York County School Board District 2 Q&A: Cindy Kirschke

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cindy kirschkeWYDaily sent an identical questionnaire to each candidate running for a seat on the York County School Board.

Incumbent Cindy Kirschke is running unopposed in District 2. Kirschke’s answers are unedited and presented below.

The election takes place Nov. 3.

1. What are the three major issues facing the school district right now? How would you address those issues?

Limited resources, using limited resources wisely and efficiently, and planning for the future with continued limited resources. Limited resources – whether that’s funding, staff, buses, technology, whatever – can cause a domino effect across the school division.  As state funding declined over the last few years, we had to freeze salaries, cut positions and services, and even impose athletic fees on families.

While we have been able to return to step increases and even restore one pay step, we need to address salary compression which can cause low morale and cause good teachers to leave the profession.  Too many of our more experienced employees receive near equal pay to new teachers straight out of college. We must continue to prioritize fair compensation in future budgets. We can have the latest technology and the lowest student-teacher ratio, but if we don’t retain quality teachers in the classroom – it’s all for nothing. Saying that, we must also ensure our teachers meet expectations, which means ongoing evaluations and support.

Another challenge we face is overcrowding issues in some schools as more people move to York County.  Yorktown Elementary and Magruder Elementary Schools are bursting from the seams.  We are planning to build a new school, but that’s going to take time.  We’ve got to manage the growth and be prepared, whether that means temporary classrooms, additional staff, or tweaking the attendance zones.

Finally, I would say maintaining and increasing student achievement. While YCSD students outperform other students in Virginia and across the nation, we must always strive to improve.  I believe we should strengthen the bond between school and home and foster increased family engagement that would especially help students who have the ability to excel in school but sometimes fall through the cracks. We need to know our students, identify students at risk, and work with families to ensure these students receive the support they need to succeed.

2. Population data suggest several school zones face an overcrowding problem in the coming years if adjustments are not made. Beyond the new elementary schools slated to be built in the Magruder and York zones, what strategies would you support to address the issue? Why?

No one likes to talk about rezoning, but no one wants overcrowded classrooms either. Let’s be honest; we may have to tweak school zones if new housing developments continue to be built before a new school. However, I do not foresee the need for a huge rezoning overhaul.  We may need to bring in additional trailers or learning cottages until the new school is built. I would want YCSD to review bus commute times to ensure that students are not riding buses for extended amounts of time to get to zoned schools.  I especially want YCSD to be careful about the location of the new school.  While land is limited, let’s make sure that the new school is built closest to the neighborhoods it will serve.

3. What budget items would you want to ensure are fully funded and not cut back as the York County School Division builds its fiscal 2017 budget?

I believe that we should carefully examine the FY17 budget by starting the process with a modified zero-based budget.  We should protect teacher-student ratios and class size, but spending in all other areas of the budget should be justified as to how they affect the academic achievement of students. We operate a lean budget, and we have tried to be careful to protect the classroom.  I believe the School Board needs to lead by example and cut excessive perks in its own budget before touching other areas. I have proposed that we stop sending all members and the superintendent to the National School Boards Association’s annual convention, which costs the division $15,000 – $20,000.  We should also stop paying for the home internet service of some members as well as mileage to our School Board meetings.  This may not provide a huge savings, but it could add enough funding for a secretary, bus driver, or para-educator.

4. Later start times for high-schoolers is currently in serious consideration by both the York County School Board and the division’s administration. Do you support later start times for these students? Why or why not?

I began the dialogue about later school start times three years ago at the request of students, parents, teachers, and doctors in York County.  YCSD has the earliest start time for high school students in the state: 7:20am.  The School Board switched to the 7:20am start time in 1996 to save money when it implemented a three tier bus schedule.  Before that time, York County high schools started at 8:25am.

Today, scientific research tells us that biological and hormonal changes during puberty alter circadian rhythms, causing teenagers to become night owls.  An early school start time works against a teenager’s natural sleep cycle and puts our students at risk of suffering from physical and mental health problems as well as obesity, substance abuse, and decreased academic achievement.  The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control have recommended later school start times to help students receive the sleep they need to be successful in school.

We can implement all kinds of academic programs and spend all kinds of money to help our students achieve success – but, if students are sleeping in class, we are wasting resources.  I believe a later school start time would benefit all students, but I know some families and students like the early dismissal time which would be delayed with a later start time. As we begin the exploration of later start times, we need to provide open and transparent communication with all stakeholders.  We need to educate the community about the reasons to support later start times, and we need to listen from the community so we know what problems could result from a schedule change. I believe that if we take our time and work with stakeholders, we can find a solution that will help our students and improve their health and academic achievement.

5. Which school improvement projects do you think need to be priority items for the school division? Why?

The Grafton complex desperately needs a new roof. A staff member showed me pictures of the roof leaking during the last heavy rainfall, and it was embarrassing to see the water drain from the ceiling.  I worry about mold.  The roof leaks in numerous places causing the floors to be slippery and dangerous for students and staff. The roof will hopefully be coated and replaced in FY17 at a cost of $2 million.  I would also like to see the front offices reoriented at the Grafton complex to provide better visuals and security at a cost of $150,000.  The offices are tucked away down the hall, and teachers man the lobby.  I don’t think that is an efficient use of a teacher’s planning time.

6. Talk about the achievement gap in York Schools. Are the current strategies to close the gap working? Why or why not?  What are your ideas to help progress in this area?

YCSD has made gains in reducing the achievement gap based on SOL results; however, we have seen only a slight increase in the number of black middle school students enrolled in advanced courses while the number of economically disadvantaged middle school students enrolled in advanced courses has dropped. We need to identify these students in elementary school and encourage them to take advanced courses.  Too often, I see students in all categories (black, white, poor or middle class) achieve excellent academic results in elementary school and then become uninterested in their studies during middle or high school.  Maybe these students are hanging with the wrong crowds and making poor choices or maybe they are not being encouraged by family members and teachers. Sometimes an adult’s belief that a child can succeed makes the world of difference in that child’s success.  This is the challenge for all schools, how to keep any student from slipping through the cracks.  Family engagement techniques and a stronger partnership between home and school can help students succeed no matter what their color or economic status.

7. How would you describe the working relationship between the school board and the board of supervisors? What can the school board do to improve or enhance this relationship?

I believe the relationship between the two boards has improved this past year.  Past animosity and finger pointing led to mistrust, but the Board and new superintendent are working to rebuild that trust. Communication is the key.  I talk with Shelia Noll, my counterpart on the Board of Supervisors, on a regular basis and have built a strong working relationship with her.  The chairs and co-chairs of the two Boards also started to hold more meetings this year.

8. How well do you feel the school board members work together? What do you feel you can bring to the school board’s dynamic?

As the newest member to the York County School Board, I am a squeaky wheel. I believe that School Board members act as oversight and provide accountability, and we should not serve as an automatic rubberstamp to the administration. We must always question the administration and demand accurate information so we have complete knowledge of the issues during our decision making process. My opposition to Board decisions, such as the implementation of the hybrid 4×4 schedule or the costly attendance to the National School Boards Association convention, may have upset some members.  I would hope that we can agree to disagree and always put students first in our decision making. If new members are elected to the School Board, I would definitely welcome them and ensure that they feel respected and their opinions heard.