gatian is a 1989 graduate of Magnolia High School. She has two daughters: Katie and Carlin. Gatian received her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from West Virginia University-Parkersburg. While attending WVU-P she also received certification in Purchasing Competency.
Her community involvement includes serving as president of the New Martinsville River Heritage Foundation, treasurer of the New Martinsville Plaza Association, commissioner on the Paden City Park and Pool Board, and co-organizer of the Labor Day Parade and Labor Film Festival in Paden City. She has worked with the administration of the New Martinsville School to re-establish the Social Studies Fair.
Why do you want to be on the board of education and what makes you qualified to serve in that capacity?
Bowen: Like many people who aspire to public service, I want to use my experience and energy to improve the current educational process in Wetzel County. Working as a Board member I hope to develop teamwork and synergies within the county to ensure that all students enrolled in Wetzel County schools get the best education that is possible, one that prepares them for the next phase in their life. The professional staff of educators and supporting staff must have that same objective. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education, a Masters and over 30 years of experience working as a Human Resource Professional.
Kirk: I want to be on the board for a number of reasons. First, I believe I can add an educator's perspective and viewpoint to many of the discussions and decisions facing the board. Second, it is my desire to try to insure equality for all students. Third, I'd like to continue to work with the students of Wetzel County. They have much potential and are our most valuable resource. They keep us young at heart. Fourth, I'd like to think I can be of service to our current teachers and service personnel. Finally, my parents taught me if I was going to complain and criticize, I should be willing to help make a difference. I'd like to try.
Education has been my life. I retired from Valley after 38-and-a-half years of service. My Wetzel County education has served me well in preparing me for college, work, and life, and hopefully, we can continue to provide a quality and relevant education for the students today. I have a Bachelor's Degree from FSC and two Masters Degrees from WVU. I believe my education and experience qualify me to serve as a board member.
Gatian: As a candidate with no personal agenda or hidden motivations I would be thorough in the research of all issues brought to my attention by parents, students, and staff; before casting a vote on an issue. There is not always a winner in every situation, but there should always be a rationale to a decision. That rationale should be communicated clearly and concisely.
I have over 20 years of public relations and supervisory experience. I have managed multiple businesses in a variety of locales. I can ask questions without being offensive or degrading and I do not back away from a challenge or decision due to its popularity or lack of.
We should look at the forecasts for the county as opportunities to prepare our curriculums. In my current role of Personnel Recruitment Specialist I interact with several applicants for positions with my company. I notice often what they may lack or have in excess. I would be able to do the same in looking at our current curriculums and the forecast charts. We can develop a proactive system to ensure our kids have exposure to structure to aide them in achieving success in the job fields of the future.
What do you think is the one main thing people would like to see changed in the school system and how would you propose it be improved?
Bowen: West Virginia ranks very high in the amount of money spent per student. I think most people in today's economy expect and sometimes demand results from their tax dollars. I think it's important that a Board member ensure that the Wetzel County School Board budget focus on how best to spend that money and be able to measure the results of that investment. Sometimes just throwing money at a problem is not the answer. I would be interested in programs that challenge the students but yet prepare them to make reasonable decisions regarding their future profession or immediate job opportunities. In summary, I want to make the educational process received by our students not only an enjoyable one but one that prepares them for college, technical school, or local industry.
Kirk: I think there are as many answers to this question as people you may ask. Finances and consolidation threats are the first two that come to mind. Since finances directly affect consolidation and virtually any other problem, I'll say finances is the major problem. All of us would like to have more money. However, the amount of money we are allotted from the state is based on the number of students. The recent decline in population has directly affected the amount of money we receive from the state. Thankfully, the good citizens of Wetzel County have supported the school system with an excess levy for many years. This loss of money requires the many cuts that are made and directly affects the students through reduction in force of teachers and service personnel, transportation, class size, course offerings, technology, and more. I don't feel qualified to judge how best to fix this situation. I do realize that financial worries affect every aspect of education-academics, athletics, transportation, extra-curricular activities, teacher and service personnel pay raises and incentives, teacher turnover, technology, etc. I believe we need to keep our budget balanced, and the current board has been able to do this.
Gatian: Recently I asked members and guests attending the Wetzel County Farm Bureaus "Meet the Candidate" event to tell me what they felt was the main issue in the county. The majority state that there is an inequality to education and funding in the county.
Funding is dictated by school student population according to the state code. Funding should not dictate curriculum or exposure. We need to develop blended course delivery which allows for curriculum to be given equally within each school district. Grants need to be obtained by individual school districts. These will work above and beyond allocated funding to increase a schools ability to provide more for the students and for the community. There are grants that are specific to small schools and there are grants specific to large schools. It could be possible that we develop a community grant committee that will work with the schools to find and achieve these grant opportunities.
I do however feel that we need to keep the students focused on education and achievement and not on the overall politics of the school structure. Their opinion and needs are what matters there focus on their education is most important.
How do you think the attendance and drop out rates could be improved?
Bowen: Absenteeism is proven to be the highest predictor of school failure. In 2010, Wetzel County had a dropout rate of 9.5 percent, per the West Virginia Department of Education. This epidemic cannot be solved by just one person or entity. It must be attacked by an enlightened and involved community. Parental/guardian involvement is critical. A platform of local supports, including meaningful incentives for good attendance and consequences for poor attendance, should be implemented. These programs must have concrete and measurable goals for program and student performance. Good record keeping is a must along with ongoing evaluation of progress toward the goals. A collaborative effort between educators and other community service providers should also play a major role in providing a support mechanism. By building working relationships and strengthening networks within the county's support services, the Wetzel County Board can make these components a workable solution to drastically reduce the absenteeism and drop out rates. Early detection of "at risk" students also plays an important role and is currently a component of Wetzel County's Drop Out prevention program. An alternative school in conjunction with a life skills component coupled with Mid Ohio Valley Technical Institute curriculum would positively impact rates.
Kirk: Attendance is essential for success, and success is imperative to keeping students in school. Rewarding students for obtaining mastery on standardized tests by not having to take semester exams in those areas, if attendance standards were met, was a start. I have worried for years that the difficult math curriculum caused many of our dropouts. Requiring every student to have at least Algebra II to graduate is more than high expectations, especially for those who have difficulty with math. This has caused many students to believe it's impossible for them to graduate, so they quit. It is my understanding the state has started to revise the math curriculum, beginning next school year. An after-school tutoring program (complete with transportation) would be an advantage for those struggling in any academic area. This is especially true for the elementary schools, as research has shown most dropouts really dropped out before fifth grade. Attendance, especially in the lower grades, is a direct parent responsibility. Judge Davis has proposed some ways to address this with legal ramifications for the parents. Another area that needs to be revisited is grade inflation. I would like to think a student's report card grades should align with scores on standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT.
Gatian: Students need to have accountability and parents or caregivers need to have support.
We need to structure the policy that for each unit of instruction missed an equal unit needs to be made up either in an after school opportunity or a summer school opportunity. We need to work with law enforcement in each community to assist us with delivery of attendance notices.
We can potentially utilize the officers in the schools to act as mentors to students that have poor attendance and definitely the students with a high probably of dropping out.
Early on we need to establish a creative way to bond students to education and the social structure of school. We need to open up avenues of exploration in career paths and exposure to skilled trade. Let's structure attending and staying in school as the ultimate achievement.
Community interaction is ultimately a great motivator. If we can begin a series of workshops and apprenticeships that will allow students an outlet for the knowledge they are gaining by attending and staying in school they may feel more vested in an education. Utilizing our business and trade leaders as mentors could also be an idea.