The candidates included Doris Nipps, Andrew Humphreys, Ed Hayes, John Cohen, Ed Forrest, Bernadette Wagner, Roxanne Ober and Russell Williams. The group then asked to hear from Sharon Chirgott, president of the Washington County Teachers Association, who spoke to them for 45 minutes.
Each candidate was questioned for half an hour, and as the months went on, the group's members began to realize that interviewing is not as simple as it may seem. Some candidates get ahold of a preferred topic and will chew it as long as you let them, like a dog gnawing on a favorite bone. Others can talk non-stop, without taking a breath. The group's members had to learn to jump in, even to interrupt if necessary, to get their questions answered.
The group acknowledged that since Dr. Herman Bartlett Jr. was given a four-year contract as school superintendent in 1998, the school system has become more disciplined, test scores have improved and a new reading program has been added to the elementary grades.
But at the same time, the group seems concerned that the change that's occurred has not been enough to make a major difference. They also worry that the members who went into office promising major changes have been deterred from that mission. In some cases, they feel, the would-be reformers have become part of the system itself, apologizing for it and defending it instead of spurring it on.
(Members didn't say this, but they certainly have noticed things like the loss of the Head Start grant, the layoff of classroom aides as an unintended consequence of raises for teachers and Bartlett's disastrous trip to circuit court, where a judge suggested the school chief might have been lying about how he plans to deal with special-education students.)
As concerned as they are, however, the group has resisted the idea of endorsing candidates, but agreed that, just as we did two years ago, that their perceptions of the candidates and deliberations about them should be shared since they have actually met and questioned those running.
At one meeting, in an effort to get the group to start discussing their preferences, one member took a poll, asking the others present (and not every member was present for every meeting) to express their preferences on a scale for 1 t0 5.
Roxanne Ober won that, followed by Bernadette Wagner, Russell Williams, Edwin Hayes and John Cohen. The others lost out, because, as one member said, "most of them didn't indicate any desire to do anything to change anything. Hayes was the only one who spoke up and said they should go back to phonics."
Another member observed that the top three vote-getters were all newcomers, but regardless of who the group spoke to, there were common points each raised, such as a lack of planning for infrastructure and poor relationships between people working in the system.
Russell Williams, one member said, "is more or less running on one particular plank - no new programs unless they've been tested somewhere else. He doesn't want us to be first with anything, to be spending money on untested programs."
Another member agreed, saying that Williams "felt there was too much jumping around, that the system doesn't stick with one thing long enough to see whether it worked or not."
A third advisory group member said the system needs someone like Williams, just to shake it up, and that the fact that he was a teacher is a powerful credential.
The discussion then turned to salary issues, and the group acknowledged that there needs to be improvement so Washington County stays competitive with other systems.
But then one member noted that although the Walt Disney Company's salaries and benefits aren't necessarily the best, people are lined up for any job opening there, because of the positive "corporate culture." Something in the relationship between the school system's administration and its employees is not right, he said.