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November 2, 2012

Clarksville has one school board seat contested

Candidates debate New Tech, enrollment, teacher morale

CLARKSVILLE — The only contested school board seat in Clarksville leaves its incumbent facing two challengers.

While the district is one of the most fiscally solvent districts in Clark and Floyd counties, it still faces changes such as the potential addition of a New Tech facility and declining enrollment.

Jim Bemiss, the current district 1 seatholder, said given his experience in the last three terms he thinks he’s the right choice this time around as well.

“I just feel that coming up in the next year or two, there’s some really big decisions facing the corporation and I don’t want to bail out while we’re in a little bit of flux,” Bemiss said. “I just feel like with my experience and knowledge of the areas we’re dealing with would make me the best person for that position. I enjoy being connected to the school corporation, the staff and the kids.”

Bemiss, a 68-year-old University of Louisville graduate who taught in Clarksville schools for 30 years, said his first-hand knowledge of the district gives him some advantage over his opponents. He said he hasn’t missed a board meeting in five years and that “half the job is showing up.”

Though the district has pretty good financial grounds to stand on, the loss of about 12 students and the assessed valuation of the corporation decreasing had something of a negative effect on the budget this year, Bemiss said it’s important to note how many students the district has brought in.

“A couple of my opponents on the Internet have made statements about losing students, but we’re losing them for two reasons,” Bemiss said. “The dynamic of the school district is that we don’t have as many students as we used to. Yeah, we’ve lost a few students who have gone to other districts, but not nearly as many who have come her from other districts.”

But Lynn Wilson, one of Bemiss’ challengers, said she thinks the board has become complacent with the idea of how many student’s they’re drawing in from other school systems.

“I really feel like the board has been happy with the amount of students we have coming in from other systems — we’re drawing some kids and that’s a good thing,” Wilson said. “But we’ve got to figure out why we’re losing some of our kids and why parents are losing confidence in our school system.”

Wilson, a 61-year-old Ball State University graduate who retired from Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville after 31 years, said she thinks Bemiss is of good character, but thinks the board could use some new energy.

Wilson said she thinks a New Tech facility — which focuses on project-based learning — is a great idea. But Bemiss said he wants to step into the idea a little more cautiously.

“I think it’s a great idea and a great thing, but I’m also concerned about the students that will be staying in the traditional building,” Bemiss said. “That’s a big thing and it’s not something you can just look at on the surface and say if it’s good or bad.”

Michael Sparkman, a 44-year-old Indiana University graduate who works as a senior network engineer in West Clark Community Schools, said he thinks the district’s prospect of New Tech is a good idea, but needs to be carefully considered. He also said he thinks some students are leaving the district because of the opportunities other school corporations offer.

“I think that we’re not offering the kids all the tools that they need, we honestly have had some kids leave because of the [Advanced Placement] classes,” Sparkman said. “For a long period, I think the school system didn’t really put a lot of effort into the extracurricular opportunities... so kids have left to find a way to stay involved in those.”

But he said he’s also got different concerns, specifically with the number of experienced teachers who have left the district. He said with lower morale in the faculty’s ranks, that mood also affects students negatively.

“From the teachers that I’ve spoken to, they really don’t like the administration that’s in there,” Sparkman said. “If nothing else, we’ve got to come to some kind of agreement. Morale is down and teachers are looking to get out. If it comes down to getting new people in administration, if nothing else, I’d be one vote.”

Wilson said the exodus of experienced teachers is also something she’s concerned with and wants to solve.

“We’re paying salaries considerably less than they were and I’m not sure it’s a winning situation,” Wilson said. “We need to find a happy medium where we’re still doing well and not in the red, but we do need to keep these higher paid experienced teachers. [Younger teachers] rely on these older teachers to give them some guidance.”

Bemiss said the turnover in faculty hasn’t been all negative, and young teachers might energize schools in different ways.

“We’ve got a lot of young teachers and they’re picking up some of the slack,” Bemiss said. “We’ve got some really good older teachers that are guiding them through this process. I think we need to continue to develop programs that draw students from other districts.”

Sparkman said from looking at the board’s meeting minutes, it seems many of the votes come in unanimous. He said he’d like to add another voice to the board.

“I just can’t believe there’s not one issue that they disagree with,” Sparkman said. “If anything else, I would like to ask more questions, get more people involved. There’s got to be one issue that they disagree with.”

Bill Wilson, the incumbent district 2 seatholder and Andy Bramer, the incumbent district 5 seatholder, are both running in this year’s election unopposed.

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